Ronnie Dunn may be best known for “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “My Maria,” and a 20-year Nashville career as the latter half of the most successful duo in music history. But Dunn is more than a commercial country crooner creating Grammy-nominated tunes from the center of Tennessee. Dunn is a Texan.
“I really look at the world, I feel like, through Texas eyes,” he tells me. “Now, if I’m pinned down and asked to have to define that, I’m not sure I can.”
This March, Ronnie Dunn will return to the heart of Texas as a 2013 inductee of the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Dunn will be inducted alongside West Texan Sonny Curtis and the late Roger Miller, completing a trifecta that represents the very wide, often romanticized, Texas music landscape.
On an Austin-to-Nashville phone call, Dunn and I spend a good 20 minutes discussing Texas sensibility, songwriting heritage, and how he has maintained those roots during his decades long Nashville career.
Though it’s not something he can necessarily “pin down” into one line of his next hit song, Dunn’s Texas connection is true, and nothing short of genuine.
It takes only a moment on the phone to peel back layers of Tennessee and expose Dunn’s true Texas identity. In our interview, he is quick to state that he is “exceedingly proud of the Texas music scene and the history,” and just as quick to quip about some of the scene’s most firmly planted roots. “We need to do work up in the Panhandle a little bit,” he says with a light laugh.
“There’s a certain nonsense and character and swagger that Texas has that no one else does,” Dunn says, characterizing his own subtle humor and heartfelt discourse.
"I really got turned on and got serious about what we call country music when I heard Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger record back in college in Abilene."
“There’s a certain [Texas] sensibility,” he continues. “I was just going off on my guys in my band. I said guys, you know when I sing ‘I’m a singer in a cowboy band,’ that doesn’t mean I’m a rodeo cowboy or I get up and get on my horse every day, but there’s a certain sensibility to that that’s innate in me and what I do and how I see things and how I express myself in music.”
His song “Singer In A Cowboy Band,” tells the story of Dunn’s own lesser-known music journey, which began in “Texas beer joints,” and saw “every dive and joint in Oklahoma,” before he landed in Nashville and built the 20-year legacy of Brooks & Dunn.
The tune, released on his 2011 self-titled solo album, is what Dunn calls “a 101” and a “road map” for his decorated career. It’s a career that is as unapologetically country — and Texan — as the singer himself, spurred on by none other than the Red Headed Stranger.
“I really got turned on and got serious about what we call country music when I heard Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger record back in college in Abilene,” he says. “And Jerry Jeff and those guys. And I know I’m digging back…but that’s where it all came from with me.”
“I used to could tell you every guy in the Lost Gonzo Band and all that,” he continues, “and around the Armadillo [World Headquarters] and all that movement in Austin, that was just as exciting as anything I remember happening on the music scene and front for me.”
Though Dunn’s career took him to Nashville in the ‘80s, he is quick to remind that he hasn’t lost sight of the Texas music scene during his commercial country career. “I’ve been on the bus for 20 years, rolling through Texas most of that time.”
In fact, Dunn is still in tune with the Texas songwriting tradition, its mainstays and contemporary icons, like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Hayes Carll. “I just started doing some stuff with Ray Wylie Hubbard, writing for this last record,” he says. “Some of the guys turned me on to ‘Snake Farm’ and some other stuff that he had done. I love that.”
Dunn also tells me he’s just written a song that I imagine could be inspired as much by Willie Nelson and Ray Wylie Hubbard as by his own Texas identity.
“It’s called ‘They Still Play Country Music in Texas,” he says. “It just takes a stab at some of the stuff that’s going on today, and some of the stuff that’s inherently Texan at the same time. But you know, Texas is progressive at the same time as well.”
Sounds like ahead of his induction into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, Dunn has written the next great Texas outlaw anthem.
But what does being honored alongside Curtis and Miller mean to the Nashville-based artist? He answers with all the character and Texas swagger you’d expect.
“It means there’s something really good in the water down there for music, especially country music.”
The Texas Heritage Songwriters' Hall of Fame Awards Show is March 3, 2013 at ACL Live.