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Starpulse Q&A: Kix Brooks: Redefining The Cowboy

November 1st, 2007 4:14pm EDT
Kix BrooksOn their latest effort, Cowboy Town, Brooks and Dunn, the best selling country duo of all time, deliver a collection of rocking honky-tonk about love, women, family, and drinking, universal themes you can tap your foot too. The cowboy may not be the first thing that comes to mind anymore when you think of America, but Kix Brooks imagines a new sort of cowboy, one that possesses the courage and initiative that defines the American dream. And you just won't find this 21st Century Cowboy down south, but in Anytown, USA doing everything and anything. It's all about attitude, and in this Starpulse Q and A Kix Brooks discusses where that attitude has taken him, whether it be staring down a bear in Alaska, taking the stage with the Rolling Stones, or just writing songs while on the road.

What inspired you to take this album in a rockier direction?
It's always interesting to hear what people have to say about what we've done. I don't think that that's intentional. If anything we did get to the end and we had a whole bunch of good ballads, but it seemed like keeping it up-tempo was kind of the spirit of the thing. If anything it's probably because the recording process was more independent than what we generally do. And by that I mean typically we've been a little more chained to the big studio, where you go in and work with the band and you kind of get it as it is. You might do it over and over to but it kind of lives and breathes with what you did that day. This record I know Ronnie and I both took this stuff home and kind of worked things over until they started feeling rootsy and right to us.

How many songs do you usually record in a session?
Well, typically you usually record two sessions a day. Like you'll do a two o'clock session and a six o'clock session. Usually you get three maybe four songs, sometimes two. But then again Ronnie and I, being songwriters, it used to be that we'd go do demos of our songs and then we'd go back in and rerecord them. Both of us probably have about five to six hundred songs in our catalog but we've spent a lot of time over the years in the studio, so when we go to do demos, we basically just make records, and as a result we both have a lot of songs like, "Life in a Bucket", "Chance of a Lifetime" and "Jerry Jeff Walker", all of those are basically demos that we just cleaned up and made album worthy. That's why we've had so many songs. You write them and record them, and when you record them you don't do just a rush job anymore. We try to make them good enough to be on a CD

Brooks & Dunn

Brooks and Dunn perform in concert October 19, 2007



How have all these technological advances changed the way you guys make your music?
Well, the biggest thing is that we all have studios and ProTools that are so easy to work with. It's not like we all have to meet at the studio on the same day and everyone has to be in good voice on Thursday at three o'clock. If you feel like singing at midnight on Saturday you just go to your studio and you bring up the track and you just work on it. And when Ronnie's done with stuff I can go over to his house and he can just send me a file and go, "Sing a background part on that." And I do the same thing with him. We pass music files back and forth all the time. It makes it fun and you can work at your own convenience. And a lot of times, of course, the joy is working together in the studio, and we do that a lot too.

In a medium a fickle as radio, what does it take to stay on top for as long as you have?
Well, especially in country music, radio is our promotional tool. For a long time to come, because of the way things are and the way they're changing, performing is going to be where you make your living. Music sales, CD sales in particular, are obviously on the decline. I think musicians are in trouble until somebody finds out how to encrypt a music file; downloads are going to be made probably at about a rate of ten times the rate that people are going to be paying for. The only reason I'm saying all that is that in our business radio is so important. If you have a hit song on the radio, people are going to go see you in concert. Country music, it's not quite so grassroots, so it's not like I could go to like alternative rock music where kids generally go and hunt down things they haven't heard of and find those things in frat houses or whatever. Like The White Stripes, who turn out to be these cult bands and become famous that way. That's not the way country music works. Country radio is still our biggest promotional tool. You have to really be aware of what's going on to work with country radio. That comes from paying attention. I kind of have that mentality of what people want to hear. To me commercial radio is not a bad word, while a lot times it is in the alternative rock world. I take pride in being able to write a song that the people can love, I mean when you have integrity to it, I'm not talking about just writing some ditty all the time, but I'm proud of songs like "Red Dirt Road" and "Proud New Man" and things like that that I think are good songs.

Right now there seems to be a move of artists releasing their music directly to their fans, bypassing major record labels. How do you think that would fare in the country genre?
Well, once again, you can release it but in country music, fans are generally drawn to country radio. That's what makes them excited and that's what makes them buy CDs and you can see hit artists, I don't care who it is, if they don't sell, I'm not saying any CDs at all, but look at touring numbers and sales numbers, if they don't have a big time hit out, all those numbers are going to be real, real low. And as soon as they have a hit on the radio, everything goes through the roof. All of a sudden concert sales and CD sales and all that. I think it just depends on the genre of music. Not all genres are drawn like that, but country music is; alternative rock is not.

In 2006 you performed with the Rolling Stones in 2006. What was that experience like?
It was great. It was really fun, but it could have been anything. In fact, it was funny because before we got the offer to play with them, and I recently took my kids to see them in Memphis because I'm a big fan, and Ronnie is too- you can hear it in our music. Los Lonely Boys opened for them in Memphis, who I love. And they just put on an unbelievable performance, but it was only like twenty percent of the room that was full. I thought It was really sad that a band that good who gave it their all that night just didn't have that many people watching them. Everybody was out buying T-Shirts and buying beer and such. After we got the offer and were flying out to Omaha, Nebraska. I told Ronnie, "Don't freak out if there's not a lot of people in there," and I told him about Memphis. It was so great because when they turned the lights down, all the people came in and the room got full and the people were singing along with our songs and when we got done playing, Nick and Keith and Ron and Charlie Watts all came back to say hey. They just couldn't have been any nicer and I think that that was the biggest thrill. And we heard that you couldn't go back stage, and you couldn't do this or you couldn't do that, but everyone was real cool about the entire experience; it was real neat.

The new album is called Cowboy Town, and the cowboy was once an American icon. It's one of the things that people thought of when they heard the word America. What is it that you think represents America today?
It's the same kind of thing. The cowboy, for us, is being redefined. It's interesting that today Hillary Clinton made some comment about us taking cowboy diplomacy off the table. To me cowboy is really the American spirit. It's adventurous and it challenges. Cowboy does not mean just a guy who wears a hat and rides a horse. There's cowboy reporters, there's cowboy everything. I think it's that adventurous, courageous spirit that to me defines what is American. In my opinion it's not the ugly American, it's the courageous American.

In your song "Put a Girl in it," you sing that life, a party, and even a truck are all better if you put a girl in it. How about a girl in the White House?
My politics and Hillary's don't line up, but I have no problem putting a girl in the White House; she just wouldn't be my favorite one. I was watching TV and I thought it was super cool when Arnold Schwarzenegger was helping out with the fire the other day and Maria was answering questions at the governor's mansion. She's just so smart and articulate and to see her think on her feet and to speak so eloquently was just great.

How close is America to the cowboy town that you envision?
I think it is. Cowboy town can be just about any city or any town in America. That's what it's about. We see it everywhere. It's Chicago, Detroit, Ft. Worth; it's numerous small towns across America. Big Cities, from my experience, have small town mentalities for the most part. That's one of the things that shocked us the most when we started touring. We never believed that Detroit, Philadelphia, LA would be our biggest markets; we thought it would be in Texas and Oklahoma. But that's not the case, we did good business in Texas, but those major metropolitan areas were funny. We'd be in Chicago and people would be like, "That's my song! That's me when I was growing up." And you realize that everyone has their own vision of what those lyrics are saying. They've bled their own lives into it and that's what makes this so gratifying.

Speaking of career highlights, it must have been real exciting to have the George W. Bush use your songs in his campaign. In addition to that, what would you rate at other career highlights?
It's funny because my co-writer for that song is one of the founders of Music Row Democrats. There's not a harder-core democratic liberal than him and for our song to be used as George Bush's theme song is pretty ironic in general. At the time I was trying to help him out. With some of the things that were going on in the country, I felt like he was making the best effort to deal with it. And it's not like they ask for permission for stuff like that. Your songs are lined up for movies as things all the time. Your song is just a thread in a quilt that is your career. It does make you smile when you see people react to songs that you've written. Politics is always confusing. You just try not to attach people's agendas to your music as much as you like to see people react and feel good. That and that my dad was with me all three times I won entertainer of the year. That's an award that defines that you've had a great in radio and concert sales and just in general. He always encouraged me throughout my life and being able to share it with him was pretty special. But the stuff you get to do because of having some celebrity, like golf. I got to play a skins game against Arnold Palmer and John Daly. You just find yourself on the first tee at Augusta, places you could never dream of. Dale Earnhardt used to tell me to never lose sight of the number 3 car, and by that he meant that even though he was huge celebrity and got to do a lot of stuff, he never lost terms with what it was that put him in those places. That's it. You get to have dinner with Presidents and find yourself in places you've never pictured and try to realize that it's all not just a dream. It all comes back to a song in the end.

You mentioned your father and you actually worked for him in Alaska. What is it that you did up there exactly?
I spent a whole year up there. My father was a pipeline contractor. He was an engineer and was involved in the original design on the Alaskan pipeline. I was in my third year of college and he said that he needed some help up there. There's a thing called hyper static testing, which is a testing that all pipelines have to get before they can hold any oil. The way they do that is they cut them in sections, probably about three to six miles each, depending on the elevation, and you pump them full of water and pump up six to eight thousand pounds of pressure, again depending on the elevation of the pipe, and we check to see if they explode or leak. My dad designed a lot of the equipment and I worked around it. From the time I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I was working summers doing that, and there are only a limited number of people who know how to do that stuff, and the Alaskan pipeline is a big piece of pipe so they needed some extra hands and were paying a lot of money for it. That was a big opportunity for me as a college kid, and I was able to buy a new car and a new guitar.

And while you were out there did you see a lot of exciting wildlife?
Yeah, lots of stuff. I could bore you for hours with a bear and moose story.

Give me an example of a bear and moose story
Well, one day I was coming back. We'd work twelve days or seven days at a time, I was headed back on the pipeline, taking a whiz and I heard the screaming sound from the woods. It sounded like something was hurt, so it was in the winter, which is pretty much daylight all the time, only it's a creepy daylight. It was late at night and I snuck back through the woods and somebody had killed a moose or a caribou elk, whatever it was I couldn't really see, whichever it was, there was a grizzly bear just taking swipes at it while it was screaming. He was just rubbing blood and meat in his face. And I don't know if he got a wind of me and stopped for a second, but he stopped and looked around and then I realized in a very real way that I couldn't out run him. And I wasn't that far away from him, and I got that overwhelming sensation that there was nobody with a gun around or anybody to protect me. It was truly the last frontier; it is really wild out there. I just kind of backed away real slow and then took off running back to my truck. You just remember those things and those awakenings.

Have you been back to Alaska since?
I have. I've been back a couple of times. I've been salmon fishing. The weather's real nice and I went back to work in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

On the song "Proud of the House We Built," the lyrics, which are about family, are, "I'm proud of this house we built/It's stronger than sticks/ stones or steel". Today in America, the definition of family is a very heated debate. What does family mean to you?
My mom died when I was four years old, so I didn't have a typical standpoint I guess. My dad married three different times. My grandparents and aunts and uncles and people around me stay married forever. My wife and I have been married for twenty-six years. Our kids are both in college and I like to think we've had a real happy life together. So I'm a traditional guy, but I like to think of myself as a liberal musician, so whatever makes people happy. I still enjoy the thought of a family unit. When I was a kid the Andy Griffin Show was my favorite show because there's Andy and Opie and they didn't have a mom; it made it seem more normal because of the Andy Griffith Show out there. My grandmother lived with us and she looked just like the grandmother on the show, so it was perfectly normal thanks to that TV show. I always felt a debt to Andy Griffith for helping me with therapy for all those years of my life.

You and Dunn are almost like a family. What's it like to live so close?
Well, part of our success has to do with us spending time away from each other. We've had separate busses for 10-12 years. Yesterday we were figuring out our duck hunting trip that we're going on together, so we're still good friends that enjoy each other's company. We do have separate lives and families of our own. It's not like we hang out like we're in college anymore. It's important to have a balance. My wife is into horses and such and she travels as much as I do, and if we were together all the time, I don't think we'd have lasted this long.

Brooks & Dunn

Brooks and Dunn perform in concert October 19, 2007



So if it came down to it, which one of you would you have to say is handier around the house?
I think we've both taken care of ourselves. Neither one of us are really a helpless guy. I enjoy fixing stuff and, again, before I started touring all the time I was doing everything around the house. And Ronnie is pretty handy too. I think we can take care of ourselves.

Are these skills that you're also instilling into your children?
No, they can't do anything. I wish they would. I think it's something you have to figure out by yourself. I probably didn't start doing stuff for myself until I was in college. My dad put me in the shop when I was fifteen, so I started working on cars when I was pretty young, but I couldn't fix a door or anything like that.

What if you two guys were playing a game of hoops. Which one of you is more likely to win?
It's a toss up. We play a lot of basketball and we're both really competitive. I spend more time shooting baskets than he does, but it could go either way.

What sort of competitions are there between the two of you?
Well, we raced cars together pretty hard for about three years. We both ran pretty close. That was probably the funnest thing competitively that we ever did. I think that writing songs and stuff like that keeps us motivated. Since we're in business together we like to see the other one write a hit, but as soon as he does, it drives you back to the guitar trying to come up with one yourself. We definitely motivate each other.

Is there a particular place where inspiration strikes you?
Well, song ideas come from who knows where. The idea is that they come from everywhere. I like writing them in my house Ronnie writes them in his car a lot. Both of us write most of our songs on the road. A lot of people say they can't work on the road, but when you're out living there on tour, I find it's a great place to work.

The last two questions were about how competitive you two were, but when it comes to the holidays, whose house do you go to?
I know Ronnie is usually always at home. We have a family farm down in Louisiana that we would spend Christmas when my dad was alive. Probably every third Christmas we go down there, between seeing Ronnie's family and staying in Nashville.

We talked a lot about family. Do you think that because of our emphasis on success and material positions in America that we sometimes forget about the things that really matter, like family?
Sure, we definitely spend too much time on the material stuff, and I'm guilty of that myself. I love driving cars and I can't help myself. It's funny, but this sounds arrogant to bring it up. A guy stopped me the other day, and said, "You're Kix Brooks, aren't you?" I tell him, "Yeah," and he asks if he can ask me a question and I tell him sure. He goes, "What's it like to be that rich?" Whoa, well. In the first place, I know a lot more people who have a lot more money than I do. In terms of making a lot of money and having a lot of stuff, it reminds when of when I didn't have anything. In a sense, having too much money is like not having enough money. It makes you focus on the things that matter." It's been my experience that with people I know who have a lot of money, they are very unpretentious. Once you have everything you need and everything you want, you turn right back around to everything that's important to you. I think that the one that gets you is the middle ground, when you're striving to keep up with the joneses. But once you get by that, you realize that it's your kids, your wife, and your health. My father had a great expression. He said, "If money can fix it, it's not a problem." That wasn't because he was rich, but having lost my mom to cancer, he had an appreciation of knowing that real problems weren't ones that had money involved. Real problems were ones that you had no control over. That you couldn't do anything about.

Was there a particular moment or incident in your career when you knew you had reached that level?
We still run more scared than anybody we know. We still fear rejection and lack of success. Ronnie said the other day, something like, "I'm going broke every day". We both just live in fear of that. We've both lived with it for so long that I don't think either of us could get over it.

What's next for the two of you?
We're putting together our tour for next year. We're going to go off to Australia, which is exciting. We've never done that before. Probably some time next year we'll work on our next album. We'll take what comes. Like I said before, it's all about the music. Everything is based on that because if we don't make it there nothing else matters.

Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer