Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks veered down a “Red Dirt Road” two years ago and never looked back.
The duo’s new album, “Hillbilly Deluxe,” is a twangy rock ‘n’ roll record with some soulful ballads and rowdy honky-tonk thrown in – much closer in spirit and sound to “Red Dirt Road” than to the good-time party tunes of their early years.
“We kind of discovered a sound we really liked and felt we were at home with,” Dunn said recently from what he calls his “barn” – actually a rustic retreat where he does some of his recording.
“There was a time when we were literally instructed, or advised, to write good-time honky-tonk songs that somehow leave a positive note on the table, and we chased that for a long time,” he said.
“We’re probably as guilty as anybody – you get so shocked at having success – of wanting to re-create some of that,” Brooks chimed in. “We probably chased our tails a little bit for a while. These last couple of efforts really put us back in the creative process. It feels good and fresh.”
Individually or collectively, Brooks and Dunn wrote nine of the 13 tracks on “Hillbilly Deluxe.” Songs such as “My Heart’s Not a Hotel,” “One More Roll of the Dice,” “Her West Was Wilder” and “Just Another Neon Night” echo the loose, rootsy rock they grew up with.
Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill sing background on “Building Bridges,” a midtempo, radio-friendly tune.
Thematically, a song like “Whiskey Do My Talkin,’ ” a dark rocker in which a man draws his courage from a bottle, and “Believe,” a soulful affirmation of life after death, is a long way from the 1992 dance smash “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” or the 1996 chart topper “My Maria.”
But the new songs aren’t all heavy. “Play Something Country,” the first single, and “She Likes to Get Out of Town” are foot-stompin’ fun, and Dunn even raps on the title track: “Put on the smell good / Put on the Skynyrd / Head into town like / A NASCAR winner.”
The album closes with the bluesy ballad “Again,” a Darrell Brown/Radney Foster-penned tune with a chorus that’s almost impossible not to hum.
Both men say the songs reflect the extremes of their rearing. Dunn, in particular, felt a strong tug in opposite directions. He describes his father as a hard drinker who dreamed of being a country singer and his mother as a Bible-quoting teetotaler.
“When I was growing up I gravitated from one extreme to the other,” says Dunn, whose father died in 1986, before his son’s music career took off. “I didn’t know a middle ground.”
Things came to a head when he was a student at Abilene Christian College in Texas.
“I got a call from the dean to come in and talk to him. He said they’d heard I was playing in bars, and it was the policy that students couldn’t frequent bars or clubs or any of those kinds of establishments,” Dunn says.
“He said, ‘I’ll give you a choice. You can stay in school and stop playing in bars, or you’ve got to leave.’ “
“There was a long dry spell when I didn’t think I’d made the right choice,” he says. “I thought, ‘Am I going to be pumping gas?’ “
But in 1990, Arista Records’ Tim DuBois urged Dunn to join forces with another struggling solo artist, and Brooks & Dunn was born. The move was genius; together the duo have scored 21 No. 1 hits and sold 27 million records.
Brooks says the partnership makes it hard for either one of them to let up.
“I know every time I turn the corner he’s working on something,” he says of Dunn.
“I think it would probably be easier if I was by myself to head for the Caribbean for a month and just tell everybody to leave me alone. But when I know he’s sitting over here working, it doesn’t allow me to do that.”