Brooks and Dunn have more of the dynamic of a good comedy team than a country music duo.
Onstage, Kix Brooks is a ball of fire, bouncing from one side of the stage to the other, while Ronnie Dunn acts like a stoic straight man. Brooks twists around the stage, embodying the Boot Scootin' Boogie. Dunn casually ambles up front to belt out a ballad.
The two first teamed up in 1990, and Dunn says it was not easy for them to mesh styles.
"You want the truth? It's still not," he says in a telephone call from his Nashville home. "I'm sure he gets as frustrated with me as I do with him. I'm doing a ballad, and he's over there posing for the crowd. On the other hand, if we got a rock song going, I'm standing there like an anchor pulling it down. It just somehow works. We're just as amazed as anybody. We sit back and shake our heads, going "I can't believe this is working!' "
Working is an understatement.
Brooks and Dunn are one of the most successful duos in the history of country music. The group's three albums, Brand New Man, Hard Workin' Man, and Waitin' on Sundown, have all gone multiplatinum.
Neither artist was really looking for a partner when Tim DuBois, head of Arista Records in Nashville, suggested they join forces. Both had spent years playing bars and small clubs _ Brooks in Louisiana and Dunn in Oklahoma. Brooks wrote a few hit songs for other artists and recorded a solo album that went nowhere. Dunn moved to Nashville to become a songwriter.
As different as the two were, they both knew how to please a crowd.
"That just came out of having to play for years and years in honky tonks and clubs," says Dunn. "You had to be in touch with what people wanted to hear, because they're just brutal to you. If you're not hitting on what they like or what they want to dance to, you can feel that immediately. And we both did that kind of stuff just forever."
The duo had a No. 1 single right out of the gate with Brand New Man, but it was the song Boot Scootin' Boogie that took Brooks and Dunn from opening act to headliner.
Their shows were known for excitement, so much so that Dunn says he and Brooks were worried when a crowd didn't go wild.
"We started out thinking that if we didn't have people up on their feet going nuts from the first song we weren't doing it right," says Dunn. "We had to realize, especially when we pulled back to do ballads like Neon Moon and She Used to Be Mine, that it's all right for people to relax for a minute. Come up for air. We used to be freaked out, but now it's cool. We're okay with it _ after three years of therapy."
Dunn says he and Brooks have consciously worked at being known for more than up-tempo country rockers.
"You gotta really try to avoid getting into a rut with your music," he says. "It's all gonna start sounding alike if it's all up-tempo stuff."
He says radio balked at playing the ballad Never Forgive My Heart. Program managers told the duo "that just doesn't sound like Brooks and Dunn."
"We were like, "Hey, we're not JUST Boot Scootin' Boogie. We've got to be able to sell some slower songs and maybe slip off into some traditional stuff now and then.' I think if I really had my way, it'd probably be an ALL traditional country band."
Competition has become fierce. More country acts are touring, and many worry that they will oversaturate markets, bleeding fans dry of cash and burning them out on the music. Disappearing is the unwritten rule that country acts will give each other several weeks leeway before booking shows in the same city.
"Now you have people out there battling behind the scenes," says Dunn. "You can walk into any agent's or manager's office in Nashville, and there's probably not two days in the week when he's not screaming or yelling that somebody is breaking in on his market or his time, touring-wise. It's going to be interesting to watch this year and the next year."
Many top country acts play in excess of 100 dates a year, but both Brooks and Dunn and Alan Jackson have cut back to just 85 concerts in 1996.
For his part, Dunn says he's trying to step back from the business side of music as much as he can. From the beginning, Brooks and Dunn have overseen all aspects of their careers.
"Our manager calls us the world's greatest micro-managers," says Dunn. "We're in on everything from the design of the T-shirts to the thickness of the shirts all the way up to the design of the show. The real trick, especially if you're gonna be a songwriter, is to back out of all that stuff. Get the right people in the positions and take care of the thing that brought you there . . . _ the songs and that kind of stuff. For me, that's a 24-hour-a-day job alone."
In fact, the duo's next album, Borderline (due in April), is made up primarily of songs by other songwriters. Also, the duo is being considered to host the Academy of Country Music Awards presentation this spring.
"Our manager is just freaking out," says Dunn. "We got an hourlong lecture on how you've got to stick to the script and all that kind of stuff. I don't know if it's gonna work out or not. I don't know if we'd liven it up or bring it down. Might ruin country music forever."
Dunn isn't worried about that, though, or much of anything else.
"The biggest thing that I worry about is Kix coming across stage and catching me with a guitar neck or something," Dunn says. "He's had more stitches than most rodeo cowboys, and I just try to stay out of his way."
AT A GLANCE
Brooks and Dunn with Blackhawk and David Lee Murphy _ 8 tonight, USF Sun Dome, Tickets: $22.50-$24.50.