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Ronnie Dunn rubs his weary eyes as he sits in the Las Vegas airport, waiting for an early-morning flight back to Nashville. Seated next to him is his partner of a dozen years, Kix Brooks, chatting on his cellphone to wife Barbara.
They're returning from the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, an annual stop for the duo. Ronnie is especially jazzed by this latest trip, admittedly because he padded his wallet with some casino winnings.
"One of the casinos gave me a marker!" shouts the normally laid-back singer. "I really didn't know what that was at first, but it's like a line of credit. I can use it at some other time. That was pretty cool, because I usually never win anything out there."
The truth is, Ronnie and Kix come up aces much more often than not. And this past year is no exception - their current album, Red Dirt Road, will likely surpass the million-sales mark, they received the CMA Vocal Duo award for the eleventh time in 12 years and they're coming off their massive Neon Circus and Wild West Show tour, one of country's top road shows.
What's more, their latest hit, "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl," continues to rocket up the charts.
Both guys know that they've hit the career jackpot.
"The longer you're in this business, the more you realize how lucky you are, how fortunate you are to be here," says Ronnie.
And Ronnie and Kix plan to be here for a mighty long time - but they note that they will be scaling back for their upcoming Red Dirt Road Tour, which kicks off this month. After years of putting on what Kix has called "the greatest show on 18 wheels," referring to the Neon Circus tours, the guys are now taking a different direction.
The Neon Circus atmosphere - which featured a big top, sideshow performers like the World's Strongest Man, and exhibits - will be replaced with a more intimate setting. And they'll be adding smaller cities to the tour.
"We played every big venue over and over, but this year we want to touch those markets that we haven't been to in a while," says Ronnie of those areas that couldn't accommodate the big circus show. "We will still visit the large markets, but that will be later in the summer."
Kix adds that fan feedback - especially on the duo's website - played a huge part in the decision.
"We have heard you loud and clear," he declares. "But even though we'll be scaling back in size, we're not going to change much in terms of the show itself. We'll still be rockin' the house!" But for how much longer? Kix is 48, and Ronnie is 50 - and both have children who are entering adulthood. Ronnie's oldest daughter, Whitney, works at a top design firm in Atlanta, while Kix's daughter Molly attends a prestigious art school out of state. Ronnie and wife Janine still have two children at home, son Jesse and daughter Haley; Kix and Barbara are keeping busy with teenage son Eric.
As their kids grow, it's only natural that Kix and Ronnie's thoughts turn to spending more time at the old homesteads. But such thoughts appear to be a long way off.
"I'm not really feeling the 'empty nest' thing yet," admits Ronnie. "Sure, I miss my daughter, but at the same time, I'm proud and excited for her. It's good for her to get out and start having a life of her own."
And Ronnie's definitely not ready for the retired life. "I don't know what I would do," he confesses. "Playing golf every day sounds pretty boring to me."
And don't even mention grandkids - not yet, anyway. "That will be great someday, but right now I'm in denial about it," he laughs. Ronnie pauses and flashes a reflective smile.
"Actually, I'm at home a lot more than I was 10 years ago, when Kix and I were in our early days," he says. "The biggest change is really the relationship with my children - as they get older, they become more of a friend. Jesse and I like to do the same things: hunt, fish, watch sports. And Haley is getting real involved with horseback riding and jumping." He laughs. "Now that hobby might end up killing me!"
Kix acknowledges that he heard retirement rumors back in 1999, after their album Tight Rope generated disappointing reviews and sales. (It remains their only CD that has failed to sell a million.) It was time to pack it in, many critics suggested.
"But we've never felt like quitting," declares Kix. "We have always said if we can make it two more years, we'll be OK. Then two more years come around and we say it all over again."
"The only way we would retire," says Ronnie, "is if we ever see a heavy drop in record sales or concert tickets. But that just hasn't happened."
They're not only staying in the game, they're trying a new one - acting. Kix and Ronnie landed small roles in an episode of the TV series Las Vegas. And while that proved a different kind of kick, don't expect them to switch careers anytime soon.
"When it airs, we're going to be reminded why we're in the music business and not the acting business," notes Ronnie with a hearty laugh. "But this show was so nice about asking us, and Kix and I had fun doing it. It was something we had never done before."
Just then, Ronnie leans back and cracks a joke about the duo's retirement.
"Well, maybe when we're 70," he says playfully. "I see Willie Nelson out there at that age, wearing his tennis shoes and having a great time. There's no age limit on this. So why not just keep on going?"
-- Story by Bob Paxman