- Kix Brooks
- Ronnie Dunn
Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn are one of the most significant creative pairings in country music history. Brooks & Dunn’s debut album, Brand New Man, launched the duo toward stardom with four consecutive #1 hits. They went on to become the best-selling country duo of all time, earning forty-one Top Ten hits (including twenty #1s) and spending two decades packing concert arenas. They also collected dozens of music-industry honors, including two Grammys, nineteen Country Music Association awards, and thirty Academy of Country Music awards.
When Arista Records Nashville chief Tim DuBois urged Brooks and Dunn to join forces and become a duo, each brought more than a decade of performing and songwriting experience to the partnership.
Kix Brooks’s Early Years
Leon Eric Brooks III earned his nickname, Kix, because of his boisterous behavior in his mother’s womb, but the name later fit his performance style, as he twirled, strutted, and kicked to dramatize Brooks & Dunn’s rocking arrangements. Brooks was raised by his father, an oil company engineer, after his mother died when Brooks was three years old.
He gravitated to music at an early age. His family lived on the same street as Billie Jean Horton, who had been married to both Hank Williams and Johnny Horton, and he gave his first paid performance at age twelve with Horton’s daughter.
While attending Louisiana Tech University, Brooks appeared regularly on the Louisiana club circuit. He left the area for stretches in Alaska and Maine, then moved to Nashville in 1979 with his wife, Barbara, to pursue a country music career.
Record producer Don Gant nurtured Brooks’s budding talent, and although Brooks recorded a single for the independent record label Avion, he fared better as a writer. Brooks wrote the #1 hits “I’m Only in It for the Love” (John Conlee, 1983) and “Modern Day Romance” (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, 1985), and Brooks’s song “Sacred Ground”—an unremarkable single from his 1989 self-titled solo album for Capitol Records Nashville—became a hit for McBride & the Ride in 1992.
00:00 / 00:00
00:00 / 00:00
00:00 / 00:00
Ronnie Dunn’s Early Life
Ronnie Eugene Dunn said of his parents: “Dad was a hot-tempered, maniac honky-tonker. Mother was a Bible-carrying Baptist.” Dunn felt the pull of both worlds: he attended Abilene Christian College as a seminary student but left after school administrators chastised him for singing in bars.
Dunn moved in with his parents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he hit nightclub stages with religious fervor and fronted the house band at the popular club Duke’s Country. Oklahoma music impresario Jim Halsey signed Dunn to the independent label Churchill Records in 1983, and the singer released several traditional singles on the label.
After Dunn won the Marlboro Talent Search competition in 1988, he and his wife, Janine, relocated to Nashville. Once he was there, up-and-coming engineer-producer Scott Hendricks brought Dunn to DuBois’s attention.
Becoming Brooks & Dunn
At the start of 1990, DuBois introduced Brooks and Dunn—each pursuing a solo career—over lunch and suggested they try working together. Pleased with the results, DuBois offered them a record deal as a duo; the two men hesitantly agreed, signed with Arista, and became Brooks & Dunn.
Brooks & Dunn combined honky-tonk dancefloor rhythms with classic-rock guitar riffs and rousing arrangements to create their distinct sound. Their songwriting skills provided them with top-notch material, and they packed songs with references to hard-working men, honky-tonks, rednecks, and women out on the town enjoying themselves. Their performance experience led them to create a dynamic stage show: Brooks’s raucous energy onstage brought fans to their feet, while Dunn’s brooding presence and expressive voice encouraged fans to sing along.
Brooks & Dunn’s first album, 1991’s Brand New Man has sold more than six million copies and yielded the #1 hits “Brand New Man,” My Next Broken Heart,” “Neon Moon,” and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” the latter of which inspired a country line dance that helped fuel a national country dance craze. Under the guidance of producer Don Cook, Brooks & Dunn delivered three or four Top Ten songs every year from 1992 to 1998, including “Little Miss Honky Tonk,” “My Maria,” “How Long Gone,” and “If You See Him/If You See Her,” the latter a duet with Reba McEntire.
However, as Brooks & Dunn closed out a decade of massive success, they felt their momentum stall. In 1999, several consecutive singles fell short of the Top Ten—a first for the duo—and the album they released that year, Tight Rope, earned only gold certification (for sales of half a million copies), a failure compared to their first five albums, all of which had sold one million or more copies. At the 2000 Country Music Association Awards, Brooks & Dunn went home empty-handed for the first time in eight years.
“The fans didn’t go away,” Kix Brooks said. “We just weren’t giving them good albums.”
A New Millennium Resurgence and Break-up
Brooks & Dunn responded to their downturn in success by hiring a new producer, Mark Wright, and challenging themselves as songwriters. The resulting albums, Steers & Stripes (2001) and Red Dirt Road (2003), included several enduring songs, including the #1 hits “Ain’t Nothing ’Bout You,” “Only in America,” and “Red Dirt Road.”
The duo also pumped life into their concerts by creating a carnival atmosphere. Their Neon Circus and Wild West Show tours, in 2001 and 2002, included confetti cannons, fireworks, hot air balloons, midway exhibits, and sideshow acts including professional clowns, fire-eaters, jugglers, stilt-walkers, and trick ropers. The CMA underscored Brooks & Dunn’s status as leading country stars by tapping them to host their top-rated network awards show from 2004 to 2006. (The duo had co-hosted the Academy of Country Music’s awards show with Faith Hill in 1996.)
After six more years of hits—including “Play Something Country” and “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl”—the duo again dropped from favor at radio, and this time, the grind of recording albums and staging concert tours caught up with them. After two decades together, Brooks & Dunn embarked on what they described as their final major tour, The Last Rodeo, then ended their partnership.
Brooks and Dunn Go Solo, Then Reunite
Following Brooks & Dunn’s break-up, Brooks involved himself in several new endeavors. He served on the Country Music Association’s board of directors, becoming president in 2004 and chairman in 2005. In January 2006, he began hosting the syndicated radio program American Country Countdown, and the next year, he opened the winery Arrington Vineyards outside of Nashville. Brooks resumed his solo career with the album New to This Town, issued by Arista in September 2012.
Dunn, meanwhile, scored a hit with a power ballad, “Bleed Red,” in early 2011, and Arista’s release of the twelve-song Ronnie Dunn album that June gave the veteran his first #1 album as a solo artist. He released two more albums in the next five years: 2014’s Peace, Love, and Country Music and 2016’s Tattooed Heart.
At the 2015 ACM Awards, Brooks & Dunn reunited to perform “My Maria” and accept a ACM 50th Anniversary Milestone Award. Two months later, with Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn opened Reba, Brooks & Dunn: Together in Vegas at the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace. The residency concerts were Brooks & Dunn’s first full live performances together in five years and continued until December 2021.
In April 2019, Brooks & Dunn released Reboot, a new album featuring remakes of several of their best-loved songs in collaboration with contemporary country stars. Their first tour as a duo since 2010 began in 2021.