THE HONKY TONK TRUTH

Imagine: It's the late '70s. Ronnie Dunn is singing on the stage of a dark Texas honky-tonk. A chicken-wire curtain separates his band from the beer-bottle-chucking patrons. He's playing for "the door." He and the band leave that night with $11 each, which they pocket after hauling their own gear off the stage and loading it into Ronnie's Mercury Capri.

About 300 miles away on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Kix Brooks is sitting in the doorway of The Old Absinthe House singing to bar patrons and fending off hecklers walking by on the street. Kix plays all night for a small fee plus tips.

What if, after the night's performance, the devil himself made a trip to Texas, then to New Orleans, and appeared to Ronnie and Kix. At three in the morning. What if he said to each of them, separately, since they had never met, Have I got a deal for you ... You can be a star. You can have your dream. But you have to share. People will sometimes think you are one thing. Or they might even confuse you for him. They might think you live together. I'll give you what you want, but it comes with ... him.

What would they have said?

Hell, yeah.

It took over 10 years. But the devil finally showed up.

Fast-forward to Brooks & Dunn's first visit to the same Bourbon Street neighborhood as headliners in 1992. Kix led Ronnie and the gang on a bar crawl of the French Quarter, dropping into his old haunts. While making their way through the streets, Kix stopped abruptly in front of a karaoke bar and peered in the window. It was lively, packed with people.

"Don't even think about it!" Ronnie said.

Kix asked Eric Shinault, their tour manager at the time, to go in and see if they had any Brooks & Dunn songs on their karaoke machine. "Check the jukebox, too!" Kix said. "We don't need the words! Or maybe we do."

Eric returned triumphant. The bar had "Brand New Man" on its machine. "C'mon, Dunn!" Kix said, grabbing his partner by the elbow.

Kix dragged Ronnie to the stage. Ronnie was laughing so hard he was doubled over. Somehow, between hoots and heckling from their entourage, they managed to finish the song. As they walked off the stage, they heard a woman say to her friends, "Well, they sure look like 'em. But they can't sing a lick."

Ronnie says that growing up there were always guitars around the house. He remembers one in particular: a top-of-the-line Martin acoustic that was his dad, Jesse's, favorite.

One night his father had a jam session with his friends. He came home drunk and Ronnie's parents began to argue. Ronnie, who was 12 years old, heard a scream and a crash in the bedroom. He walked in and was horrified to see that his father had opened the Martin guitar case in front of Ronnie's mother - and stomped the guitar to bits.

When Ronnie and his new wife, Janine, moved to Nashville in early 1990, Janine's good friends, none other than June Carter and Johnny Cash, invited the Dunns to live in a log home on their property in Hendersonville, Tenn. The Cashes would drop by occasionally, bringing a small gift or a piece of furniture. Johnny even gave Ronnie one of his suits.

"Here comes this black Mercedes in front of the house," Ronnie says. "Tires squealing, all this stuff. Here he comes, a big rock 'n' roll stop in front of the house. And he gets out of the car - you know how reckless he is - and big! He pulls this suit out, hands it to me and says, 'Here. Got ya a suit. Don't let June hear about it. She'll kill me! She knows how valuable those suits are!' "

A few darts later, and after changing the bell bottoms to boot-cut legs, Ronnie wore the suit during the photo shoot for "Brand New Man."

We were in the studio recording 'Mama Don't Get Dressed Up for Nothin,' " says guitar player Brent Mason. "We had it really rocking. Ronnie was yelling, 'Yeah! It's like the Stones! C'mon! Do it like Keith Richards!'

"Then somebody says, 'Hey, Merle Haggard's coming in.' Ronnie's whole demeanor changed. He was like a kid caught blasting the stereo in the house and Dad is standing in the doorway."

It's Sunday afternoon. Kix Brooks is standing in his driveway, unloading a suitcase from his car. A minivan pulls into the long, uphill driveway.

"Excuse me?" the driver says, rolling down his window. "Don't they live around here?"

"Come again?" Kix says, putting down the suitcase.

"You know, Brooks & Dunn," the man says. "Don't they live around here?"

"I heard one of them does," Kix says. "Try Stuart Street. Three blocks down."

In late 2000, Brooks & Dunn were playing the Las Vegas Hilton, the site of Elvis' famed concerts. In honor of the King, Ronnie sang "Blue Christmas." With a hand-lettered cue card in full view, he sat on a stool next to Kix and started belting out the tune.

In the middle of the song, Kix left the stage and returned holding a rhinestone-studded Elvis cape. He draped it around Ronnie's shoulders. Ronnie gave him a smirk, then tossed the cape into the audience.

Production manager Randy "Baja" Fletcher gasped. "Oh God! That really is Elvis' cape." They had gotten the Hilton people to take it out of the vault.

The next night, Ronnie sang "Blue Christmas" again, but this time, Kix did not put a cape around Ronnie's shoulders.

"We're no longer allowed to touch Elvis' things," Kix explained.

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