Never say never when it comes to Brooks & Dunn. Almost 10 years after the iconic country-music duo hung up their spurs – supposedly for good – Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn are back in the saddle with a brand new batch of music … and even their biggest fans are in for a surprise.
With REBOOT, the duo’s first studio album since 2007, 12 timeless B&D hits are revived by an eclectic cast of country’s rising talent. Kane Brown, Thomas Rhett, Brett Young, LANCO, Ashley McBryde, Brothers Osborne, Luke Combs, Midland, Cody Johnson, Jon Pardi, Tyler Booth and Kacey Musgraves all weigh in, but make no mistake – this is not your typical tribute album.
Instead, all-new arrangements bring the duo’s catalog into the present tense, rejuvenated as face-to-face collaborations with Brooks & Dunn and each guest artist calling the shots. It’s a full on REBOOT of Brooks & Dunn’s hits for a new generation.
“After so long, neither of us was into the idea of doing tribute records or remasters, that kind of stuff,” Dunn admits. “But I promise you I’m the most jaded critic I know, and when I heard this stuff, I freaked out.”
With 20 No. 1 hits stretching back to 1991, two Grammy awards, dozens of ACM and CMA honors and a discography counting more album sales than any duo in history – regardless of genre – Brooks & Dunn’s influence on today’s country has never been in question. Likewise, their original “Merle Haggard meets The Rolling Stones” vibe made them progressive stars in their own right. But with the help of producer and studio savant Dann Huff, their sound gets a blast of modern energy on REBOOT. What emerged from a year of top-secret sessions ranges from edgy rock intensity to heartbroken EDM, and from retro honky-tonk fun to the exposed nerves of a reflective acoustic ballad.
“What’s really intriguing to me is that we didn’t do any production meeting about how we might cut these things,” Brooks says. “We kind of just went in, and this stuff morphed in the process.”
“It motivates you when you’re there with a mic, facing off with one another,” Dunn explains, hinting at each track’s evolution.
The story behind REBOOT actually begins with Luke Combs, a proud Brooks & Dunn disciple who helped conceptualize the project when he explained – quite colorfully – what the duo meant to his own music for their manager, Clarence Spalding. It’s fitting, then, that his muscular North Carolina vocal is applied to “Brand New Man,” the duo’s first single and launchpad to stardom. Released ahead of the album, Combs’ brawny, almost gleeful rendition is a revelation, baptized with a splash of high-energy nostalgia to create a version that’s “just like the original, but on steroids,” Brooks says with a laugh.
In similar fashion, Kane Brown took a faithful approach to the spiritually-charged “Believe.” Chosen as another early release for its breathtaking emotional beauty, Brown tapped into something so genuine it must be heard to be truly comprehended. Even Dunn, widely viewed as one of country’s most soulful vocalists, found himself stunned. “Coming in, it was an unlikely pairing,” he admits. “I didn’t know what was gonna happen until we hit the record button, but when Kane stepped up and started to sing, a lot of jaws dropped. It was a side of him I had not seen.”
Meanwhile, other tracks receive a striking sonic makeover. Thomas Rhett, for instance, brings his R&B/pop influence to “My Maria,” dropping a thick, electronic groove on it and letting loose for the track’s unforgettable hook. “I think his chorus vocal is better than mine,” Dunn says. “In fact, I’d kind of like to have it back so I could go chase him down. He’s a little too good.”
That mutual respect is also clear on tracks like “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You,” which in the hands of Huff and Brett Young takes on a sexy, urban sheen – topped off with a slick saxophone outro. “Dann took it and went John Mayer on it,” Dunn explains with a smile. “He locked into this funky groove and a killer light-R&B vibe, and it’s perfect for Brett’s voice.”
Elsewhere, Brothers Osborne bring a “’70s stoner rock” vibe to the fist-pumping “Hard Workin’ Man,” cranking up the volume and finishing off with a blistering guitar solo which Brooks counts as one of his favorite moments.
And then there’s Kacey Musgraves, who took “Neon Moon” in an entirely different direction. Proving to Dunn the song “can live in today’s world,” her inspired rendition is built on a dramatic, pulsating synth and a quivering, tear-in-your-martini vocal – an arrangement Musgraves has taken on tour, and another touchstone for the project’s genesis. “It’s like, ‘Here’s somebody who’s really thinking outside of the box,’” Brooks gushes. “This is music that’s really got a brain, and it just makes you smile. It’s good, it’s honest, it’s her.”
“You’ve got artists coming at it from that angle, and then at the same time you’ve got a guy like Jon Pardi,” Dunn adds, referring to Pardi’s hard-core honky tonk take on “My Next Broken Heart.” “He walks and goes ‘I’m in, but we’re not changing anything.’”
Retro-themed trio Midland took a similar stab at the dance-floor classic “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” avoiding any sense of caricature with an obvious reverence for the material and a big dose of fun. Kentucky newcomer Tyler Booth taps into a holler-honed baritone for his duet with Brooks on “Lost and Found,” while LANCO’s Brandon Lancaster offers a jangling new guitar lick on the jubilant “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up for Nothing.” Texas troubadour Cody Johnson strips down the reflective “Red Dirt Road” into a quiet ballad, and breakout songstress Ashley McBryde brings a fresh, female perspective to “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.” “She’s really cool,” Brooks says of the experience. “Ashley came in and we both jumped in the booth, and it just felt good the whole way.”
That may be the best way to describe REBOOT – it just feels good the whole way. But there’s clearly more to the project than that. Whether intentional or not, REBOOT pulls a string from Brooks & Dunn’s heyday to the here and now, feeling almost like a roadmap for where country’s been, and where it’s going. It’s a showcase for not only the enduring appeal of tunes from “Brand New Man” to “Believe,” but also their impact on our current, anything-goes country landscape.
“They’re making their own music,” Brooks says about the REBOOT guest list. “But just like we did, they still remember and respect the music they grew up with. It makes you feel good that these acts were inspired by us in some small way.”