Country's most successful duo celebrate the pinnacle of their career — and still wonder how they got there. "I just don't understand it," Kix Brooks says in disbelief

By Nancy Kruh
October 21, 2019 06:15 PM
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Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn didn’t hug it out at their Country Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony Sunday night. Heck, in their acceptance speeches, they didn’t even thank each other.

But clearly both men knew the simple truth: They had reached this pinnacle because they were there together.

And yet how exactly did they get there? Brooks, 64, still seemed to be asking himself that question as he gaped at his image, beside Dunn’s, in bronze relief on his Hall of Fame plaque.

“That is just weird,” he told the invitation-only crowd in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater. “I just don’t understand it.”

Their partnership story is indeed among Nashville’s most unlikely. Back in 1990, they were both solo artists who’d been knocking around town for years, with little success, when music exec Tim DuBois suggested they start collaborating. They decided to take him up on the idea only because they really didn’t have a better plan.

Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn
| Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty

That fateful meeting was on a Tuesday, Brooks recalled, and they wrote what would be their first two No. 1 singles on that Thursday and Friday. Eighteen more No. 1s followed, along with more than 28 million in album sales, and 46 CMA, ACM and Grammy awards. By every measure, they are country music’s most successful duo.

All of it was celebrated at the induction ceremony for the 2019 class, which also included singer-songwriter Ray Stevens (in the veteran-era category) and music executive Jerry Bradley (non-performer category).

The tributes for Brooks & Dunn came in both spoken word and song. The Brothers Osborne, three-time CMA winners for vocal duo of the year (to Brooks & Dunn’s 14), rocked out on the Hall of Famers’ first No. 1, “Brand New Man.”

John and TJ Osborne of Brothers Osborne
| Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty

Luke Bryan turned in a heartfelt “Red Dirt Road” after reminiscing how the two partners separately touched his life. In 2007, months before Bryan’s first album had even been released, Brooks surprised Bryan with a phone call to offer condolences after his sister died unexpectedly.

“I never will forget it,” Bryan said. “I hung the phone up and called my whole family, and we were just amazed at that gesture.”

Luke Bryan
| Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty

After his career took off, Bryan also recollected, he was struggling with vocal fatigue on the road and knew he needed help, so he reached out to a Nashville tour manager who suggested he call “Ronnie.”

And I said, ‘Ronnie Dunn?’” Bryan said, recalling his disbelief.

Soon enough, the two men connected by phone and Dunn spent over a half-hour offering Bryan advice on caring for his voice. “And you know,” Bryan said, “that’s what country music is all about. I just can’t thank you guys enough for those moments.”

Trisha Yearwood delivered a third musical tribute, taking on perhaps the most vocally challenging song in the B&D library, “Believe.” Giving it the full gospel treatment, she had the crowd on their feet for the last verse. Her Hall of Fame husband, Garth Brooks, was in the audience wiping tears from his cheeks by the song’s end.

Garth Brooks
| Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Brooks and Dunn selected their longtime friend and tour-mate, Reba McEntire, to do their actual induction. The Hall of Famer teased that she finally had the opportunity for “paybacks” after all of her pals’ pranks on the road and at their bill-sharing Las Vegas residency. Instead, she hurried to her duty of draping gold Hall of Fame medallions around the men’s necks.

“On behalf of everybody in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” McEntire announced, “I do ‘sir knight’ you — or whatever I’m supposed to do!”

Dunn, 66, played along. “Sir Dunnion?” he suggested.

McEntire went with it. “Sir Dunnion,” she repeated, “and Sir Kixship.”

Reba McEntire
| Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty

After the unveiling of the plaque that will hang in a nearby rotunda, Dunn joked about how the induction may change his life: The previous night, he recalled, his wife had set the trash by the kitchen counter, expecting him to take it out. “And I walked in the room and said, you know, after tomorrow night, I probably won’t be doing this,” he said to a roar of laughter. “She hesitated for a minute. She never looked up. She said, ‘Yeah, well, when you get through, there’s another one over by the sink.’”

After more laughs subsided, Dunn allowed, “That’s about as cocky as I’m going to try to get.”

He went on to confess he’d teared up at the start of the evening as he watched the parade of Hall of Famers enter the theater, including McEntire, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Alabama’s Randy Owen, Charley Pride, Ricky Skaggs, Charlie Daniels, Connie Smith and the Oak Ridge Boys.

Now that Dunn is among their company, “I’ve never been so proud and humble,” he said. “If you don’t believe that, just step into my heart right now.”

Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn and Reba McEntire
| Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty

In his remarks, Brooks drew attention to the duo’s decision to call it quits in 2010. But five years later, the ongoing Las Vegas residency pulled them back together, and this year, they released a popular new album, Reboot,resulting in two CMA nominations.

Brooks offered reason to believe the two men now understand they are yoked for life. “We realize how much we love this music, how fun it was to get back to singing those songs again,” he said. “You know, we had every intention of quitting, and we did for a few minutes, but I think we realize now how lucky we are.”

And if they ever doubt it, there’s always a bronze plaque to remind them.