It's hard for Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn to get too sentimental about their success when they're crammed on a tour bus with nine other guys. So as the silver behemoth they call home swings past Bourbon Street and north along the Mississippi River to the outskirts of New Orleans, the subject is ... beef jerky. ''Mmmm, there's nothin' like good nutrition,'' says Brooks, 39, the tall (6'2''), dark-haired, cowboy-hatted half of country's new monster act, as he stuffs another gamy strip of meat into his mouth. His partner, the even taller (6'4'') Dunn, 41, looks slightly repulsed. ''It's how he keeps what he thinks are his good looks,'' Dunn says.
But less than an hour later, when Brooks is standing alone on stage during a sound check at the Lakefront Arena, he's more reflective. It doesn't seem so long ago, he says, that he was playing in a cowboy bar on Bourbon Street from 9 p.m. until sunrise. But it was a long time ago like 15 years and there were too many small-time gigs in between.
''Man, I used to have a lot of nights staring at the ceiling, thinking, 'This is never going to happen,''' Brooks remembers, gazing out at the empty seats. ''Now that it has, I almost can't believe it. It's like a dream.''
It's not a dream. Brooks and Dunn, who've just won the Country Music Association's Vocal Duo of the Year award for the third time in a row, are now second only to Reba McEntire as country music's top touring attraction. They've had eight No. 1 singles, including 1991's crossover blockbuster ''Boot Scootin' Boogie''; have sold more than 6 million records; and last month released the third album of their trademark honky-tonk, dance-club-flavored tunes, Waitin' On Sundown. But the story of their careers, at least until they teamed up in 1990, was anything but the Big Easy.
Before they met, Kix Brooks (named for his vigorous kicking in the womb) had carved out a respectable, if anonymous, career as a songwriter on Music Row, churning out hits for acts like the Oak Ridge Boys and Ricky Van Shelton. Ronnie Dunn, who once studied for the Baptist ministry, did years of hard time in country-rock bands. ''It was degrading,'' Dunn recalls. ''You show up and you're a human jukebox. That's why I really wanted everything we have now. I worked every angle.''
So how did two guys whom Brooks calls ''hillbillies with attitude'' turn two decades of going nowhere fast into Nashville's new cash machine? ''Sheer blind determination,'' drawls Dunn, his long legs splayed on a couch in a makeshift dressing room. ''Psychotic need. There are a lot of people who make it who don't have a thimbleful of talent. They just want it more than anybody else. That's what it takes.''