100 Greatest Men: #53. Brooks & Dunn

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June 28, 2012

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

The very definition of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, two struggling solo artists came together in the nineties and became the most c0mmercially successful duo in country music history.

Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn both released solo work in the eighties to little fanfare, though they had encountered some success in other areas.  Brooks earned many songwriting credits, including hits by John Conlee (“I'm Only in it For the Love”), Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (“Modern Day Romance”), and Highway 101 (“Who's Lonely Now.”)  Dunn had recorded a few sides for Churchill records that received little attention, and won a nationwide talent contest in 1988 that earned him another shot to record in Nashville.

Arista Nashville founder Tim DuBois thought the two would work well together as a duo, and despite reservations on both their parts, the chemistry was immediately there.   Upon release of their debut album Brand New Man in 1991, the duo instantly shot to the top of the charts.  Thanks to a string of four #1 singles, their first album sold more than six million copies, beginning a remarkable run of success at both radio and retail.

With Dunn usually handling lead vocals and Brooks providing the most energy in their live shows, the duo had a mostly uninterrupted run, with all but their final album selling at least gold, and most selling platinum.   They won dozens of industry awards, mostly in the Vocal Duo categories, but they were also named Entertainers of the Year twice at the ACM's and once at the CMA's.

As their career progressed, their critical acclaim largely dwindled, as their emphasis on rave-ups overshadowed their often remarkable ballads.  Still, by the time they had broken up in 2009, they had accumulated 26 #1 hits and record sales in excess of 27 million, making them the top-selling duo in country music and second only to Simon & Garfunkel among duos of all genres.    Both Brooks and Dunn are now pursuing solo careers, with Dunn already scoring a #1 country album and top ten single at radio.

Essential Singles:

  • Brand New Man, 1991
  • Neon Moon, 1992
  • Boot Scootin' Boogie, 1992
  • You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone, 1995
  • My Maria, 1996
  • The Long Goodbye, 2001
  • Red Dirt Road, 2003
  • Believe, 2005

Essential Albums:

  • Brand New Man, 1991
  • Borderline, 1996
  • Steers & Stripes, 2001
  • Red Dirt Road, 2003

Next: #52. Keith Whitley

Previous: #54. Hank Thompson

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  1. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    Great article, K. Brooks & Dunn have put out so many great records. “Neon Moon” has been a favorite lately, but I also have a weakness for “My Maria” and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”

  2. bobNo Gravatar says:

    Good article. Although I’ve always been a fan of Ronnie Dunn’s vocals, I only have B&D’s greatest hits collections from ’97 and ’04. Some of my favorites: “How Long Gone”, “She Used to Be Mine”, “Only in America” and their cover of Roger Miller’s “Husbands and Wives”. I can do without songs like “Hillbilly Deluxe”.

  3. MotownMikeNo Gravatar says:

    My favorite duo/group of all time by far. Most especially if were are talking Brooks & Dunn pre-2004. Brooks & Dunn were after-all the band that started my love affair with 90′s, neo-traditional country. Specifically, “Neon Moon” thanks to my aunt playing that album on many a car ride from Detroit to Atlanta.

    Other Brooks & Dunn favorites of mine include “She’s Not the Cheating Kind”, “My Maria”, “She Used to Be Mine”, “My Next Broken Heart”, “It’s Getting Better All the Time” “South of Santa Fe”, “Tequila Town”…I can go on with this for a while.

    I’d have probably rated the duo in the 40′s somewhere but have no big problem with their placement here at #53. Great write-up!!!

  4. I have my misgivings about non-solo acts on this list, but y’know, whatevs. :P I’m stunned that you’ve ranked them so lowly. The running joke for nearly 20 years was that they should re-name the Duo of the Year Award as the Brooks & Dunn Award. Their commercial success was unparalleled. Exploring their discography doesn’t show monumental evolution from one album to the next, but taken as a whole there was clearly a lot of growth.

    I reminisced about my experiences as a fan around the time they announced they were dissolving their duo:

    http://travismcclain.blogspot.com/2010/07/brooks-dunn-fans-reflections.html

    Also, there are some issues with your song choices. “Brand New Man,” “Neon Moon,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” and “My Maria” are all inarguable locks. I’m down with “Red Dirt Road.” But “The Long Goodbye” and “Believe” over “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You”? The single that completely brought them back from the commercial oblivion of the Tight Rope debacle? That hit #1 for six weeks and was one of the driving anthems of not just their first Neon Circus & Wild West Show tours, but the entire summer of 2001?

    A very serious argument should also be made for “Only in America.” It’s one of the most important songs of the last decade, because it was the last mainstream country song about America written, recorded and released before 9/11. It reflects our pre-9/11 optimism and values, before all such songs were required to be full of defiant swagger and/or unapologetic persecution. “Only in America” stands as a reminder of who we used to be, before we allowed tragedy to make being palatable at Republican conventions a requirement of country music.

  5. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    Now that Travis mentions it, “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” is another favorite of mine. That song is downright addictive.

  6. @Ben – Even when that song was in its heaviest rotation, I was still blaring it on CD, too, and never got sick of it. That song kicks nine kinds of ass!

  7. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    I honestly could care less about “Believe” (and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”, for that matter) but it won them a ton of awards, so it felt wrong to not include it.

    I feel “The Long Goodbye” has aged better than the other two huge hits you mentioned from Steers & Stripes, but both could definitely be on the list just as easily. They really were, in the end, a singles act, so it’s difficult to capture their full essence in just seven or eight songs.

    Which may also be why they aren’t quite as high on the overall list. I’ve often referred to them as the Mariah Carey of country music. Amazing chart statistics, but the hits all bleed together and not too much of them are remembered once they’re off the radio.

    I remember a review I read for one of their mid-nineties albums – might’ve been Waitin’ on Sundown or Borderline – where a critic noted that in the early days, country albums were a couple of hits and a bunch of filler. But on a Brooks & Dunn album, the hits are the filler.

  8. I’d still argue the historical significance that “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” was the single that rescued their career as a duo. After Tight Rope and its singles all failed across the board, there was a lot of talk about up and coming duos and their potential to push B&D aside entirely. Don’t forget; Montgomery Gentry actually won the Brooks & Dunn Award in 2000!

    The other interesting thing about the distinction between the two phases is that starting with Steers & Stripes, they became much more of an album act. There’s a lot more artistic cohesion to that album and its followup, Red Dirt Road than was found on their earlier work. Hillbilly Deluxe was weak, but their final LP, Cowboy Town is similarly constructed. They weren’t just collections of songs; they were albums.

    To be honest, I was never a fan of the selection of “The Long Goodbye” as a single. There were at least three other songs on that album that should have been released as singles ahead of that, including “Go West” (vocals by Kix Brooks). Any time I ever find myself in a discussion about album cuts that should have been singles, that’s the very first one I cite. God, that recording was perfect! Also killer was “When She’s Gone, She’s Gone” and I still think “Lucky Me, Lonely You” would have made for a solid single and maybe a video, too.

    Of course, Steers & Stripes remains dear to me as my favorite of their albums by far, and one of my favorites by anyone. I’m perfectly aware of my bias! :P

  9. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    I was never a big B&D fan, and the albums I like best tended to give more focus to Kix Brooks, but this was a duo whose whole was much greater than the sum of the parts, as witness the lack of success either has had since the split.

    You have them about where I would have placed them

  10. MotownMikeNo Gravatar says:

    Paul, I think their lack of success as solo artists is more age based than it is two inferior commodities being pushed. Both men are plenty talented and skilled as musicians and singers when they choose good material and are given the chance to promote it. Case and point with Ronnie Dunn releasing “Cost of Livin’”. Phenomenal song, light production and well restrained, but raw and emotional vocals.

    However, anyone not named Reba or George over 40 in today’s country radio and in today’s overall country music marketing scheme is all but forgotten. Country music has almost exclusively become a here and now genre with little room for what was. Kix and Ronnie are “what was”, so they’re not going to be given the fair chance to compete against the “what is” like of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert.

  11. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    No doubt age is a large part of the problem but somehow I suspect that neither has that “it” factor to be a solo star. Combined together, they had “it” with gallons to spare.

    I can think of many male vocalists over the years with at least as much talent as Brooks or Dunn – Mark Gray, Dennis Robbins and Billy Yates come immediately to mind – but very few actually make it as solo artists

    While I bemoan the current state of country music, I try to keep in mind that radio has always been about younger artists with older artists struggling to get airplay – this holds true for any genre of music. Bobby Bare commented a few years ago that during the days he was receiving airplay, he was glad of it, but it meant that radio wasn’t playing Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell or Hank Snow. Even in the past, when playlists were longer and disk jockeys could play requests, there was still an emphasis on playing the newer material. There has always been a continuous flow of artists beginning to receive airplay and artists beginning to lose airplay. For some the life of the process may be a few years while for others it may be a few decades but it happens to everyone

  12. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    I think Paul’s case is bolstered by the fact that they didn’t have success when they were young solo acts, either.

    Dunn has the vocal chops, but he needed the personality of Brooks and the distinction of being a duo right at the time the Judds broke up. That’s how they broke away from the pack.

    His first two post-B&D singles were amazing, but would’ve done better if they were Brooks & Dunn singles, I imagine.

  13. I don’t think there’s much doubt that being a duo was the whole reason we even know the names Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. There was such a gluttony of solo male artists in the early 90s that there was nowhere to put either of them, really.

    It also comes down to the business side of things. Arista was already behind Alan Jackson as their Solo Male Vocalist and they couldn’t very well properly support him and one of these guys (much less both). They could however, support Jackson as their Solo Male and B&D as their Duo, which is exactly what they did and it worked perfectly.

    As for why post-B&D material hasn’t caught on, it’s hard to say to what extent the age of the artists is a factor here. I think a big part of it is just the business. Who’s behind Brooks or Dunn today? I don’t even recall their respective labels, honestly, but whoever they might be, they’ve surely already got an established roster they’re behind. Part of the most successful duo of all-time or not, they’re now just solo artists trying to compete with their labelmates for the attention and support of the same marketing department.

    The other part of it is, I think these two were instrumental in filtering out the weaker material that they would have turned in on their own. By having to win the approval of both guys, with their own sensibilities, they guarded against a lot of filler. That’s the real reason Tight Rope tanked: they each made their own half of the album and turned in their work separately.

  14. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    TIGHTROPE wasn’t a bad album, in fact it is one of my two or three favorite B&D albums. It was not a very commericial album. I think working together they might have added another one or two radio-friendly songs

  15. I don’t think it was just that there weren’t enough radio-friendly singles on Tight Rope, Paul. The real issue was that it lacked cohesion as an album, and most of the songs were admittedly okay but nothing really stood out to me (or, apparently, most listeners or reviewers).

    Just so that I can try to take another look at it from a different perspective, though, would you mind walking me through what about Tight Rope you liked?

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