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As Kix Brooks & Ronnie Dunn embark on their third headlining tour with their popular Neon Circus and Wild West Show, all the stresses and anxieties that were there the first two years have magically disappeared.
"No Ã¢ÂÂ¦ in a word!" laughs Kix. "Ronnie and I stay in high-anxiety mode. We're constantly crossing our legs Ã¢ÂÂ and our fingers Ã¢ÂÂ and hopin' for the best. We don't take anything for granted."
Ronnie agrees, but says that having some success under their belts does ease the uncertainty of the tour Ã¢ÂÂ a little.
"Well, it feels a lot better knowing we'll be able to pull it off Ã¢ÂÂ because we've done it," he explains. "We've practiced it now. And the crew and everybody involved is very capable.
"But every year Ã¢ÂÂ every single year Ã¢ÂÂ looking at the roster of all the acts that are on the road, we go, 'We're not gonna sell tickets.' It's gonna be just unbelievably competitive."
Fortunately, there's an occasional sign that things just might be OK.
"I just got an email that said they've pre-sold 5,000 tickets for the April 25 tour opener in Grand Rapids," continues Ronnie. "Selling 5,000 tickets before they've officially gone on sale eases some of the concern about how we're gonna do."
It's a good bet those tickets are selling because fans know that Kix and Ronnie put on a great show and because they've put together a super slate of performers to be with them. With established acts Rascal Flatts and Brad Paisley onboard and up-and-comers Aaron Lines and Jeff Bates rounding out the bill, the tour promises to be a whale of a day's entertainment.
And the recently engaged Cledus T. Judd, the Circus' designated ringmaster, is back again to keep things hoppin' between acts. "We thought we had gotten rid of him," chuckles Kix. "But he's a big star now with CMT, so he came back to us with a little more cash than he's paid us in the past and we said, 'What the heck Ã¢ÂÂ¦ come on!' "
While both Kix and Ronnie love joking at Cledus' expense, they're quick to admit how much he means to the tour. "Cledus missed some shows last year because his mother was ill," explains Ronnie. "And we found out what a long afternoon it is when he's not there to keep people up in those 15-minute lulls between set changes."
Of course, Cledus isn't the only clown in the circus. And the guys try to keep it fresh Ã¢ÂÂ and fun Ã¢ÂÂ by adding more each year.
"Originally we had a few clowns to distract people and entertain 'em a little bit in between acts," notes Kix. "This year, we have a world-renowned hypnotist that hypnotizes the whole audience, and the world's strongest man."
"We've gone from having rodeo clowns doing temporary tattoos and stuff, which we still have, to bringing in some really great, fun entertainment. So from that standpoint, it's bigger this year than it's ever been."
And Kix promises the hypnotist won't add to the tour's revenues by having audience members deposit their wallets onstage. "I don't think that's gonna be an issue," he says, then grins. "But if everyone walked out of there naked, it wouldn't surprise me!"
While Kix and Ronnie both enjoy the laughs they have on tour, their most vivid memories of last year's Circus are more serious.
"The most moving thing I have felt in the years I've been in the music business was the impact of 'Only in America' on people's faces at the intro of the show," recalls Ronnie. "I don't think we'll ever be able to top the way the show opened last year in terms of emotional impact."
For Kix, it was seeing other acts on the tour come into their own.
"There are times with every act when they get to open for those huge crowds and really get to feel what it's like to get hold of a really big audience," he says. "Last year with Chris Cagle and Trick Pony, I culd see the wind in their sails when those big crowds would get to rockin'. It's really cool to be a part of that, to see talent and offer 'em an opportunity, then watch 'em make the best of it."
That's exactly what Ronnie and Kix have done with the opportunities they've been given. They've been phenomenally successful with both live shows and recordings, and their new album, Red Dirt Road, is set for a summer release.
But sometimes, even they find it hard to believe how big the Neon Circus has become.
"When we started, our goal was to sell a half million records and get a gold record," says Ronnie. "And we were pretty happy with that. But it just continues to grow year after year. We just keep puttin' one foot in front of the other and taking a step at a time.
"So far, it works."