Half of a superstar duo takes full rein over his music, radio and now movie career
By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music
Kix Brooks (©Arista Nashville)
After two decades spent as half of the massively successful country duo Brooks & Dunn, the metaphor was intentional when Kix Brooks named his just released first solo album in 23 years "New to This Town." In fact, he says, nearly everything about making and promoting this album made him feel like a new artist all over again.
"It was a really creative, fun process of freedom for me to get back and find in myself my identity as an artist and a person," says Brooks. "The whole thing has been very healthy for me."
According to Brooks, he and former partner Ronnie Dunn never intended or expected their partnership to last as long as it did. Their success changed that plan.
"Brooks & Dunn was just a huge surprise for both of us," he says. "The thing that people sometimes don't know is that Ronnie and I were just solo artists that thought [Brooks & Dunn] was just a sideline thing like -- not to compare myself to them -- but like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard doing 'Pancho and Lefty.' [We thought] 'OK, we'll do a project [together] and then get back to what it was we were doing.' We got back to it, but it was 20 years later," he adds with a laugh.
In truth, neither artist had yet found success in their solo careers when a record executive paired them up in 1991. Brooks had recorded one album (never released) and issued one single on the first label he was signed to, Avion, in 1983, then recorded another album and released one more single for his second label, Capitol Records, in 1989. His singles died at Nos. 73 and 87, respectively, on the Billboard chart. After teaming with Dunn, however, the duo went on to sell more than 30 million albums, collect enough awards to fill several trophy cases and notch 41 top 10 hits, almost half of which went to No. 1.
With Dunn releasing his own post-duo solo album first, Brooks had a year to watch and see how it would be embraced. Surprisingly, despite Dunn's status as one of the finest vocalists in the county music industry, his project struggled at radio. While its first single went Top 10, the second and third singles peaked at Nos. 19 and 31, respectively.
Bing: More on Kix Brooks
Brooks admits that gave him a bit of trepidation about how his own project would be received, but he ultimately pushed past those fears.
"There's so many preconceived notions with Ronnie having been the primary voice, especially for the last 10 years of our career," he says of Brooks & Dunn. "[And] why would people give me a shot with so many young acts trying to have their first single . . . You can second-guess and worry about that stuff until you go crazy. But for me right now, all I can do is make the best music I can make, and work as hard as I can, so, hopefully, as many people can hear it as possible. After that, it's really kind of out of your control.
"There's obvious pitfalls and obvious hardships that going along with trying to do what I'm doing, having been part of a group which has a brand that's real strong," he continues. "I don't care who you are, if you're part of a band that's branded -- whether it's the Beatles or the Eagles or Hall & Oates -- to be a solo artist [after that] is really hard. At the same time, I make music. That's who I am. That's what I do. So you make the best music you can and then you work as hard as you can to try and get it out there. I can't get suicidal about what radio's going to do. I just try and do my job."
Before setting out to make a solo album again, Brooks began by writing songs, and recording demos, "just shooting from the hip with sort of that abandon freedom," he says of the process. When he got to about 50 songs, he invited the head of his record label, Gary Overton, over to his home to listen to some of them. Overton liked what he heard, encouraging Brooks to try producing the project himself.
He did so, with the exception of the title track on which Brooks enlisted Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts as a co- producer. That single, which features Joe Walsh on guitar, peaked at No. 31 in late June. The second single, "Bring It on Home," was just shipped to radio late last month. Brooks co-wrote nine of the album's 12 tracks, including both singles.
From song selection to decisions in the studio, Brooks says making the album on his own was a freeing experience. While he says he and Dunn "had a lot of fun making records together," they often needed to navigate through differing creative ideas in the studio. Says Brooks, "You can't really make a decision without looking over your shoulder or checking 'Are you cool with this?'"
"Instead of having this collaboration and constant pushing and pulling, it really is nice to go in the studio and just make stuff sound like you want to," he adds. "You can second guess yourself. There's some responsibility that's involved there, but at the same time it's kind of fun."
Going into the studio with no preconceived ideas for the album's ultimate direction, Brooks says he's happy with the eclectic turn it took.
"I like the way it feels," he says, "kind of live and raw. That was the intent, not trying to make a record that sounds like everything else on the radio ... I don't know if it sounds schizophrenic. It's just stuff that, hopefully, has some kind of common thread running through it."
To promote the album, Brooks has been touring steadily for six months. "We never toured this hard with Brooks & Dunn," he says. "If we did four days in a row, we were whining like little girls. I'm doing five shows in a row pretty regular right now."
Despite charging hard on the road, Brooks has also found time since Brooks & Dunn called it quits in 2010 to pursue his other love -- acting. He's formed a small production company and has a handful of scripts in development, all projects he plans to act in.
"That's something that I'd wanted to do for a long time," he says. "I was a theater major in college and really enjoyed that process."
On Oct. 23 at the Austin Film Festival, he'll premiere his latest film project, the Western "To Kill a Memory," in which he stars and also wrote all but one song on the soundtrack. "I'm really nervous and excited about that," he says of the premiere.
Brooks also owns a Nashville-area winery, hosts a weekend radio countdown show, and -- as MSN Music reported exclusively -- is about to add a five-day-a-week overnight radio show to his workload. Joking about where he finds the energy for so many projects, Brooks says with a laugh, "It's like a Ferrari with my body. I just want to see what this baby will do."
Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites, in addition to her ongoing role authoring MSN's One Country blog. She previously was Nashville Bureau Chief at Billboard magazine.
I would pay money to see Ronnie Dunn, he has a great voice. Brooks not so much but he can talk well