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A Country Carnival

Brooks and Dunn's Neon Circus and Wild West Show puts some kick back into the country duo's act.

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Brooks and Dunn: The Barnum and Bailey of - country.
  • Brooks and Dunn: The Barnum and Bailey of country.

Because it's so dangerous and requires lots of preparation, the flamethrower is only worth two pops a night. And the mechanical bull may leave you toothless. But when the Brooks & Dunn Neon Circus and Wild West Show leaves town, you'll know you've been countrified.

"We've always played our guitars a little too loud, but we've always had a foot in traditional country music," says the guitar-slinging Kix Brooks. "We see a lot of kids out there rockin'. Thank goodness, 'cuz that's what we're lookin' for. We like that energy."

Add clowns, stilt walkers, ropers, a piece of Patsy Cline's plane, dozens of Gibson guitars, fake tattoos, the Honky Tonk Hall of Fame, Elvis' underwear, and a bubble-blowing goat, and you've got one heckuva show -- before, after, and between the musical acts.

"[Singer] Ronnie [Dunn] and I have been talking about getting some circus performers for years," says Brooks. "But like a lot of great ideas, you never get around to actually interviewing guys with Vaseline on their faces and jars of kerosene in their hands. We went to Ringling Brothers and several other big carnival companies, and once you start shaking the bushes, there's this whole community of these guys. They all have their own shows. It's not like one guy is just a juggler; all these guys do it all. The whole idea is to let people have some fun other than having a T-shirt stand as their only option."

The shows open early, so concertgoers can visit the midway, as does Brooks -- but in disguise.

"I gotta get out there and get in the middle of it," he says. "I can't stand it. It's fun to see how people react to the different exhibits. You see a lot of stuff that makes you smile."

Brooks begins laughing so hard, his next words are barely audible. "Like the first guy on the [mechanical] bull knocked his teeth out, but he wouldn't get off the bull, 'cuz he still had like 20 seconds left on his ride."

With the addition of opening acts Montgomery Gentry, Toby Keith, and Keith Urban, the three-time Country Music Association Entertainers of the Year have created a tour designed to energize the crowds and appeal to young listeners. Montgomery Gentry, a younger duo of honky-tonkers, ripped last year's CMA Duo of the Year award from eight-time winners Brooks & Dunn. Keith, best known for his boastful "How Do You Like Me Now?" single, took Male Vocalist of the Year honors from the Academy of Country Music this year. And Urban, an Australian, is wowing country music fans with his debut album.

"Sometimes you might try a young act on the upswing that's got a record or two; then you get them out there and realize that, besides a karaoke machine, they don't have a lot of experience," Brooks says. "We wanted to come in with some acts that really had some wheels.

"We put out the feelers, and they sorta called our bluff, so that's when we said, 'Let's just beef this whole package up and make it as fun as we can,'" he continues. "We have never had this much fun on tour before. I mean, every night, backstage and in the parking lot, there's a party going on -- and we're just having a gas with it. They're really a fun bunch of people."

Life wasn't quite so cheery last year at this time. Brooks & Dunn were in a slump -- or were experiencing a "dip in their careers," as Dunn likes to call it. Radio rebuffed Tight Rope, the group's 1999 album. And for good reason. The pair had moved away from each other artistically. They tried to create a top-selling album with separate producers. Their label went under. And spirits were low. The kicker came when newcomer Montgomery Gentry captured the duo award that Brooks & Dunn had won eight years running.

The amazing thing is that the ticket-buying public still filled the seats at their shows. In fact, sales were up. Brooks says, in hindsight, it was good that he and Dunn lost that award. "It lit the fire under us," he says. The two went to work on their seventh album, arguably deemed their best work ever. Many would disagree, touting the who-cares attitude and fresh flavor of Brand New Man, their first album, as near-perfection. Brooks believes Steers & Stripes tops it. Its first single, "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You," has led the charts for six weeks now. The album is filled with barroom honky-tonk songs -- "Good Girls Go to Heaven" and "Deny, Deny, Deny," for starters. It also features several ballads about love found and lost, such as "When She's Gone, She's Gone" and "The Long Goodbye." And there's "See Jane Dance," a guitar-trouncing proclamation that the music emanating from such greats as ZZ Top will never die.

"We can't second-guess radio," Brooks explains. "If they're done with us, they're done with us. But our audience never left us, so we felt like we still had a job. We put our heads together on this record and said, 'Look. We've got to stir it up.' Ronnie and I came in motivated to make some great music. We did an extensive radio station tour, reacquainting ourselves with what we did when our first record came out. We sold a lot of tickets, and we made music. With radio, you go back to the drawing board and try to make a better record. And we did."

Between the new tour and album, Brooks feels the pair is back in the running for the highly coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year Award. So far, they've racked up numerous industry awards, sold 22 million albums, celebrated 18 No. 1 hits, and graced the front of cornflakes boxes.

Not too shabby for songwriters and performers who were working solo just 10 years ago. Each in their thirties, they had no desire to form a partnership -- until it was suggested by Tim DuBois, head of the Arista Records' Nashville division. The top-selling single "Brand New Man" was written during their first meeting.

When they perform, audiences notice the stark differences in personalities. Brooks was (and still is) all over the stage. Jumping around. Kicking. Whatever it takes to "stir it up." Dunn, the whiskey-voiced crooner, stands high on his long legs in front of the microphone. Initially, reports of tension between the two ran high. Though Dunn now moves around a bit more than he used to, and Brooks sings more than he did before, their diverse styles work together well.

"Neither one of us had ever dreamed of having a partner," says Brooks. "We were always our own guys. That's -- to me -- why it's so uncanny that we turned duo and it worked. Neither one of us, I don't think, expected it to last more than two or three years. And if you'd have told either one of us [that] 10 years down the road we'd be in this shape, we'd have said you were nuts. Every day that goes by, it seems more and more of where we should have been all along.

"We've wound up being the best of friends," he continues. "It's so funny to both of us, to read about the fights and us breaking up. Other than midway through our careers, when we'd say, 'If only we could just pull a couple more years off . . . ' Now we don't even talk like that anymore. Heck, you gotta do something -- and it's working so good."

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