Ronnie Dunn's own honky tonk time machine is now boarding, and it's taking listeners and some of today's talents back to the 1980s.
The veteran songwriter and Brooks & Dunn member (alongside Kix Brooks) dialed in on a bygone era in country music while recording his newest solo album, 100 Proof Neon.
"We went about that several ways," Dunn told Wide Open Country. "We treat the micing and the acoustics on the technical end like they would back in the '80s. And thinking more jukebox like an old Wurlitzer or something and how everything would come out of a couple of speakers. We doubled the guitars on certain things to make it seem like it's wider.
"Musically, we were consciously thinking Johnny Paycheck sounds, Johnny Lee back in the day and a handful of artists out of that era and how those songs sounded," he continued. "And with me coming from Oklahoma and Texas, the dance premise. There's a song on here called 'Two Steppers, Waltzes & Shuffles.' Those rhythms and beats are pretty much etched in stone down there with that kind of music. The theory behind that with the bars is if you kept them dancing, they would drink more and you'd get hired again. It came out of that more than anything. That was a big part of the culture. It still is in places like Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and California."
Just as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard allowed Dunn to sit under their learning trees, Dunn jumps at opportunities to work with such young talents as former The Voice runner-up and fellow Texan Jake Worthington.
"He's real country, I mean like 101," Dunn said of his duet partner on "Honky Tonk Town." "He sounds like Lefty Frizzell to me when I talk to him, the way he phrases. He's the real deal."
The album also connects Dunn to "Road to Abilene's" guest vocalist, Parker McCollum, and Drake Milligan, an Elvis Presley enthusiast and one of the co-writers of "If Love Ever Comes My Way Again." It continues the same trend as Brooks & Dunn's 2019 album Reboot, which teamed the Country Music Hall of Fame duo with the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Luke Combs and Cody Johnson.
"Back when [Brooks & Dunn] was up and rolling on the labels, every project like this that came along where we had the opportunity to call in someone new or work with someone else, they wouldn't let us do it," Dunn said. "It was frustrating because we'd really love to do a song with [Dwight Yoakam] or [Garth Brooks] even if he called, but we didn't get to do that. It feels like in today's era, it's opened up. Music has opened up. The rules are not quite as stringent."
Within lyrics that glance back at musical history, you'll find elements of Dunn's own story. For example, "Honky Tonk Skin's" sub-theme of Saturday night sinners becoming Sunday morning saints alludes to him getting kicked out of seminary after being caught singing secular music in bars.
"They didn't teach the Saturday sinners part where I went to college," Dunn joked. "We were out living it as much as we could."
The same line that reminds us why Dunn delivers songs instead of sermons describes his long-held sonic mission that flies in the face of misconceptions that country music existed in a vacuum before the 21st century.
"People always asked with Brooks & Dunn years ago, they said, 'What's your goal? What would you want to be?'," Dunn explained. "Obviously, you want to obtain longevity some way through the music, but I said, 'If I really had my druthers on that concept, it'd be a cross between Merle Haggard and the Rolling Stones.' Of course, neither one of them are we able to live up to legitimately. It's still fun to think about how I can write a Rolling Stones song. But even Mick Jagger talks about when he sits to write a lot of the Stones stuff, he'll put post-its on the wall in his office, reminding himself not to do country songs."
Amid throwbacks to halcyon days, there's a complete change of pace in "The Blade": a story of a mending heart first recorded in 2015 by Ashley Monroe.
"I got my hands on it about the same time that Ashley did and got distracted and was out doing some shows," Dunn said. "I came back, and they told us that they were going to do it [as a title track for Monroe]. I had to sit back and kind of let it run its course to an extent with Ashley before picking it up. That's one you just kind of go: 'Whatever sound I'm going for here, I have to do that song.' It's just so rare that something that's that well written comes along. I'm out there talking honky tonks, jukeboxes, dancing or whatever, and a song like this comes along and it's kind of a showstopper for a minute."
In all, Dunn's 100 Proof Neon album finds him exploring the great music that laid the groundwork for the '90s country boom. Despite their intentional retro vibe, these songs shouldn't be dismissed as retreads, in large part because of special guests raised on Brooks & Dunn and driven by the same desire to push the familiar into the future that set the group apart.
100 Proof Neon Tracklist
1. "Broken Neon Hearts"
2. "Honky Tonk Town" (feat. Jake Worthington)
3. "Two Steppers, Waltzes & Shuffles"
4. "She's Why I Drink Whiskey"
5. "Where The Neon Lies"
6. "The Blade"
7. "If Love Ever Comes My Way Again"
8. "Something' I Can't Have"
9. "Honky Tonk Skin"
10. "Road To Abilene" (feat. Parker McCollum)
11. "Good Bartender"
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