Country music icon Ronnie Dunn released his new solo album, 100 Proof Neon, on Friday (July 29).
The 11-track project finds Dunn purposely leaning into the ’80s and ’90s country style he is so well known for. With duets with Jake Worthington on “Honky Tonk Town” and Parker McCollum on “Road To Abilene,” 100 Proof Neon takes the listener back in time to a roadside honky tonk in Texas, complete with neon lights, a jukebox, and plenty of whiskey.
Dunn recently spoke with MusicRow about the project and what is keeping him as “busy as [he’s] ever been” these days.
MusicRow: You set out to create an ’80s and ’90s country-inspired album with this project. How did you go about that?
I [looked for] and wrote songs that sounded like the era I came out of before I got to Nashville, the stuff that influenced me and the sounds that we worked on when we were out there playing as cover bands in the clubs and honky tonks.
The most fun part for me is getting the right guys in the studio, like Brent Mason, Gary Morris, Mark Hill and Jeff King. We would just comfortably sit around and say, “Where do we want to take this?” We wanted to keep a contemporary technical sound so that it keeps up with what’s going on today, but at the same time, keep it in the jukebox, retro vein. It’s a balancing act, but those guys are so talented. They’re artists in and of themselves. The chemistry is really magic. I wish every fan out there could be privy to what it feels like to write a song, get in the studio and watch it come to life.
You have “Where The Neon Lies” on this album, which Triston Marez released with you as a featured vocalist last year. How did that song find you?
That song came from Triston’s camp. Alex Torrez called me to see if I wanted to sing with Triston. I said, “Well bring the song over. That will dictate what we do.” He did and I fell in love with it. It’s a great song. I had asked Alex going in, “If nothing happens with this, can I record it?” Thankfully, Triston got some good attention with it, too.
You have Parker McCollum featured on “Road To Abilene,” a solo write. Tell me about writing that song.
I went to college in Abilene. I was born like 60 miles south of there in a little town called Coleman. I got involved in the little music scene around there. This song is just about leaving Abilene and everything behind to go chase that six-string dream.
You also have Jake Worthington featured on the song “Honky Tonk Town.” How did you get to know him?
I was involved with that Hardy project, Hixtape. We did a song called “Jonesin'” with Jake Owen and Worthington. Towards the end of the song, Worthington’s voice comes in and it’s like, “Holy cow. This is like the reincarnation of Lefty Frizzell.” So the first name that came up when we were talking about “Honky Tonk Town” was Worthington. [We decided] to have some fun with this album and do a duet or two. We wanted to find a name that wasn’t just obvious out there, but somebody that can really do the part. Jake just killed it.
On that note, you seem to have an eye for discovering new talent. You just launched your new publishing company and signed a lot of new writers. What inspired you to do that?
I’ve wanted to do it for years. I just didn’t have the time to put into it to really do it justice. I signed four writers. Thomas Perkins was the first guy and we ended up co-writing “Broken Neon Heart.”
What catches your eye when looking to sign a new writer? Is it a specific sound?
[The genre] doesn’t matter. They can be multi-genre. One of my writers, Ariel Boetel, went to school here but she’s as rock and pop as anybody out there. She has a good soulful voice and a little bit of experience on stage. She works really hard to write and there’s a uniqueness and a soulfulness there that I bought into.
It’s that way with everybody. I’ve got country guys, too. Dakota Striplin from Australia, he sings like an angel. He’s unbelievable. He came here and just sat down with his guitar in the office and played some songs. Our jaws dropped, it was really good.
Do you see yourself getting into other music business ventures, like starting an indie label or management company, or are you too busy with your publishing company and your own career?
I’ll do the artist thing as long as I can get away with it. Brooks & Dunn is as hot as it’s ever been. We’re allowed now, since we have our own labels and teams to work with, to do one-off projects like this record. I’m busier than I’ve ever been and I’m having more fun than I ever have. Not that I didn’t have fun back in the day, but it’s another day now. (Laughs)
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