Merle Haggard once asked Kix Brooks why The Last Rodeo had to be the last. “We had him out for the last two weeks of our tour, which was a big honor for us,” Brooks said last week during a round-table media session at Caesars Palace. “We were sitting on his bus in Woodstock in New York, looking out at this sold-out crowd, and he said, ‘Damn, Kix, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Look at all those people. Why would you want to leave this?’”
This was in 2010, on the last leg of what was to be the last tour headlined by Brooks & Dunn, a duo that debuted in 1990 and had enjoyed more success than they’d ever imagined. Which led to Brooks’ answer to Haggard’s inquiry.
“I said, ‘Damn, Merle. I loved Pancho & Lefty,” Brooks said, referring to the 1983 album recorded by Haggard and Willie Nelson. “You and Willie did one freakin’ album and quit! Ronnie and I made it 20 years! Are you kidding me?”
Today, Brooks & Dunn are not done. They are now two-thirds of a trio headlining the Colosseum, along with country legend Reba McEntire. The table-setting title of this production, Reba and Brooks & Dunn: Together in Vegas makes the point clear: These are stars of equal billing sharing a stage on the Strip. The triumvirate launched its residency on June 17, with shows continuing this month, in early July again in mid-December.
It’s a reintroduction to Las Vegas for all three superstars. Reba debuted in the city in the mid-1980s, opening for Roy Clarke at Caesars Palace’s Circus Maximus. Brooks & Dunn also played that room, and in 2006 all three played the Las Vegas Hilton, though the dates staggered, with Reba playing spring and summer gigs that year and Brooks & Dunn performing in December.
As the return to Vegas has already indicated, the Reba and Brooks & Dunn residency is an exercise in entertainment, education and illumination. From the opening weekend, we found:
The trio are still impressed at having their images grace marquees overlooking the Strip. “We were hanging our heads out the window, taking pictures of the sign outside,” Ronnie Dunn said. “We were hoping we’d hit a red light so we could fire off enough shots.”
The setlist went through multiple versions before landing on the 30 songs played at the Colosseum. The key was to ask, “Which ones do I like to sing among my own songs?” McEntire explained. “I picked out my favorites, and they picked out their favorites, and we put them together.” Brooks added, “Ronnie and I had put together a good hour and a half or two of just good songs we could agree on, on our own, and cut that in half. So we’re playing a lot of medleys, mashing up some of those songs, which was something we really hadn’t done before.”
Thus, the list pulls a high quality of hits from both acts, like “Play Something Country,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “Why Haven’t I Heard From You?” “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “You Lie,” “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” and “Only in America.”
Brooks & Dunn get along just fine. Many music observers, Elton John among them, have wondered if these guys just don’t mix well (Elton has joked onstage at the Colosseum that Reba was added to the act because the other two don’t speak to each other). But that doesn’t appear to be the case. “There’s no rift,” Brooks said. “We just stopped performing because there wasn’t anything left for us to accomplish.” Echoed Dunn, “We figured we’d done it all.”
Reba is largely responsible for the early success of Brooks & Dunn, and also for this residency. The three toured together in 1993-94 and again in 1997-98. “She was the first person who really took us on tour,” Brooks said. “We were working for her, but there wasn’t any, ‘Don’t look me in the eye,” stuff going on.” At which point Dunn stepped in and said, “We did have to break through the star curve, the vanity thing …” And Reba fired back with, “I am gonna beat the tar out of you! He is full of it!”
Reba was the first star to invite the duo to headline a major U.S. tour, was the first to invite them on a private jet and was the first to offer a raise—unsolicited—during that tour. “She came to our dressing room and said, ‘We think you’re fixin’ to have a real big career and we want to be friends.”
As for the return to Vegas, Dunn said, “I don’t think we’d be performing together if it weren’t for this residency, and if it weren’t for Reba.”
Reba, Brooks & Dunn Next shows June 26 & 27, July 1, 3 & 4; 7:30 p.m.; $60-$205. Colosseum, 866-227-5938.