Leaning against Kix Brooks' well-stocked bar, watching the popular country DJ conduct an interview with Little Big Town, it's difficult to note exactly when the actual interview begins. In fact, the atmosphere in Brooks' man-cave studio is so informal, one could be sitting on the leather couch between Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman and still not know when the red light was turned on.
"It's like hanging out with a buddy talking. And that's not always the case," says Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook. "There are some times where you have to carry everything, or else there's dead silence."
"It seems like the interview didn't even start," agrees Schlapman, who with her LBT mates stopped by to promote their upcoming album Pain Killer. "We were just having a conversation."
That's the way that Brooks, who has hosted the widely syndicated country music program American Country Countdown for the last eight years, prefers to work. For the Louisiana native, who along with Ronnie Dunn formed the Nineties' most successful country duo, Brooks & Dunn, radio is about comfort and conviviality — which explains that swanky bar stocked with liquor and wine from his own Arrington Vineyards.
"It's not contrived," Brooks says of his "hey buddy" interviewing style after the Little Big Town session. He's seated in a chair, again leather, adjacent the guest couch — the studio is decorated á la Louis L'Amour, all Western accents. Brooks closes his laptop and places it in the bag that he totes to the studio every Monday and Tuesday, show taping days. "I obviously like to hear myself talk, so it's a nice fit," he says with a laugh.
But the gregarious Brooks wasn't just turned loose with a microphone when ABC — who oversaw a series of radio stations and programs prior to current owners Cumulus Media — hired him in 2006. He's proud of the fact that he did his time at a broadcasters school in Connecticut.
"When ABC first hired me to do this show eight years ago, Disney owned ABC at the time and they also owned ESPN, and they sent me to Connecticut to interview school. It's where Dan Patrick and all those guys have to go, and they have to keep going to remind themselves of what a good interview is. It was one of the most interesting things that I ever did," he says.
As part of the training, Brooks — who has since been named National Broadcast Personality of the Year by the CMA three times — watched interviews, both good and bad, for nine-hour days. "There were unbelievably compelling moments that were lost because the interview was not handled properly, and that was a great education for me," he says.
But the still touring and recording star received his most intensive education on the other side of the microphone. Both with Brooks & Dunn and as a solo artist, Brooks has answered his share of interviewers' questions.
"It's been a real journey for me as an artist to be interviewed by people who make you feel comfortable and by people who are not prepared and are just hammering questions at you. After three or four, you don't really feel like answering them any more because you know they don't care. I think listening is a huge part of an interview," he says.
As is not pissing off the subject with the first question. Brooks recalls such an experience when being interviewed for a story upon taking the American Country Countdown job.
"One of the first things [the reporter] asked me was, 'So you're going to do a countdown show. What's next, are you going to be a game show host?'" he says, grimacing. "I said, 'You know, I don't know where you are right now, but if you want to tell me I'd be happy to come over there and have this conversation in person.' He chilled out a little bit."
The exchange illustrates the biggest hurdle for Brooks, or any artist who dares to venture outside their known profession. "It makes some people mad that you would do anything other than sing and play guitar and write songs," he says. "But I'm old enough now that at some point you just go, 'Screw it.' I want to be cool, but at the same time, I enjoy all aspects of my life: the winery, the movie business and I really enjoy doing this radio show."
It all adds up to make Brooks one of the most versatile guys in country music. While he could have ridden off into the sunset with all of his Brooks & Dunn loot, like some bandit in one of his beloved Westerns, he instead branched off into new ventures. In 2004 he helped start what would become Arrington Vineyards, an award-winning winery in Arrington, Tennessee, just south of Nashville. The winery has become a destination for tourists and locals, including Brooks — he's been known to perform regularly during Arrington's Music in the Vines series. In 2012, he starred in his first film, the law-and-order shootout Ambush at Dark Canyon — its tagline: "Revenge has six bullets" — and plans to do more acting. He also launches a Cooking Channel special, Steak Out With Kix Brooks, on November 2nd.
Still, he is adamant that none of his pursuits will come at the expense of his country career. While Brooks & Dunn parted ways in 2010, Brooks has continued to make music. He released the solo album New to This Town in 2012, which featured a guest appearance from Joe Walsh on the title track single.
"As long as I feel like I'm still legitimate as a performer and a songwriter, I would like to maintain that as my key persona," says Brooks, who in addition to penning hits for Brooks & Dunn also wrote Number Ones for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Conlee.
By hosting American Country Countdown — and the late-night show Kickin' It With Kix — he continues to have a front-row seat from which to watch the genre evolve. While Brooks acknowledges the perceived rut country music has found itself in when it comes to radio playlists, he sees promise on the horizon.
"Obviously there's a lot of repetitiveness as far as lyrical content and melodic content," he says. "But I've been here 30 years now. Even at that time, the same exact conversation was going on that is going on now. People were complaining about [country] being too this or too that, or everything sounds the same. Any time you have something fresh, something new going on, there is always going to be pushback."
Brooks is also bolstered by the increasing acceptance and popularity of country as a major concert draw.
"I am in total defense of the amount of young people that are going to concerts. We've got Luke [Bryan] and Jason [Aldean] and Zac [Brown Band] selling stadiums! Hell, Ronnie and I never did that. Now we have four or five artists legitimately that can sell stadiums damn near anywhere. That is hard to argue with," he says. "You go to those shows and you see all these young people having a ball, singing every word. You go, 'Who would want to throw rocks at this? I mean, this is fun.'"
And although some may hear today's more bubblegum country and ask, "Where's the music?" Brooks assures them it's still out there.
"Depending on what you're into, if it's Kacey Musgraves or Zac Brown, or great songs like 'I Drive Your Truck,' those songs are there. Those artists are there. And they are to be embraced. To me, there's something for everybody and, as always, the fans call the shots."
That idea flies in the face of the notion that radio program directors guard the gates. Not true, says Brooks.
"Radio has some control, but it's only going to control it as long as it's working. If the fans are not embracing it, radio is going to whatever is next."
For Brooks, rising from his chair with a parting smile and handshake, what's next is the Doobie Brothers, who have arrived to talk up their new country duets album. As he leaves to welcome them into the studio, it's hard to tell if this interview has even started.