Garth Brooks + Ronnie Dunn Weren’t Always This Good of Friends [Interview]
The two country music legends were chasing similar bars and honky-tonks near Tulsa, Okla., in the mid-80s, but they didn't actually cross paths until an International Finals Rodeo gig. Years later, they'd shake hands for the first time at a country music awards show.
"The cool thing about how a lot of people meet, is our wives meet each other and —" Brooks begins, before Dunn cuts in.
"One of the many things that I owe this guy right now, is I got to keep my name!"
"We got chatty, outgoing wives that are taking care of business," Dunn shares, and they both start laughing.
In 2023, there's a mutual admiration that supports a deep friendship, but echoes of a more competitive spirit remain. Remember, Brooks brought an athlete's mentality to the format, and Dunn had seen too many opportunities wash away to worry about much beyond the song he and Kix Brooks were working to radio, or the venue Brooks & Dunn had filled that night.
Taste of Country asked Brooks and Dunn (Not Brooks & Dunn, which would signal Kix's participation) about those early days spent chasing the same radio airplay, venues, awards and even stage names.
In the 1990s, both future Country Music Hall of Famers would find themselves together in the CMA or ACM Entertainer of the Year category 11 times.
The best comparison today is Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs, who talk with one another regularly about the pressures of being at the top, where they both sit. One gets a sense that these two cowboys didn't open up in the same kind of way 30 years ago.
"Rodeo Man" is Garth Brooks and Ronnie Dunn's new duet from Brooks' just-released Time Traveler album. They talked to Taste of Country Nights host Evan Paul for this interview.
You were gunning for the same radio airplay and the same venues at the same time. Was it ever competitive?
RD (laughs): One of my favorite sayings is, "There's room in the business for everybody." Everybody says that, and then behind the curtain we're going, "Get me a faster horse!"
GB: Amen. Yeah, we're sitting at the ACMs, we're both up for Entertainer of the Year, you guys win it, I'm staring at you going up the steps ... Half of you is happy, but half of you is not happy. It's just so good, but I can think of guys, other artists that it felt like we were competing with. For you guys [Brooks & Dunn], I always felt like I was pulling for you.
Did you ever chase after the same song?
GB: Yeah, about six months ago (both laugh).
RD: So I write this song, I send it to my buddy here and say, "Listen to it." Next thing you know, he's cutting it.
GB: I texted him and said, "I don't want to get in on your song, I don't want to do anything. I would take a look at that first verse and kind of see — the door opened a little bit and I was lucky enough to get to sing with Ronnie Dunn."
Tell me about the first time you heard "Rodeo Man." How did it hit you?
GB: I just texted him back one word: "Smash." It just felt so good.
Cody Johnson is about the only other guy putting the rodeo back in country music. Why is that important in 2023?
RD: Holy cow, I'm wearing my Cheyenne Rodeo buckle. I'm as proud of this — I've been wearing it since Day 1!
GB: I've got mine, yeah.
RD: That's part of our culture that we came up in. Oklahoma, Texas, all that area. Kix and I thought, when we first got together, we're probably not going to go any further than Texas, Oklahoma, maybe a little bit of Louisiana. That'd be fine. We'd last three years if we're lucky. But it's all just that culture.
GB: We owe our careers to the men and women in the hats, from everything to "Much Too Young," "Rodeo," "Beaches of Cheyenne" ... all that stuff. The whole rodeo part, that's the greatest thing. When we talk about "Friends in Low Places," it's, who do you want in there? You want to weigh heavily on military families and we want to weigh heavy on rodeo families, because they're just good people that just want to treat people like they want to be treated.
(To Garth) Is it true that you almost had to change your name because of Brooks & Dunn?
Yeah, when we got signed to Capitol Records, another artist was Kix Brooks on there, a solo deal. So they said, "We're going to sign you, but we're going to need you to change your name because we got Kix."
One of the many things that I owe this guy right now is I got to keep my name, because (a record label executive) found Ronnie and put Ronnie and Kix together. So Kix left Capitol, went over to Arista and they said, "You're clear if you still want to use your name." I said, "Oh cool, yeah, Garth Brooks?" They said, "No, we want you to change your first name." (laughs).
What the hell's a Garth?
RD: To Henry (laughs).
Ronnie, when you and Kix dropped "Brand New Man," Garth was two years into his career. Did you have the same name concerns?
RD: Yeah, we sat down and tried to do the same thing. Coyote Brothers, the Cactus Brothers, whatever. We knew it had to have a Western slant to it. So I went away to Oklahoma, visited some relatives, and came back and Kix had sent the idea to his brother-in-law who owned an ad agency up in Maine. That logo came back, Brooks & Dunn, and the way it stacked up artistically, it's like, "OK, I'm good." I didn't care. I needed a job.
GB: Of course we had Holly Dunn at the time. too, so we had all the last names going all at once.
Finally, Garth, congrats on the bar in downtown Nashville. (To Ronnie), did anyone ever approach you about a Brooks & Dunn bar?
GB: What a great idea!
RD: Yeah, yeah. We're just afraid to be in the bar business. We don't have as much money as Garth. (Garth laughs). He can sneak around and take a risk that we can't.
GB: A Brooks & Dunn bar, we need it. Just do a license deal where it doesn't cost you any money.
RD: OK, sounds like a good business to be in. You front the money.
(To Garth) Your bar is a few floors high. Can you give up a floor?
GB: Oh, hell no! (all laugh).
RD: Not a building tall enough in town!
10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Garth Brooks
Gallery Credit: Carena Liptak