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Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn looked to their own lives for inspiration on their new album, Red Dirt Road -- memories of coming of age in the Vietnam era, heeding the call of the gospel and growing up in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.
"I think the album's a little more ... honest, for lack of a better word," says Kix.
For example, memories of Ronnie's religious school background helped inspire the hit title tune. He attended Bible college in Texas until, as a budding music minister, he was asked to leave Abilene Christian for playing a different kind of music in the honky-tonks at night. Such extremes were not unusual in his volatile household as a child.
"My mother is a real strict Baptist, and my dad was quite the opposite," deadpans Ronnie, now 50. "All their lives, it was just push-pull, push-pull. That's why I put it's where I drank my first beer and where I found Jesus back to back in the lyrics. It freaks the conservatives out."
Many of the lyrics are literally true. "When I was in the second grade, we moved to a little oil town called El Dorado, Arkansas," recalls Ronnie. "I was raised on Rural Route 3, just like the song says. There was a red dirt road that led to my cousins' farm about five miles away.
"That's where we did all our growing up. We learned how to drive back on those dirt roads. We'd sneak the car out, get caught, go camp out and drink."
Meanwhile, a young Kix Brooks was traveling the roads near his grandfather's house in Shreveport, La., where he lived for a time. Each fall, eager to watch the leaves change, they traveled to El Dorado, Ark. -- the very town where Ronnie lived. "It's not like the leaves were any different where we were," laughs Kix. "But if you'd drive up to El Dorado, it was special."
Another piece of reminiscence inspired the Red Dirt Road song "When We Were Kings," about a carefree teen drafted to fight in Vietnam.
"The whole thing is about when my friends and I were first getting cars, and hung out at Wallace Lake Dam," says Kix. "It's really about that time in your life that was so special, and realizing that person or thing is gone now."
Kix and Ronnie were both thinking a lot about those growing experiences while making their new album -- just one way in which the duo was more in sync than ever before.
"For some reason we came together and were just able to focus better on this album as a whole," says Ronnie. "But there was also a little bit of a reckless-abandon attitude, too."
Perhaps the best example of that sense of daring is "Holy War," an unlisted, or "hidden," track that focuses on religious intolerance by decrying attacks on the Jews, the gays, the junkies.
"I love being able to say that kind of stuff," says Ronnie. "I wrote the song and played it for my wife, Janine, one day in the living room. We'd already finished the record, but she said, 'You need to go cut that right now.' So I called the guys and we put it together. I just love the chorus and the choir."
The sound of a choir is nothing new to Ronnie, who was called to the gospel while a senior in high school. He was sitting in a tent revival when he became "overwhelmed with emotion," he remembers. "I just broke down."
Ronnie's religious conversion astonished him, but he got an even bigger surprise the following year. "My dad, who was superintendent of a pipeline company, took me in his office one day and said, 'Let me tell you something. I was in prison years ago.' "
At 17, the Ronnie's dad sneaked into the Air Force, where he eventually got into a brutal fight with a captain over a girl. He spent seven years at Leavenworth.
For several years, Ronnie was raised by his grandmother, "probably the most influential person in my life. I was the first grandchild, and I guess she figured she was gonna make up for all that guilt on me."
Kix, meanwhile, was sent off to military school. The experience taught him "how to be an all-pro screw-up," he jokes. "I was a lightweight screw-up when I went in. When I got out, I was a trained professional! I learned from the best."
While Ronnie's hard-drinking father had nonetheless never kept beer in the house, Kix's dad kept a counter full of alcohol and carried a travel bar. He peppered his conversation with curse words and "smoked cigars until he had ashes in his teeth," says Kix -- but he also helped establish St. Luke's Methodist Church in Shreveport.
"I just loved to watch him go toe-to-toe with preachers, calling 'em on quotes from every book of the Bible," Kix remembers. "He knew the Bible backwards and forwards, loved Jesus, and didn't see any problem with cussin' and drinkin' and still stayin' right with the Lord. I never questioned that balance until I got a little older."
After leaving Bible college, Ronnie moved to Tulsa and got to know '70s rock legend Leon Russell. Leon's Pentecostal rock 'n' roll sound is resurrected on Red Dirt Road's scorching "I Used to Know That Song by Heart." Ronnie sees it as a welcome stylistic stretch for the duo.
"It was like, 'Forget it. I'm not going to play by the standards of a format. We're not going to stay boxed in,' " he says. "It feels great to be able to step out and push the gas a little bit harder, and try to do things vocally that I wouldn't do in the past."
With both strengthening their vocal skills, sometimes it's a toss-up as to who gets to sing lead on what. For example, Kix was given "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl," written by a songwriter friend who thought he'd sound great on it. Ronnie recognized it as a potentially big summertime hit, and said, "I think I'd sound great on that."
Ronnie got the song -- but Kix got to sing "Good Cowboy," another cut, in exchange.
"And at this point," concedes Kix, "if it's gonna be a big hit, I'll let Ronnie have it. It's not bad for the career."
Using the past as a springboard into the second major chapter of their career, country's hottest-selling duo really has found life at both ends of that Red Dirt Road. There's no telling where it will lead.
-- Story by Alanna Nash