Even though he has been a country-music star for more than two decades, much of this is all new for Ronnie Dunn.
"I'm having more fun now than I ever have," says Dunn, who will perform Sunday at the Kiss Country Chili Cookoff in Pembroke Pines. "I've just been having a hoot."
The freshness comes from embarking on a solo career after 22 years of touring with Kix Brooks. As Brooks and Dunn, the duo recorded 20 No. 1 singles and won more industry awards than any act in history before parting amicably in 2010, each wanting to go solo.
"We had a good run up there, but it's also like starting off," Dunn says. "They told me the good news is 'you're part of a big brand.' But you also have to overcome that and build your own deal."
In 2011, he released a self-titled album that produced the singles "Bleed Red" and "Cost of Livin'." The album offers a mix of blue-collar empathy, love songs and honky-tonking that sounds not unlike the work of Brooks and Dunn.
But then came an adventure in the music business. As "Bleed Red" was rising to No. 10 on the Billboard charts, radio stations began asking for "Cost of Livin'," an aching narrative from the point of view of a former military man at a job interview. He tells the employer positive qualities about himself — "I got a strong back, steel toes, and I rarely call in sick." He ends with, "The bank has started callin', and the wolves are at my door."
The requests for "Cost of Livin' " gave Dunn and his producers hope that it would be a smash, but one radio conglomerate nixed it because of its four-minute-10-second length. The song peaked at No. 19.
"It was one of those political walls, so we just ducked our heads and crawled off into our cave," Dunn recalls. "We had walked away from it and given up on it."
Then, last month, the song earned two Grammy nominations, for Best Country Song and for Best Country Solo Performance.
"Now, out of the blue, my phone is ringing about it," says Dunn, who acknowledges that he feels vindicated. He always believed the song would connect with the public.
Dunn has spent most of this past week in Nashville, finishing up his second album. At 59, he says he's as motivated as ever, even with a wall full of awards and the financial resources to order whatever he wants on a menu.
"I'm just a music junkie," he says. "I found out that at the end of starving for years, you get there and you're not starving. And you say, 'You know what it is. It's not about any of that. I'm just hooked on music.' "
But if you look at his right arm, you'll also see something that wasn't there when he was in Brooks and Dunn: a tattoo with the word "cowboy" in Western-style lettering.
"It was one of those sailor moments in Los Angeles," he says. "We ended up in the tattoo place, and there were 10 great, big biker guys hanging around. And I said, 'Do what you want.' "
He considered a small image that he could hide inside his boots.
"But I said, 'Real men don't do that,' " Dunn remembers. So he went with "cowboy," which runs from his elbow to his wrist.
"It kind of caught up to me the next morning, and it did not impress my wife at all," he says. "I just wear long sleeves around the house."
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