Ronnie Dunn doesn't have to consider the question for very long before he answers.
"I used to be critical of our differences," he responds as he tries to get to the heart of the matter of what makes Brooks & Dunn such a long-running success story. "Now I think the strengths of what we do are just that: the differences Kix (Brooks) and I have adds a dynamic that is off balance. You never know where it's heading."
Not to mention, he adds, smiling, "and it's a little bit dangerous."
Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, easily the most successful duo in Country music history, bring it on again.
Refreshed and energized after a brief period of transition, they don't talk or act like who they are — artists who have been in the same job for a very long time. Excuse the cliché, Dunn might be implying, but it all feels new again.
"We are at the peak of our game," he says without apology. "I say that knowing what I know about the new record and the tour and the buzz around it for the first time."
In fact, he adds, he doesn't think things could get much better right now. "We're very excited," he says.
There is hard evidence to support such emotion. The boys seem to be back on top once again. The Academy of Country Music named them Top Duo at its annual awards in May, breaking the Academy's longest winning streak. The honor came the same week that their single, "There Ain't Nothing 'Bout You," was in its fourth week at number one in the nation. The track is off their new album, intriguingly entitled Steers & Stripes, which already had debuted at the top of the charts.
It's all part of the overall picture for the three-time Country Entertainers of the Year who have sold 20 million albums since 1991 (and still counting).
They are off and running down the road again, headlining Brooks & Dunn's Neon Circus & Wild West Show, a tour the likes of which has not been seen for some time in the industry.
"Our (booking) agents said, 'This thing is lined up to be the best thing you've ever had' and they are sincere. The way the record is taking off and with the booking of the tour, it will run until close to December," Dunn says.
A caravan of seven matching jet-black semis plus a bus is required to take this extravaganza across the country and the Country landscape. It's billed as a freewheeling evening with a midway, featuring Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry and Keith Urban, and an assortment of fire breathers, knife jugglers, trick ropers, stilt walkers and rodeo clowns.
"It's primarily being done in amphitheaters, which are our favorite venues to play," Dunn says. "The crowds are outdoors, or at least semi-outdoors, and it's a lot more boisterous and stuff. It gives us an opportunity with the production stuff. There is more of a circus vibe and rodeo cowboy motif to it. These acts will be working with the audience before and between the shows, going out and messing with the people (he laughs)."
It easily is the first time Brooks & Dunn have ever done anything like this, he assures.
"We talked about it for year — doing a cowboy kind of vibe with sideshows all over the place," he says.
Along the way, there is a statement of sorts being made.
"A bill like this indicates cooperation in Country, as far as all the acts getting together," Dunn says. "There is a real camaraderie already between all these guys. We've known Toby forever, and Montgomery Gentry was already out with us, and Keith Urban is a fabulous guitar player who hasn't been exposed on a mass scale. Just wait until people see this guy! He performs like Albert Lee. Everybody on this bill is having chart success."
Dunn assures that he and Brooks are more than happy to share a stage with a group that beat them out last fall for Duo of the Year in the Country Music Association honors. Brooks & Dunn are nine-time nominees.
"We're happy for those guys, very much so," he says. "They are good guys and fun to be with."
There actually was a sigh of relief by Brooks & Dunn that their winning streak at the CMAs was over, he says.
"There is a funny thing that happens when you keep winning," he says. "It's kind of like NASCAR fans. With racecar drivers, the second a guy gets on a winning streak, the crowds start booing them automatically. The whole crowd boos the second the car pulls on the track. It's a psychological thing with the public. The underdog is the guy to root for. Each time we won we almost cringed. People kept saying, 'There is no competition. It's gonna be these guys again.' "
Now the pressure is off to an extent, he acknowledges. And now it's on to the music and having fun. And what better place to share it than on the stage, Dunn wonders aloud.
"It's is probably gonna take you by surprise," Dunn says. "I think people will find it a little more powerful." The energy level is quite high, he says. "We've had people tell us after a show that they just didn't expect it to be that up," he says.
It wasn't that long ago, Dunn admits, where he and Brooks went through a bit of a down period. "It kind of felt like an all-time low," he says. "The record label went under and through a major transition where we lost the major executives calling the shots. We were fragmented in our last record (1999's appropriately titled Tight Rope). There was a different producer. We laid low for a year. It was very frustrating."
But it has all turned around in 2001 with the new album and being able to work with producer Mark Wright — he of the hot hand with his work with Lee Ann Womack and Clint Black.
In many ways, making Steers & Stripes was a lot like making their groundbreaking first album, Brand New Man, Dunn suggests. "It's more like the first record than any other record we've done. We took a lot of time off from touring and really dug in to make a serious record."
Dunn says he feels like Steers very well may be their best effort yet.
"If it's not, it's right up there with Brand New Man," he says.
"It's hard ... someone like Madonna has been able to sustain and reinvent themselves almost every year or two," Dunn adds, saying that traditionally, in the past, Country has not allowed that kind of freedom.
He thinks the atmosphere has changed. "Now the Country market doesn't seem so concerned with boundaries. They are letting us run, giving us tremendous freedom. That's so much fun as an artist."
BROOKS & DUNN perform on Saturday at Riverbend.