Ronnie Dunn Lets Vintage Country Take Over on 'Broken Neon Hearts': 'It Set the Tone for the Record'

"It all comes from back in the '80s and '90s playing bars and clubs and trying to capture that vibe," Dunn tells PEOPLE of his new album

Ronnie Dunn
Ronnie Dunn. Photo: Dustin Haney

Sometimes, the professional moves of a musical genius such as Ronnie Dunn are inspired by something as simple as the moves he remembers watching on the classic television show American Bandstand.

"They would play the song and people would say, 'it has a good beat, and I can dance to it,' and to this day, I live by that," recalls Dunn, 68, during a recent interview with PEOPLE. "In our world, the country music world, it's pretty much two-steppers, waltzes and shuffles."

It's this tried-and-true sound that can now be heard firsthand in Dunn's new single "Broken Neon Hearts," his latest solo effort that was in part bolstered by the viral success that Brooks & Dunn have experienced as of late courtesy of their 1992 chart-topper "Neon Moon."

Ronnie Dunn
Ronnie Dunn.

Well, sort of.

"It was the same timing, but it wasn't the catalyst," he explains of the song that serves as the first single off his fifth solo album, 100 Proof Neon, due out this summer. "It's funny. We wrote an entire album, and I took it home and played it for my wife and she was like, 'Every other song is "neon"' and she told me I can't do that," Dunn says with a laugh. "I told her actually I can because I love the music and the beer joints and the bars and I miss that world, musically."

So, in a way, "Broken Neon Hearts" takes listeners back to that world.

"It all comes from back in the '80s and '90s playing bars and clubs and trying to capture that vibe," says Dunn, just days before it was announced that Brooks & Dunn had been nominated for duo of the year at the upcoming ACM Awards in March. "Back then, in places like Texas and Oklahoma — if you didn't get the crowd up and dancing, then they didn't drink, and you didn't have a job after that."

The vintage-feeling song was originally brought to Dunn just a few short months ago by songwriter Thomas Perkins, who joins a stable of impressive songwriters on Dunn's newly established Perfect Pitch Publishing company.

"He came in with the idea for the chorus, the hook and a half of a verse," Dunn remembers. "And I said, 'Gosh, this is worth taking on.'"

But it certainly turned out to be somewhat of a process to get the song where Dunn wanted to take it.

"With a new artist, I get to play coach," Dunn says with a slight chuckle of the song he snagged co-writing credits on alongside Perkins and fellow songwriter Matt Willis. "I get to be kind of the bad guy, you know? So, I did go back and, and told Thomas that he had to work on the second verse, and he came back with that whole Keith Whitley reference. I knew right then and there that his head was in a place it should be. We sat and knocked it out and it set the tone for the rest of the record."

And in a world that seems to have lost the sweetness that can be found in simplicity rather than trends, Dunn has indeed found a way to infuse it into his latest solo effort, and it's something that he hopes to do a lot more in the future, especially with his new band of artists signed to Perfect Pitch Publishing.

"I know everyone says we're not getting paid enough or whatever, but the day is going to come sooner than later when streaming is going to be the 500-pound gorilla in the room…. heck it already is," explains Dunn. "I just like the idea of being able to have the freedom to go in and cut a record whenever I feel like it. It's like the oil business in Oklahoma. There's oil in the ground, so I'm going to punch as many holes in that ground as I can. Radio is no longer the only outlet out there and music is no longer a depleting asset. So, this is a good time to be investing, you know?"

Undoubtedly, Dunn's voice is going to be heard in many ways in the coming years.

"I've always felt like my voice is too thin to be like a George Jones or a [Merle] Haggard," he concludes. "So, it's my big challenge to nail a hardcore country song. This whole project was an attempt to do that."

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