By Jof Owen
30 years on and Brand New Man still sounds as sparkling and fresh as it did when it first came out, its influence echoing back out from contemporary artists Midland to Jon Pardi.
30 years ago, ‘Shiny Happy People’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ were filling the summer airwaves, the World Wide Web had just been made publicly available and George Bush was declaring the recession of the early 90s at an end. It was time to party, albeit cautiously, and who better to host it than Brooks & Dunn.
Two beats and you’re in. “I saw the light, I’ve been baptised by the fire in your touch and the flame in your eyes”, begins the album that opened the gates for Brooks & Dunn in August of ‘91. Brand New Man would set them on their way to becoming the best-selling duo in country music history - picking up sales of six million copies for their debut album alone. The record would produce four consecutive no.1 singles on the Hot Country chart as the duo doubled down on early 90s honky tonk country while dialling in the heel stomp, turning line-dancing into an unlikely global phenomenon along the way.
Not bad for a two-piece that had only been put together a few months before they began recording in 1990. Following faltering careers as solo artists in the late 80s, Leon Eric “Kix” Brooks and Ronnie Dunn partnered up at the suggestion of Arista Nashville executive Tim Dubois over lunch one day, thinking they might compliment each other as songwriters. Both had separately had solo hits of their own - Kix Brooks even having songs cut by John Conlee, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Nicolette Larson - but neither had found anything near the success they were about to have when they put their talents together.
Dubois put them in the studio to record some demos with a friend of his from college, up and coming producer Scott Hendricks, who was hot off producing Alan Jackson’s debut and starting to make a name for himself in Nashville. When the demos came back, Dubois was so impressed he signed Brooks and Dunn as a duo.
In the early 90s, country music was beginning to ramp up the production of the neo-traditionalism that had dominated the mid to late 80s. Recorded with state-of-the-art digital precision, it added a little punch to the drums and a little brightness to the guitars, carrying country music over into a new decade on the hat and heels of the class of ’89. It was country music, but not as we knew it, and it was about to be the sound that dominated for the next decade.
When it came to recording their debut album, Don Cook was brought in to produce alongside Hendricks, the result being absolute nineties gold. Clocking in at a little over 30 minutes, the 10 songs that make up Brand New Man are a whistle stop tour through fun-loving honky tonk smoochers and Mid-NRG line-dance anthems. Cook co-wrote the title track with Brooks and Dunn; the tale of a reformed lothario tamed by a new love interest became an immediate hit at country radio, climbing all the way to no.1 just a few short summer months later. It was followed to the top of the charts by the loveable loser anthem ‘My Next Broken Heart’ and the paean to Nashville’s nightlife ‘Neon Moon’. While the pair shared lead vocals across the 10 songs, it’s perhaps noticeable that the lead vocals on the first four singles had all been Dunn’s - always the more naturally inclined of the two.
Nevertheless, It was the fourth single that would have a lasting effect on early 90s country. Written by Dunn during their early sessions with Scott Hendricks, ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie’ had already been recorded by Asleep At The Wheel when the pair snatched it back to include it on their record, crafting their fourth number one in a row. Picking up its own Macarena-style routine in the burgeoning revival of the early 90s, it had the unenviable honour of being name-checked in a song by HI-NRG Europop peddlers Steps along the way. Line Dancing was the rage again after a renewed spark during the Urban Cowboy era - when Cotton-Eyed Joe and Texas Two-Step were reappearing in dance halls across America - and ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie’ was in the right place at the right time to capitalise on it.
30 years on and Brand New Man still sounds as sparkling and fresh as it did when it first came out, its influence echoing back out from contemporary artists Midland to Jon Pardi, who both joined the duo for their Reboot album in 2019. Brooks and Dunn were the sound of Nashville’s honky tonks being supersized and pumped out the stadium speaker system, like Urban Cowboy on steroids. By adding a little rockabilly to their country twang and ramping up the production, they made music to compete with the dominant rock and pop sound of the time while keeping it traditional enough to appeal to the Hank Williams Jr fans.
If we truly are having a full-on 90s revival right now, then we definitely need to chuck our Brand New Man CD on top of the bucket hats, mom jeans and scrunchies that make up the pile. I wonder how long we’ve got until the line dance revival.