For Ronnie Dunn, country music is a moving target. “Even George Strait would tell you that,” he says, engaged, but relaxed in an easy chair centered in a rented living room in Nashville. It’s a big media day for Dunn, but the country veteran isn't totally well-versed in the talking points his record label has set aside for him. There are cracks in the polish.

He’s trying. Dunn is trying to toe the line, understanding that his sharp opinions can turn off as many fans as they turn on. Releasing Tattooed Heart (Nov. 11) was a team effort, unlike his last solo album, Peace, Love and Country Music, released on his own Will-E record label. Two years ago, he promised change. He was a one-man band that used guerrilla marketing tactics like playing from the top of Rippy's on Nashville's Lower Broadway as guests left an awards show. The establishment didn't care for his message, and it cost him.

Now, a radio promotion department at Nash Icon Records is working his single "Damn Drunk" to radio. A full camera crew was hired to shoot video footage of each of the day’s interviews. As he answers questions about his album — including the Ariana Grande cover, his relationship with Kix Brooks and yes, politics — a gaggle of publicists watch nearby. He has people.

It’s always gonna change, always gonna change. Take that bat, swing away, beat it to a pulp, but it’s gonna get up and move right past you. Beat the s--t out of it, you’re not gonna kill it.

Still, you can’t tame wild horses. “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More” is the most provocative song on Tattooed Heart, but at track 12 and buried within a very traditional arrangement, you almost miss what he’s talking about.

“'She' is music,” Dunn admits. “That’s that little voice in the back of my head, the traditional voice, kind of saying ‘Hey, she don’t sound like she used to, she don’t dress like she used to.’”

That balance between old and new and progressive and traditional is one Dunn is forever searching to keep, or maybe intentionally looking to knock off-center. On one hand, he hears his father’s voice in the back of his head asking him if what he’s cutting is really a country song. He’s also talking back to his old man — figuratively, of course.

“I think I would turn around to that voice (of his father) and go, ‘Really? Define that for me,’” he says. “‘Let’s pull everyone in from down the street, all ages and define it.’”

Still he yearns for an older sound, but wants to be able to place in between a commercialist rock and an artistically satisfying hard place. In “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More” he’s singing about what’s missing in country music.

“I come from Texas and Oklahoma, where stuff was cowboy boots and belt buckles and there was a western influence and the dance thing was a big integral part of it,” the 63-year-old says when directly asked what he misses. “Still, you’re going to find whiskey all through this record, women and the southwest imagery and stuff like that to an extent. That no longer exists for the most part. So where do you go with that? Do you sit back in a corner and say ‘Okay, I’m gonna stay here in this box.’ Or do you venture out a little bit?”

Dunn likes to venture. A song like “Young Buck” is thinner and more beat-heavy than one his father would approve of. And then there’s the Grande cover song, which is the title track. He admits he was so afraid of recording that song that he worked it out himself before even revealing he was interested in it. You may find him criticizing modern country music, but he’s more surgical about it, never slamming today's most progressive artists as a whole, like Aaron Lewis recently did.

“You can do that,” he says of the baseball bat approach. “(But) Go back to Willie in the ‘70s. I was in college when Willie (Nelson) came out and they were smoking dope, they were pushing limits and all this stuff you didn’t do. It’s always gonna change, always gonna change. Take that bat, swing away, beat it to a pulp, but it’s gonna get up and move right past you. Beat the sh-- out of it, you’re not gonna kill it.”

Anyone who spends time with Dunn comes away with a refreshing opinion that even after 20 years, a few dozen industry awards and No. 1 hits and a spot waiting in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he’s still trying to figure it out. When he released “Country This” from his Peace, Love and Country Music album, he was nervous about it. Looking back, he admits maybe he pushed too far.

“That’s me and (songwriter Craig) Wiseman getting high on our juice,” he jokes. Nothing comes close on Tattooed Heart, an eclectic album that takes fewer chances but still touches the heart. Reba McEntire joins him on “Still Feels Like Mexico.” His old Brooks & Dunn duet partner joins him on “Damn Drunk.”

“I knew people would be like, ‘Oh, you guys are playing around with getting back together,’ and we’re not doing that,” Dunn says. “I would play all of the tracks and stuff … to Kix and he said something one night and I just popped off like a smart aleck. I think he said it needs a low part on there to kind of pick it up and I said, ‘Well go do it!’ Kind of called him out, and sure enough he goes to Jay (producer Jay DeMarcus) and went and did it.”

Big Machine Label Group
Big Machine Label Group

Can you imagine Ronnie Dunn “popping off”? If you follow him on Facebook you can. Dunn made clear he supported Donald Trump in the most recent presidential election, and when the topic comes up, he freezes as if to say, 'I can’t talk about this right now.' Indeed, he quieted down on social media for reasons unknown ("letting my wounds heal"), but as the election wound down, he engaged once again.

“I like the back and forth with people,” he says. “There’s nutcases, like everywhere else. But I really like going back and forth with people, just getting a feel for what they say, how they feel.”

To be fair, he doesn’t “pop off" — he engages in the back and forth, often responding to his fans in a most respectful, even if not agreeable, manner. He’s a fan of the revolution, even if he can’t quite evict the old-school Texas cowboy living in the back of his mind. Musically, socially, politically … he’s consistent. A strong brakeman is needed to slow his fast moving train.

“I’m always trying to push myself a little farther than last time,” Dunn says, smiling. “Sometimes I get scalded and back up.”

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