Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn: 10 Songs That Shaped Me
Covers albums are often a letdown, mostly unnecessary projects that leave you wondering why the artist devoted valuable time to singing someone else’s songs instead of working on their own. Ronnie Dunn’s Re-Dunn — what a title! — is among the rare exceptions.
Out January 10th, the 24-track collection finds the Brooks & Dunn vocalist somehow making songs we’ve all heard innumerable times (Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning,” Pure Prairie League’s “Amie”) sound vital and electric. We asked the newly minted member of the Country Music Hall of Fame to talk about 10 songs on Re-Dunn that were especially important in forging his musical makeup.
“Long Cool Woman,” The Hollies
Before Willie and Waylon and Jerry Jeff Walker came out in Texas with a rock-country attitude, I was listening to [British bands] in my teenage years and college days. I remember a thousand times walking into a bar and hearing that guitar riff. It’s always one that you perk up and go, “Ah!” I never did a deep dive into the lyric though. I thought it was “long cool woman in a pants-dress” at one point. But it’s about a drug bust and, coming from a country perspective and being immersed in commercial radio as long as I have been, I might have been inhibited to take this on. In rock and pop music, they write in such an impressionistic fashion. It’s not literal like we write here. We tell stories and descriptively try to make use of every word.
“Amarillo by Morning,” George Strait
The two songs that most people gravitate toward with Strait are “The Cowboy Rides Away,” which I don’t think anyone had cut before him, and “Amarillo by Morning,” which was a Terry Stafford song. It was a regional hit in Abilene when I was in college. We would play it in bands. We’d put on all our Eagles lookalike clothes and go out on the weekend with these throw-together bands and play VFWs outside of Abilene where we wouldn’t get caught, ’cause we were going to a religious school. Then Strait came out with the song in the early Eighties.
“It Never Rains in Southern California,” Albert Hammond
I got a hold of a demo by an artist who played a bar version of this song [with] a country band. I wish I could take credit for that, but it planted the seed. I had that demo for years. I used to sit around and listen to pop-rock songs and think of ways to countrify them. I didn’t know at the time what [Hammond] was talking about. A 747? I almost took that out and changed it to a more contemporary plane, but you can really get in trouble with that.
“Drinkin’ Thing,” Gary Stewart
Stewart is a once-in-a-lifetime stylist. I used to play this place called the Beeline Lounge, outside Tulsa, in a strip mall. It was where all these oilfield workers, pipe-liners, would come on Fridays and Saturdays. It was a rough place. I walked in one day and [Stewart’s] “She’s Acting Single” was playing. My head spun. I was like, “Man, that is the most down in the dirt, beer-joint music I’ve ever heard.” They played it nonstop, just nonstop. It was the same thing with “Drinkin’ Thing” — I heard it first in the Beeline Lounge.
“Against the Wind,” Bob Seger
So many of the songs out of that era, they didn’t put the emphasis on every word being perfect or everything being on the beat. This is one of those songs that, lyrically, we tried to write at the end of the Nineties. We were just taking Seger’s era of rock and applying it to what we were doing in country at the time.
“I Won’t Back Down,” Tom Petty
The guitar riff and the beat are [what drew me to it]. Cash cut an acoustic version of it and it has that message of what he was saying at the time, that rebel thing. In the late Seventies, I flew out to L.A., the first time I had ever been to a big city. [Producer] Denny Cordell was looking for some country kid [to sign] — I wasn’t it — but he said, “Come out, I want to talk to you.” Tom and the [Heartbreakers] were working on that first record in Shelter Studio down on Sunset, and they were all uptight and worn-out, and I remember opening the door and a cloud of pot smoke came out. I hadn’t been around all that that much. It was just a big blur. I was like, “What the hell am I doing here?”
“Ashes by Now,” Rodney Crowell
I’ve been a Rodney fan since back in the day. I had a friend in Tulsa who managed a record store and I was the first guy he called whenever a Rodney Crowell record would come in. We played that song in cowboy clubs. They’d get up and dance. So much of it comes down to that old Dick Clark American Bandstand thing: it has a good beat and you can dance to it. If they dance to it, they drink, and the bars are happy and you get to come back. I used to have fun taking songs and trying to put a country dance twist to them.
“Brown Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison
I was threatened by my wife to do this song. She said, “If you’re going to do a record like this, you better do ‘Brown Eyed Girl.'” We played Jacksonville, Florida, with Brooks & Dunn and across from the arena was a big bar. I don’t remember the name of it, but it was half open outside and it was big. We ended up onstage jamming with the house band and someone asked for “Brown Eyed Girl,” which is one of Janine’s favorite songs. I said, “I can’t do it.” She said, “I’ll whisper the lyrics to you.” By the time we got to the chorus, the whole place is singing the song. It’s just an infectious hook.
“If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes
I spent a lot of time growing up in South Arkansas and you get a good dose of R&B. That’s what you get on the radio down there. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs. Simply Red came out with their version and they nailed it too, but this was one I threw out there just to see if I could do it.
“You Don’t Know Me,” Eddy Arnold
[Before Brooks & Dunn,] we were playing bars in Oklahoma, and Jamie Oldaker, who at the time was drumming for Clapton, called me one Sunday morning and said he stopped at a 7-11 store and there was a tear-off entrance form for a thing called the Marlboro National Talent Round-up. He said, “I entered your name.” I said, “Dude, that’s so uncool.” But he said, “Let’s put together a band and do it!” So we get a response back from the contest and they said, “You qualified for the regionals.” We did those in Tulsa and won that and ended up in Nashville at the national finals. It was like 5,500 bands and we won it. That was November 1988. We did “Holed Up in Some Honky-Tonk,” a Dean Dillon song that never saw the light of day, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” and “You Don’t Know Me,” and that one got the best response. I’ve sang it ever since.