Thursday, May 3, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ronnie Dunn barely moves on his stool while singing the new song “Only in America,” and the tapping foot of partner Kix Brooks makes him appear only slightly more interested.
This isnt a portrait of superstar country music act Brooks & Dunn grown bored. Its two hardworking men doing the repetitive grunt work of rehearsing with their band.
Showmanship comes later.
Brooks & Dunn, famous for such hits as “Boot Scootin Boogie” and “My Maria,” have sold more than 22 million albums. Yet each of their five studio albums since their 5-million-selling debut, “Brand New Man,” in 1991 has sold less than its predecessor. “Tightrope” from 1999 and “If You See Her” from 1998 havent sold 500,000, the mark needed for a gold record.
With their new album, “Steers & Stripes,” and a tour dubbed the “Neon Circus and Wild West Show,” Brooks & Dunn are trying to prove theres still lots of fire left.
“People start to look for that when youve been around awhile complacency,” Mr. Dunn, 47, says after the rehearsal at a Nashville amphitheater.
“Thats not what we want. We want them to see that were really hungry and we love what we do. As often as we fail to achieve it, were really perfectionists. Were shooting as high as we can go.”
To that end, their tour, which plays San Bernadino, Mountain View and Sacramento in California this weekend, is a festival featuring a comedian, circus acts and opening acts Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry and Keith Urban.
“I think our audience has come to expect a lot of bells and whistles and fun and gags and all that,” Mr. Brooks says. “So weve beefed it up and thrown some money back into what were doing.”
The first single from “Steers & Stripes,” the rocking “Aint Nothing Bout You,” went straight to No. 1. Its the first sign that taking seven months to record the album, instead of doing it in a couple of months between tour dates, is paying off.
“At this point, 20 million people already have Brooks & Dunn records,” says Mr. Brooks, 45. “So when a new Brooks & Dunn record comes out, if you havent made some music thats really melting their butter, theyre going to pick up something else just because they might have three Brooks & Dunn records, or theyve got the greatest hits.
“We want it to be like Clapton did with ‘Journeyman,” Mr. Dunn says. “Youve seen it over the years, artists that are real long in the tooth come up with something that you just go, ‘That doesnt sound like him; thats fresh and thats new. I want to buy that.”
Mr. Brooks and Mr. Dunn were struggling solo artists until record executive Tim DuBois urged them to join forces in 1990. They reached a milestone of sorts last year when their “Tightrope” tour did great business despite the albums poor sales. Radio stations were unenthusiastic about the singles off the album.
As a live act, they always had wanted to get to the “Jimmy Buffett level,” with a reputation so good they could always draw fans.
The slip in sales and radio play hurt their pride.
“Tightrope” got lost in the shuffle as their longtime record label, Arista, was being consolidated into RCA. Also, some of the material, such as the single “Beer Thirty,” seemed like retreads of past hits.
“Every now and then you go back to the same watering hole,” says a slightly abashed Mr. Dunn, who wrote the song. “I knew I was sinning when I did it.”
His partner defends him: “Ronnie writes that style of song real good, and hes going to write one of those now and then. Its a good Ronnie Dunn song.”
Their competitive juices really got flowing in October at the Country Music Association Awards. For the first time in nine years, they didnt win the award for best vocal duo, which went to Montgomery Gentry.
“I think its kind of lit a fire under us,” Mr. Brooks says. “Its like, ‘OK, can we win those awards again? Lets go see.”

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