Kix Brooks: Radio Is A Keystone To Our Business (02/13/06)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
Ask anyone who grew up in Louisiana, and they'll tell you music is an inescapable part of life. Ask Kix Brooks, half of the superstar country act Brooks & Dunn, and he'll tell you that music is “all about where you come from - that's the whole foundation of what we do.”
Born and raised in Shreveport, Leon Eric “Kix” Brooks grew up listening to a tremendously wide variety of regional musical styles, ranging from Cajun to blues, jazz, and country. In fact, the influence was so profound that he reportedly earned the nickname “Kix” because his tiny feet pounded a steady rhythm while he was still in the womb. That back beat stayed with Brooks after he came into the world, and it didn't take him long to find his musical groove. He started playing music at age 6 when he picked up a ukulele, and shortly thereafter he taught himself to play the guitar by listening to Hank Williams and Johnny Horton songs.
Brooks gave his first public performance at age 12, and continued playing in clubs and other venues throughout high school. After graduating, he attended Southern Methodist University and Louisiana Tech, but elected to take an “intermission” from college and headed up to Fairbanks, AK, where he played the local club circuit. Eventually he returned to the “lower 48” and back to Louisiana Tech, where he earned a degree in theater arts and speech. When he completed his studies, he moved to Maine, where he worked in television and radio production, wrote jingles for his sister's advertising agency, and played in local bars and coffee houses at night.
New Orleans came next, and Brooks again hit the local club circuit, playing in the bars along Bourbon Street and eventually saving enough money to make the move to Nashville. In 1981, he joined Don Gant's Golden Bridge Music as a staff songwriter, and later took a similar job at Tree Publishing, where he made a steady living, writing music for such artists as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Conlee, and Highway 101. He recorded his first single, Baby, When Your Heart Breaks Down, in 1983, and soon after released an album that met with critical success but only modest sales.
Five years later, Brooks signed with Capitol Records and produced the album titled Kix Brooks, which again received strong reviews, although the first two singles from the record failed to gain traction. Then, in 1990, Arista Records president Tim DuBois approached him with the idea of forming a duo with another talented country musician named Ronnie Dunn. Their first single, Brand New Man, hit number one on Billboard's country chart in 1991, and was followed with three more chart-topping hits: My Next Broken Heart, Neon Moon, and Boot Scootin' Boogie. Brooks & Dunn's debut album, also titled Brand New Man, has sold 6 million copies. All told, they have sold more than 28 million records, received more than 75 major industry awards, and racked up 23 number-one hits. Their latest release, Hillbilly Deluxe, appears destined to follow the same path to the top of the charts.
As if being a country superstar wasn't enough, Brooks was approached last fall by ABC Radio Networks, which proposed the idea of hosting American Country Countdown following the retirement of Bob Kingsley. Much more than a simple lagniappe (a Cajun idiom meaning “a little something extra”) for Brooks & Dunn fans, tapping Kix's love of music and knowledge of the country genre seemed to ABC programmers to be a natural fit. Brooks thought so, too. “I guess they think that I bring a peek behind the curtains, in terms of what it's like making and performing music on the road,” he recently told the Charlotte Observer. “I'd never have sought this job. Bob Kingsley is a dear friend of mine, and I'd never have competed with him. I'm not traditionally what you think of as a countdown host. I have no experience at doing this. I feel like Dennis Miller going into Monday Night Football - but I hope to be more successful.”
Besides his songwriting, studio work, a relentless touring schedule, and the new radio gig, Brooks lends his time and talents to various boards, including Vanderbilt Children's Hospital and Monroe Harding Children's Home. He also served as the president and chairman of the Country Music Association Board of Directors.
Marking the Jan. 21 debut of Brooks' take on ACC, as well as the start of the Country Radio Seminar this week in Nashville, Radio Ink sat down with him to discuss songwriting, performing, perseverance, and the critical role that radio plays in breaking and building great country music.
INK: Why did you choose to do American Country Countdown?
BROOKS: I do like to hear myself talk. Still, I was really surprised when ABC called me with the offer to host the show. I've already done everyone else's countdown show as an artist, and always thought it was fun. As a listener, I'm a fan of countdown shows - I love waiting to hear who's coming up next. As an artist and songwriter, the charts have always been a big part of my life, waiting for the next week to see how things are going.
What interests you most about doing the show?
The part that really intrigued me is the opportunity to comment about some of the artists. When Ronnie and I did these shows, I would look at the artists and songs being counted down, and think, “Oh, I've got a good one on that guy,” or “I remember when we did this to those guys when they were on the road with us.” It struck me more than once how fun it would be to do the countdown myself. I figured someone would ask me to guest-host a countdown sometime, but it blew me away when ABC made this offer. My gut reaction was: I'm not a radio guy - I'm not Bob Kingsley or Lon Helton or even Jeff Foxworthy. But I also thought it would be fun to present a backstage look at the music for the listeners.
Is being in front of a radio microphone different from a microphone on stage?
Every week, Ronnie and I do tons of radio interviews, so I'm familiar with this. But this was like when I first started making records - I remember hearing my voice and thinking, “Wow, is that what I really sound like?” Then my second reaction is, “How can I do this better - I need to relax. That doesn't sound like the way I talk. I sound like I'm reading this.”
How are you working with the show's writers and producers to inject some Kix Brooks into the program?
It will take a little while to make this show my own. I've already done some fun interviews with Dr. Phil and other celebrities. I enjoy talking with people, and the fact that I shoot from the hip and tell stories will make this show fun and interesting. My producer, Tim Howard, has experience in the record and radio business, and he's encouraging me to be myself. He says my ad libs work for me. Most DJs or announcers are great at reading from a script and making it come alive, but that's not going to be my deal. I'm working with a couple of writers, and we're defining the things that work best for me. We're starting with the general framework of a countdown show, and taking it from there.
The country pendulum seems to swings back and forth in terms of audience, sales, and format popularity. Is that pendulum swinging in favor of country music today?
Absolutely. Most people in the business will tell you that, especially over the past few years, there's been a real up-tick in country music. Between Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban, we're seeing a younger audience. Sugarland has a great vibe, and so do Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich. Some new acts are becoming legitimate headliners, which we haven't seen since we broke with Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw back in the early '90s. That's great for us. After 15 years, it's important for Ronnie and me to make sure that what we're doing is fresh and hip. The pendulum tends to swing musically, and that's exciting to me.
When writing and performing, do you think about what people want to hear, what they might connect with, or do you write and perform from your own gut?
There are millions of people out there who decide what is good, and the bar continues to be raised. When there's a big hit from a progressive act, or what people call “pop-sounding,” you immediately get dinged on the other side by someone who's making great traditional music. For example, there's a seesaw between Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts. Our genre is exciting because the boundaries are getting more spread out. On one side, you have Keith Urban, who really rocks, and on the other side, you have great traditionalists like Brad Paisley. A lot of young people are getting into it. That's what we felt in the mid-'90s - it gave us a big surge. We have a nice groundswell going right now, and we're seeing it in concert sales. On the road, we're doing better than all the rock acts that are playing the same amphitheaters.
How fragmented is today's country audience, and how does a record label - and a recording artist - deal with that fragmentation?
You don't try to reach a broad audience. As an artist, if you're smart, you find what you do best and continue to expand on it. If you do it well, the audience comes to you. If you try to chase trends and figure out why Big & Rich are selling so many records or why Kenny Chesney is doing so well, you lose yourself as an artist. Ronnie and I try to keep our heads down and do whatever amped-up honky-tonk stuff we do, and find new ways to do it that people haven't already heard.
How important is radio in the promotion and building of a country recording artist?
Big & Rich is the only act I can think of that hasn't used radio extensively to promote themselves, and even they had an underground hit with Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy. But they are a rare exception. I can't think of anybody else who doesn't live and die by radio. That's not to say there aren't great acts, bluegrass especially, that have built great careers without a lot of radio airplay. Alison Krauss doesn't necessarily live and die by radio, because there are other formats and festivals that support acts that are player-oriented. In terms of headline acts that play the big amphitheaters, you've got to have radio's support. Randy Owens of Alabama told us when we got in the business, “Don't ever lose your relationship with radio. If they'll give you the time of day now, make sure you always take care of them.” Besides having made a lot of great friends in radio, we've always realized it's a keystone to our business.
In the old days it wasn't uncommon for up-and-coming artists to drive around, trying to get their records played on small radio stations. What do you have to do today to get airplay in the early stages of your career?
Try and find people in radio at the small- or medium-market level - and occasionally a major market - who believe in what you're doing. I remember those first radio tours -the major-market people were up to their necks trying to work with the major acts, so when we walked through the door, they'd be nice to us. We knew we would have to wait a while until they played our record. There were a few who genuinely loved the music we made, and they were going to play it. They didn't care what the research said; they believed in what we were doing. Those are the guys you have to work with.
Does the record labels' need to expose new music work at cross purposes with radio's tightly formatted programming needs?
It's a mixed bag. A lot of major-market stations have short playlists, and I hear young artists complain that it's impossible to get on them. Still, it would be unfair to say that radio should do things differently, because in big markets there are competitors. If somebody's playing more records, or more oldies, or more recurrents, and their formula is working better, they'll win. I don't think it's fair to say, “This playlist isn't long enough,” or “These guys don't play enough of this,” or “These guys don't play enough hard-core country.” With the formats and formulas that work, for the most part, the cream seems to rise to the top.
Why do Country artists come across as more “touchable” than artists in other formats?
To people in country music, this is their heart and soul. It's all about where you come from - that's the whole foundation of what we do. It sounds trite, but it's the truth. People who play country music generally come from some heart-felt family situation. It's not the rebellious, “we're-going-to-knock-em-in-the-head, do-everything-we-can-to-turn-off-the-establishment,” kind of thing that is the foundation of some alternative music. Country is built on family values and patriotism, those things that come with “yes, sir” and “yes, ma'am.” It's all about talking to people about relationships, family, and friends, and the people you do business with.
Ronnie Dunn recently said that a lot of country is about “dysfunction, drinking, and divorce.” Is that a part of it, too?
I think it's the honesty. Country is about things that happen to people. Sometimes it makes people uneasy, but they say to themselves, “That happened to me,” or “I know someone that happened to.” Again, it's not a matter of rock or rap, where you're screaming and fighting back at society. It's more a matter of recognizing a situation and dealing with it.
How fun is it to get up and perform in front of a live audience?
It's the ultimate - it's what I love to do. I've been a show-off most of my life, and I know it makes Ronnie Dunn cringe. We talked about it early on when he asked me to settle down on stage, but I'm different. All performers are different. There's nothing more fun in the world than that first walk out to the front of the stage, when you make that sweep across the crowd and start making eye contact. The whole concept of live performing is to enjoy an evening with people who have come to see you. We're fortunate enough to have had some hits. It helps to have songs that people are familiar with, because you can sure see 'em light up when you kick off a song that they know.
Does it ever get tedious to sing the same songs night after night, year after year?
Not really. I liken it to an actor who does a Broadway play for two or three years. You find that place inside yourself that makes it new every night, and the audience makes it new. If Ronnie and I were singing Neon Moon every day in a room by ourselves, we'd both go insane. But when those people go crazy and light up, we can see that look in their eyes. They're saying, “Thank you so much for playing that song.” All of a sudden you forget that you've done it a thousand times and you enjoy doing it once more. When I go to see the Rolling Stones, it's not like I haven't heard Satisfaction a million times, but that's why I went - I want to hear them do it one more time. It feels good.
What can you learn in a honky-tonk or beer joint that you don't get from a stadium show?
We don't play a lot of bars anymore, but we have played a ton of them. A lot of people ask me if I miss the intimacy of playing bars. Well, there's nothing less intimate than playing in a club. When people come to see you in a bar, the number one reason they're there is to pick up someone of the opposite sex. Drinking is generally the number two reason. There's way more talking than listening in clubs and bars. On the other hand, there's nothing more intimate than being in a coliseum with 10 or 15 thousand people, and everyone is quiet and listening to you sing a ballad. That's more intimate than being in your living room. That many people focusing on what you're doing - that's intimate. Just because a place is small doesn't mean it's a great place to listen.
You kicked around Alaska, Maine, New Orleans, and Nashville for a number of years before hitting it big. Did you ever get frustrated during those early years?
It wasn't frustrating at all. I loved doing it, just like I do now. When I was playing clubs in New Orleans, it wasn't like I kept asking myself, “Will I ever be a star?” I looked forward to walking on stage every night, and just because it wasn't a big stage didn't mean it wasn't fun to play my music. It still is. We make a pretty good living at it, but if I wasn't getting paid, I'd still be playing music.
What's the secret to hitting it big in Nashville? Do you attribute it to talent, perseverance, or luck?
You have to have it all. So many aspiring artists and writers say to me, “I sent my package to RCA and they sent it back unopened.” People think they can get a mail-order career. It's not going to happen that way. I wouldn't recommend that anyone sell their house and move to Nashville, because it probably won't happen. But it's definitely not going to happen if you're sitting in Omaha thinking you can mail it in. There are people like [American Idol winner] Carrie Underwood who get a rare break on a TV show, but most of the people who have “made it” were in Nashville or Texas, working at their craft every day, talking to publishing companies, making the rounds, playing showcases, playing writers' nights - night after night, year after year. Eventually, if they have the perseverance and enough talent, they will be noticed.
How does song-writing process work for you? Do you prefer writing, performing, relaxing…?
I love it all. It's like a term paper that never goes away. It's always in the back of my mind: “Kix, you've got to write.” I'm always looking for a good idea, and when I get one, I go to work on it. I tend to cram for the exam these days: When I know we've got an album coming up, I start pulling out all these cocktail napkins. I call up all my songwriter buddies and say, “Let's get together and write,” and then I dig in and do it. I wrote songs for a living for 10 years before I ever met Ronnie. I'm going through 500 or 600 songs right now, old songs from my catalog that haven't been recorded, and I realize how much perspiration there was without inspiration. Those songs generally don't get recorded. It takes a good idea to have a hit.
What is country music's greatest strength?
It's definitely the music. Also, what used to be rock several decades ago is now mainstream country. From traditionalist sounds to bluegrass to Brad Paisley's music to hardcore party music like southern rock - there's so much included in our genre now, and it all makes sense. Plus, no one else is really covering it anymore. When people say to me, “That's too pop” or “too much like rock,” I say, “Have you listened to pop or rock lately?” We're not even close. Country might have been influenced by some sounds here or there, but we really have our own genre. And we always have.
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