A Born Outsider: Ronnie Dunn ‘Comfortable’ With Isolation and Independence
There’s a curse that comes with being first. Ronnie Dunn knows it, as does anyone else who’s dared to step outside the circle those who’ve come before him or her carved into the oak. Is he an outsider? That question — unfathomable to many just five years ago — seems fair today. It was also fair 35 years ago.
Dunn left home to follow his artist’s heart in the late ’70s. In terms of family and friends who pursued music (and all its attached sins) as a career, he was first. He started in Tulsa, Okla., not landing a Nashville record deal and releasing his first official single as a solo artist until 1983. Two “stiffs” later he was out on the street again. Many fans don’t realize he was pushing 40 by the time he teamed up with Kix Brooks to form Brooks and Dunn.
"I think … in order to survive you have to be comfortable with the isolation, and independence that you have to take to forge that path. I mean, just getting in the music business is something that’s crazier than hell."
“It alienated me in a lot of ways,” Dunn tells Taste of Country about his decision to chase his dream. “I felt weird about going to family reunions and things … it ended up kind of scarring that relationship, and I hate that.”
Dunn, the oldest of 16 grandchildren in a big southern family has reconciled with the cousins, aunties and uncles that more than questioned his motives. But it was difficult.
“You walk a plank, you separate yourself from the crowd, people going, ‘You’re trying to do what? Trying to make it at music business? Nobody does that? What are the chances of that? Go back to school, you’re crazy!'”
‘Thou Shalt Not,’ an experimental rocker from Dunn’s ‘Peace Love and Country Music‘ album finds Dunn telling his story. “When it comes down to shalt nots, I don’t stand a chance / I got the devil on my coattails, begging me to dance / Gonna play this guitar loud / Cry and moan the blues / While they shout out from the mountains, what to and not to do” he sings.
“I felt like I was letting my family down,” Dunn recalls. “Everybody else around me is like, ‘He’s not going to go into the ministry, he’s playing in a band!’ … You live with all the ‘Thou Shall Not’s’ and end up going, well, ‘I’m just going to play the guitar and surf through it, and let the world settle out, I’m not going to be there on the council once it all goes down.'”
Flash forward almost four decades to Dunn leaving Arista Nashville, his record label home for over a score, to become an independent artist. People said “You’re trying to do what? Trying to make it at music business? Nobody does that? What are the chances of that … You’re crazy!'”
Dunn was raised by a strict Baptist mother and a father who was spiritual but not quite the hammer his mother was. He went through ministry school and anyone who’s spent any time listening to his music can hear the influence immediately. “Treat others as you have them do unto you” is what he preached at home with his three kids. Growing up, his true north was the Bible, hard work … and Merle Haggard.
The latter came from his father, obviously. When asked who was his conscience while he sorted through music for this album and organized Little Will-E records, Dunn admits it was his father.
“I hear a voice of my dad, I always hear that voice … going ‘That’s not country, that’s not country.’ He was a big traditionalist.” Like a teenager however, Dunn still tests Dad’s limits.
“When I do a song like ‘Country This,’ I’m ultimately driving too fast on purpose, to see if I crash and burn or not. I know it going in, it’s just like, I know I’m going to take a punch with this, but I want to hear what it sounds like, you know?”
He calls ‘Country This’ his biggest risk on ‘Peace Love and Country Music.’ Originally the sparse country rocker was a “flat out rap song.” He and co-producer Jeff Balding added some melody and a pile of dirty, dirty guitars. A few female gospel singers back him up, slightly softening a song that would otherwise blow the pearls off your cowboy snaps.
"I hear a voice of my dad, I always hear that voice … going ‘That’s not country, that’s not country.’"
Dunn says the challenge of choosing songs for this new album was cheating on his radio ears. “Like actually chasing, you know, what I, what you shouldn’t do as an artist but you almost have to do to survive as a commercial artist.”
“I had to come to the realization, and it’s a healthy place, to go ‘You know what? I can cut whatever the hell I want to now.'”
While songs like ‘Thou Shalt Not,’ ‘Kiss You There’ and ‘Country This’ stretch his sound further than perhaps he’s ever gone, fans will still find something familiar in ‘Cowgirls Rock n Roll,’ ‘Grown Damn Man’ and especially ‘I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes,’ the project’s signature Dunn-moment. Unlike his first go-around with a solo album when the veteran seemed legitimately concerned with how radio would respond to his new songs, this time Dunn seems to have a chip on his shoulder.
He concedes that he may misrepresent himself on Facebook, but admits there may be a chip. Initially he planned to “work” radio, but soon found himself in front of a pile of requests for free, acoustic shows, something every new artist is familiar with.
“That’s not a good thing,” he says matter-of-factly.
His concern isn’t with radio necessarily, or one particular radio conglomerate. Call him a rebel, a martyr (or worse), but he’s really just trying to get people to realize the traditional means of introducing country music to fans isn’t working, for anyone. Toby Keith and Zac Brown are two artists who’ve started independent ventures in the last decade, but Dunn says he isn’t following either’s model.
"When I do a song like ‘Country This,’ I’m ultimately driving too fast on purpose"
“Some of the other guys have done the same thing, and they go and get, big expenses, big overhead,” he says. “You can’t do that these days. You can not do it. You have to go about it a different way, I don’t know that way it is yet but I know you cannot step in and go, ‘Hey I’m going to hire a head of promotion and pay this guy a half-million dollars a year, and he’s going to get a staff, guys that make 200, quarter of a million dollars a year, and we’re going to jump out there on all fours and make this thing happen.'”
“Especially when you’re selling records, for the most part, at 99 cents, which means 70 cents if you cut the right deal with iTunes … You got a long way to go before you ever see the light of day.”
“I think in the end we’re going to have to learn how to go artist direct. And that’s going to be quite a challenge. But there are some fundamentals that make that attainable.”
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Don’t be fooled by his age (61 on June 1) or experience. Both can lead to an artist leaning on an old pair of crutches. Dunn says he still has an album or two to go before he’s washed himself clean of the radio mentality, something he earned a PhD in while with Sony and Brooks and Dunn. He’s an adapter however.
“I don’t know how old I am, if I didn’t have to look at a birthday, and hear about that,” he says. “I still try to dress like my kids [laughs]. You know, I still think I’m 24, and I’m not. Yeah. It’s both a blessing and a curse.”
"I had to come to the realization, and it’s a healthy place, to go ‘You know what? I can cut whatever the hell I want to now.’"
Another curse. Unlike the shy 20-something from Coleman, Texas that took 15 years to find a hit however, modern day Dunn is … comfortable.
“I think … in order to survive you have to be comfortable with the isolation, and independence that you have to take to forge that path. I mean, just getting in the music business is something that’s crazier than hell.”