A few weeks ago, Sounds Like Nashville sat down with the legendary Ronnie Dunn to discuss his new solo disc, Tattooed Heart, available now via Nash Icon Records. Dunn admitted that he had to get in the game of record promotion again after a relaxing trip to Europe.
“Suddenly, I’m in a whirlwind here. I had been in Europe vacationing with friends, and now I’m back here selling records. I had my head out of the game,” he admitted, saying that he’s glad to have new music for the fans. “It took us a year and a half to do the record. It’s hard to believe that it’s finished and ready for public consumption.”
Understandably, the past six years have shown Dunn a lot of looks, from an industry point of view. In 2010, he and Kix Brooks ended their affiliation as a recording duo. The next year, he released his solo debut on Arista. In 2014, Dunn released Peace, Love, and Country Music on his own label, Little Will-E. Now, he’s back on a major label, as Nash Icon is a part of the Big Machine family. He admits the business – even from a label standpoint – differs greatly from 2010. “It’s a different game, for sure. I don’t know how it’s done nowadays, but I didn’t know how it was done in the first place. I do know that ignorance is bliss in some cases. I’m glad there are people a lot smarter at the helm of the project.”
With Tattooed Heart, Dunn made a 180-degree turn from how he has always approached his music – by stepping back from the process just a little. “I’ve always been a control freak about doing the records, and being in the middle of it. This was the least I was ever involved in, when it came to the recording process.” Producing the record was Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus. Dunn admitted he was skeptical at the beginning. “When we were looking at producers with the label, his name was brought up. I said ‘I know Jay, and love him to death as a friend, but I’m not sure that I know what he’s produced.”
Dunn agreed to give it a try, and as it turned out, he was quite pleased with the results. “We cut three songs, with ‘Ain’t No Trucks In Texas’ being the first one. I just backed up, and let him go. I didn’t walk away from it, but everything that Jay brought to the table with these songs worked for me. I’ve never worked with anyone where that happened.”
One song where the singer lets his emotions fly is on the confessional “I Put That There,” of which Dunn said “The first thing that grabbed me was the Johnny Cash line about the poster with him flipping the bird. It’s right next to my microphone at my barn, in the studio. It’s about a guy taking ownership of all the things he’s screwed up. It’s great imagery. Had I sat down to write that song, I would have used those words,” he said with a laugh.
Unlike any project he has been a part of in the past, Dunn’s name only appears twice on Tattooed Heart as a writer – on “I Wanna Love Like That Again” and “She Don’t Honky Tonk More.” He said recording so much of his and Brooks’ material over the years wasn’t exactly their idea. “When we first started, it used to frustrate me to no end that we weren’t getting pitched songs. Later, I found out that Tim DuBois – who was a songwriter – had pretty much sent out the mandate that we were writers, and he wanted us writing. He was big on having songwriters. I stayed frustrated over the years, to an extent. I would hear somebody do a great song, and I’d be thinking ‘Why didn’t we get that one?”
However, this time, the label opened the process up for other writers to get a Dunn cut, and he admits he enjoyed getting the chance to record more outside material. “This time I just backed up from it. Of course, this label has a great A&R team. They’re hot and on their game. Allison Jones brought a team of song pluggers in, and they brought the best. I was given top floor songs from the hottest writers in town. It started that way, and I didn’t feel the obligation to write. I concentrated on being a singer, and finding songs that I enjoyed doing.”
One of those tracks that might throw fans for a loop is the title cut, best known as recorded by Ariana Grande. Dunn smiled when he said he did have some outside influence on that particular song. “My youngest daughter – who goes to Ole Miss and is a music fanatic. She came in one day and asked me to listen to Ariana Grande and how soulful she is. I listened, and heard ‘Tattooed Heart.’ That voice, combined with that retro sound, struck a chord. I started to wonder if I could be so bold and stretch the limits, and go against the grain and cut a song like that. I threw it out to some people and got the ‘Oh, that’s cool’ reaction. So, I took it, and cut it myself on the sly.”
Once he played it for Nash Icon execs, they whole-heartedly agreed with Dunn concerning the song. “Jim Weatherson at the label was really supportive of it from day one. I tried to play it down, and he said ‘Dude, this is killer.’ So, the label was great about it. That’s what makes being in this environment great,” he says.
Then, on the other end of the musical spectrum is the 90s sounding “Only Broken Heart In San Antone,” which is a song that Dunn has been a fan of for a while. “I’ve had that song for eight to ten years. When I first heard it, it was ‘Only Broken Heart In San Jose.’ I think, at one point, it might have been written for George Strait. I pitched it every year, and each time it would get shot down by the label. This time, I finally got it done,” he exclaims.
Reba McEntire – a frequent collaborator of Dunn’s – appears on “Still Feels Like Mexico.” He admits the two have a pretty deep bond. “She’s such a great singer, and a super talent. I’m working with her pretty steady at Caesar’s in Vegas. We’re very close friends,” he says, but admits that McEntire can keep him in line. “When you’re in the room with someone like that, and you’re talking music, she’ll call you out.” But, sometimes, that can be a good thing. “At the same time, it’s fun to do that back-and-forth challenge. We’ll play each other stuff that we’re working on. I respect what I hear from her, and vice versa. It’s good to have a friend that you can lean on for that kind of stuff.”
The release of Tattooed Heart comes twenty-five years after the release of “Brand New Man,” the single that launched his career from the Brooks & Dunn days. When told of the quarter-century mark, he acts a little surprised that anyone is keeping track. After all, Dunn just looks at as doing what he loves. “I’m coming at it from such a different perspective these days, but at the same token, you’re still just doing music that you like. I don’t know that I want to go back to the early days and redo what I did then. It’s all about doing music. I’m never comfortable….never. Maybe on the final record, I can sit back and think ‘Man, I’ve got it. I’m there. I’m comfortable now. But,” he says, looking off into the distance. “I doubt it.”