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Back in the Saddle 

by Alan Sculley


After a decade-long run as country's top duo, BROOKS & amp; DUNN fell off track with 1999's Tight Rope. The album suffered from sluggish sales, failed to deliver the usual parcel of country radio hits and cast a cloud over the future of the group.


But in the long run, the failure of Tight Rope may stand as the best thing that could have happened to Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. It forced them to take stock of their music and take steps that have brought them back to the forefront of country music. Steers & amp; Stripes, the 2001 follow-up to Tight Rope, has yielded three No. 1 hit singles - "There Ain't Nothing 'Bout You," "Only In America" and "The Long Goodbye."


What's more, the album has earned six nominations for Academy of Country Music awards, including nods in such prestigious categories as entertainer of the year, album of the year, duo of the year and single of the year (for "There Ain't Nothing 'Bout You").


Meanwhile, the supporting tour (known as "Brooks & amp; Dunn's Neon Circus & amp; Wild West Show") became one of the most successful roadshows of 2001. The multi-act extravaganza returns this weekend to Spokane and the Gorge in an even bigger and flashier form, with Dwight Yoakam, Gary Allan, Trick Pony and Chris Cagle serving as support acts.


"This year, we've hired more entertainers, some incredible contortionists and jugglers and kind of beefed up everything we had before," says Brooks. "We have five headliners this year, plus Cledus T. Judd [as ringmaster] running things in between. We just want to make sure that people really have something fun to do the whole time they're there. So we've just kind of gotten more and better of everything, we hope."


Two years ago, many questioned if the duo would ever ride high again. In fact, Brooks & amp; Dunn had to seriously consider if they had come to the end of the road as a duo.


"At the end of Tight Rope, we were pretty much there," Brooks recalls. "You know, it's like we had two choices there. We could have called it a day and said, 'Wow, 10 years, that was a good lick.' But the other choice was to really put our heads together and really work hard and be creative and see if there was an outside chance that we could actually get back on top again."


A return to the forefront of country music meant tough choices -- particularly when it came to who would participate in the making of Steers & amp; Stripes. Even before Tight Rope, Dunn had been lobbying to part ways with producer Don Cook and bring in a new producer and new musicians to bring fresh energy to the studio. Brooks balked at the suggestion. He had started writing songs with Cook years before he and Dunn were brought together (in 1990 by former Arista Records President Tim Dubois) and he was torn by old loyalties.


So the duo compromised. Brooks had Cook produce his tracks for Tight Rope, while Dunn chose to work with producer Byron Gallimore. The move didn't work. Critics felt the songs and performances on Tight Rope were lackluster, and sales backed up that opinion. After seeing six previous albums sell in the millions, Tight Rope struggled to reach gold. Even more telling, the album failed to deliver anything approaching a chart-topping single, and for the first time since 1993, Brooks & amp; Dunn were displaced as country's duo of the year at the Country Music Awards.


The failure of Tight Rope forced Brooks to agree that a creative shakeup was in order, beginning with a switch of producers to Mark Wright (known for his work with Clint Black and Lee Ann Womack).


"I went to Don [Cook] and said, 'Man, for the sake of this act, Ronnie and I have got to find some common ground on a producer,' " Brooks recalls. "He totally understood and agreed it was time for us to break some new ground and do something different. It was a tough talk, but it was one that was very positive."


Another crucial decision involved studio time. In the past, the duo had rushed to complete albums for fear delays could blunt their momentum or because extra time in the studio might force them to pass up opportunities (such as the highly successful tour they co-headlined with Reba McEntire in 1998). With Steers & amp; Stripes, there were no such deadlines, and they took their time.


"We had a lot of great songs recorded early,' Brooks explains. "We had what I think most people would consider a good album. But we didn't feel like we had hit after hit after hit. It took a couple of good kickoff singles to do that."


In the end, Brooks and Dunn didn't reinvent their music so much as they refined and rejuvenated the mix of rock-edged country (a la "Boot Scootin' Boogie") and the full-bodied balladry that has been their signature from day one.


Says Brooks, "I don't think the record so much is a departure as an evolution. It's not like we haven't done some pop-sounding ballads before. It's not like we haven't done any rocking things before. It's just sort of trying to take things to the next place and just not getting away from what we do, but hopefully cranking it up a notch."


The struggles that led to Steers & amp; Stripes have made the duo's renewed success especially rewarding.


"We really kind of had to work overtime to not just come up with some new exciting music, but to come up with a new exciting tour and to get fired up about what we were doing again. We did, and it's really fun to get that nod from award shows. People are saying 'You guys aren't just doing the same old thing. You have made a real effort here.' "
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