“Wish I was new to this town
Just pullin’ in checking it out for the first time”
— “New to This Town” by Kix Brooks, Marv Green and Terry McBride
It’s been more than 30 years since Kix Brooks was new to the town that he made his home, where he married, raised two children and built an accomplished career as a songwriter, singer and half of the most successful duo in country music history, a weekly national radio show host, magazine columnist, film producer, actor, winery owner and active and influential member of the music industry and community at large.
And yet here he is, picking up where he started when he really was new to this town, when his very first solo single in 1983 lumbered up the country chart to #73 before being hijacked by gravity into oblivion.
“New to This Town” is the title cut from the album that he hopes will reintroduce him to music fans, not exactly as a brand new man—to borrow a phrase from a song he co-wrote many moons ago—but as his own man, with his own songs to sing and his own unique story to tell.
Though the song is about a romantic relationship, metaphorically it suggests another interpretation. “When you’re starting out, there’s so much fear that if you screw up or put out the wrong record, you’ve lost that chance to live your dream. At this point in my career, there’s a different kind of uncertainty and risk that the people who have seen me perform for 20 years as half of Brooks & Dunn won’t be able to see me as anything but that. So in that sense, being new to town would be good to be able to do again.”
Kix Brooks’ career as a musician began long before he came to Nashville, which is less than 100 miles from where the Louisiana native was shipped off for high school at Tennessee’s Sewanee Military Academy. “I wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t good,” he confesses with a smile. “The discipline was good for me. It gave me structure and problem-solving skills, which are really helpful for creative people.”
Brooks grew up in a musical family, had his first guitar before he hit his teens, and while in Sewanee, he began playing coffee houses with his roommate, Nashville native Jody Williams. “Jody turned me on to the Opry,” expanding the range of country music that Brooks already loved. “I was a fan of bluegrass, rock and outlaw country, people like Willie, Cash and Roger Miller. I loved the Allman Brothers, Leon Russell, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Asleep at the Wheel, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker. ”
After graduation, he went to Louisiana Tech, gaining a foundational education in reading music and the theory of composition while getting hands-on experience playing clubs around town. Realizing that he wasn’t cut out to be in the marching band, school choir, or orchestra—which were required for a music degree—he switched his major to speech and got into theater, both of which would later serve him well.
A brief sabbatical from school led him to Alaska in 1976, working for his dad, a pipeline contractor. The job was great seed money, he recalls, “So when I got home, I bought a new car, a new guitar, a bottle of whiskey, and I was ready to get back at it.
“I had a band and I did some solo stuff. I could bang on a guitar and open up for just about anybody playing clubs in Shreveport. My plan was to be somebody.”
But an invitation from his sister put “Plan A” on hold. “She called me out of the blue and asked if I would come to Maine and help her with a television production company. So I was doing radio and television production, commercials, and it was a great experience. But I was also playing clubs and was still drawn to that. I enjoyed advertising, I enjoyed Maine. But in my heart of hearts, I just wanted to play music.”
So he took off again for Louisiana but stopped in Nashville to visit with his old roommate Jody Williams. “We stayed up all night talking and playing music, and Jody tried to talk me into staying. He said I could make a living writing songs. I said, ‘A, you’re nuts, and B, I’m going to New Orleans to play music.’”
But as fun as it was, the pace—and the partying—began to take a toll. “I called Jody up and said, ‘Do you really think I could make a living writing songs?’ and he said, ‘Get your ass up here!’”
True to his word, Williams gave Brooks a place to crash and found him a job with a concert production company while arranging meetings for him with music publishers around town.
“Everybody was really nice for about half a song, and then I wrote some more songs and called them back, and everyone was always out to lunch. So I started breaking songs down and figuring out what these guys were doing, which doesn’t mean you can do it, but at least I did my homework and really started working harder at trying to figure out how to do it. I realized it was one thing to make people smile in bars and another thing to make a living as a songwriter in Nashville.”
His hard work paid off, and less than two years after pulling into town, Brooks had a publishing deal and a #1 cut. Some things didn’t pan out, like his first album in 1983 on a label that went defunct before the album was released and a 1989 album on Capitol that went nowhere fast.
But he was making a living—a good living—writing songs for Tree Publishing, where exec Paul Worley took some of his demos to veteran music man Tim DuBois, head of the Arista Nashville record label. DuBois suggested that Brooks write with the winner of a talent competition, a tall, big-voiced Texan named Ronnie Dunn. When DuBois heard their song demos, the rest became Brooks & Dunn history.
In their 20-year ride, the duo recorded 10 studio albums, released 50 singles, scored 23 #1 hits, sold more than 30 million albums, sold out tours from coast to coast and became one of the most awarded acts in country music history.
But in August of 2009, they revealed what had long been a topic between the partners themselves: that after a final tour and a final compilation album, Brooks & Dunn would be no more.
“It was always an arranged marriage that happened to work out really well and produce some great kids. But after 20 amazing, dream-like years, it was time.”
As for the notion of recording a solo album, Brooks took his time—or as much time as realistic for someone who owns a thriving winery, hosts a weekly syndicated radio show, forms a film production company, takes on roles in three movies and writes all but one of the songs for the soundtrack for the western To Kill a Memory, as well as co-writing the soundtrack for a Christmas movie.
“I have a lot of interests, and I wasn’t at that point thinking of what I would do next. I was kind of looking forward to chilling for a year or so. I wanted to take my time. I started writing during the last B&D tour, and when we got done, I kept writing while we were making movies.”
When the time felt right, Brooks approached his album with customary enthusiasm, producing and recording nearly 50 songs before beginning the challenging process of narrowing the field. “There were a few like [the Brooks/Leslie Satcher co-write] ‘Moonshine Road’ that I was sort of building the album around,” he says, “so you try to take the ones that fit the other songs the best, that fit you best, or where the track is just smoking.”
The result is a record that is emphatically and uniquely Kix Brooks—rocking, smoky, swampy and bluesy, with belts of bayou and hits of Cajun zydeco. Nine of the album’s dozen tracks bear Brooks’ name as a co-writer, collaborating with such longtime friends and writing luminaries as Bob DiPiero and David Lee Murphy (on the lyrically clever “Closin’ Time at Home”), Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson (for the mid-tempo musical celebration of “Bring It on Home”), and Marv Green and Terry McBride on “New to This Town,” the title track single that almost didn’t make the album.
“We were kind of done with everything, I had recorded the album, and Jay DeMarcus and I were doing the soundtrack for a Christmas movie over at his house. But I was thinking about that song, so he was nice enough to help me produce it and let me use the pickers while we were working there. He really liked the song, so I said, ‘Let’s do it together.’”
Later, “The engineer from my radio show said, ‘You ought to get some Joe Walsh-sounding slide on that.’ I’m like, ‘Hmm, what if I could get Joe Walsh?’ My manager is partners with Irving Azoff, who sent it to Joe, and he called me up and put the slide on there for me. So that worked out great.”
In a new-to-this-town, full-circle touch, the album also features two songs that Brooks wrote with Rafe Van Hoy. With Deborah Allen, they penned Brooks’ first #1 as a songwriter (John Conlee’s ’83 chart-topper, “I’m Only in It for the Love”), and they pair here on the backsliding fun of “Complete 360” and team with Curly Putman on the groove-and-soul-filled, after-hours portrait of “my baby’s” “Tattoo.”
Now, with his album complete, Brooks is just looking forward to getting it into the hands of fans and resuming the solo career that began long ago when his entire plan “was to be somebody.”
“That fear I had at one point in my career where you’re scared to death to make the wrong move, I don’t feel that way now. But you still really want to do something that is relevant and makes people rock, and look out at a crowd and know you have connected, you’ve hit that nerve. I don’t think you ever get over that.”