Newly honored with a museum exhibit, soon-to-be Hall of Famers Brooks & Dunn reveal how Luke Combs and Kacey Musgraves helped inspire "Reboot," their latest album of collaborations

By Nancy Kruh
August 29, 2019 08:00 PM

When they first met back in 1990, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were two solo artists looking for a big break, not a performing partner. Somehow they found both in each other. But even after the duo earned back-to-back No. 1 singles by the end of the next year, Brooks says, he never thought they could last.

“Being as old as we were, 36 and 38 … there’s no way this career goes 20 years,” Brooks, now 64, told an audience at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Saturday. “All you gotta do is do the math with that.”

Of course, as it turns out, there was other math that mattered more: 20 chart-toppers, 26 million in record sales, 28 ACM awards, 18 CMA awards and two Grammys.

A gobsmacking number of those trophies — six long rows of pretty, shiny things — are now on display at the museum in its exhibit, “Brooks & Dunn: The Kings of Neon,” newly opened this month. It arrives on the heels of an even bigger honor, election into the Country Music Hall of Fame (announced in March), as well as the April release of Reboot, a stellar collection of greatest-hits collaborations that’s their first studio album in 12 years.

Brooks and Dunn’s numerous awards
Nancy Kruh

On Saturday, the duo appeared at the museum, along with their longtime manager, Clarence Spalding, to reflect on their improbable career and reminisce about the ups and downs of their 29-year professional marriage.

Their matchmaker, music exec Tim DuBois, first put them together for a songwriting session, which turned into a recording session, which turned into magic. On the surface, they were an odd couple: Dunn was a lanky Texan who stood behind the microphone and let his supple voice do the work. Brooks was a live-wire Louisianan who threw himself into selling his songs.

Neither knew each other’s performance style until the first time they shared a stage at an early industry showcase.

Dunn, 66, recalled one pungent assessment after the show. “My wife said, ‘I remember seeing the look on your face when [Brooks] took off all over the place — pow, pow, pow, pow!” Dunn said, flinging his arms right and left. “‘And you’re still singing, looking at him, going, what the hell is this?’”

Brooks, meanwhile, was perplexed by Dunn’s stillness. “I thought maybe his boots were nailed down to the stage,” Brooks said.

Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks
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Their differences turned out to be crucial to the duo’s synergy, and over the next two decades, they rode a tidal wave of popularity. Even after they hit a slump at the turn of the century, they hunkered down, delivered three more platinum-selling albums and transformed their concerts into must-see pyrotechnic circuses.

A sold-out farewell tour in 2010 seemed to herald permanent retirement, but both men knew they weren’t done yet. “We never said we weren’t ever going to do this anymore,” Brooks said, “but we did say we needed a break, and it was a good one for us.”

Since 2015, the duo has packed the Colosseum at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace with pal Reba McEntire, and this past year, their manager, Spalding, coaxed them back into the studio for Reboot.

Handwritten “Red Dirt Road” lyrics
Nancy Kruh

Spalding revealed that a chance encounter with then-newcomer Luke Combs sparked the idea for the album.

“He was so excited to tell me about riding to Florida as a kid and wearing the Brand New Man cassette out,” Spalding recalled. “And the only thing I can think of is, God, I wish [Brooks and Dunn] were here right now to hear this young guy … telling the effect they had on his career.”

Further motivation was provided after the duo checked out web posts of Combs’ acoustic version of “Brand New Man” and Kacey Musgraves‘ “Neon Moon” (which Brooks described as “the LSD version”). Spalding started putting out calls to other younger artists.

“I think the longest I had to wait was maybe 30 minutes for somebody to call back,” he said. Combs, Musgraves, Thomas Rhett, Brothers Osborne, Midland, Kane Brown, Ashley McBryde — everyone — said yes.

Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks of Brooks and Dunn
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The only hitch, Spalding revealed, came when Brown asked to collaborate on “Believe,” one of Dunn’s most vocally demanding songs.

“I just couldn’t wrap my head around it,” Spalding said, “and they couldn’t really, either. But we went along with it.”

After the recording session, Spalding took a phone call from Dunn, expecting to hear bad news. Dunn told him something else. “That kid,” he said, “has no idea how good he is.”

Looking ahead, both Brooks and Dunn are clearly happy to keep this new momentum going. They’ve already signed on for a couple dozen more Las Vegas dates next year, and Dunn hinted at some other “pretty substantial dates,” as well.

“Stay tuned,” Spalding teased.

Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Neither artist has any interest in slowing down.

“I think that innate hunger that drives you, when you’re on the creative plane, is probably always there,” Dunn said. “That’s something that you’ll never lose, whether you call it ambition or whatever. I think all high achievers … there’s some kind of little demon back there driving them to achieve.”

“You need to write a song, you need to write a song,” Brooks added in falsetto. “That little voice is always there.”

Brooks & Dunn: Kings of Neon” runs through July 19, 2020, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.