This wasn't supposed to be a piece about a father's influence. It just turned out that way. The goal was to interview two of my heroes, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, about a third hero, Dale Earnhardt.
The country music superstars enjoyed the rare blessing of spending extensive time with Earnhardt, one of the more mysterious icons of a generation. Big E was hard to get to and even harder to get to know. But they were friends. True friends. So they saw depth and vulnerability The Man In Black didn't often reveal.
Their stories are rich and rare, a tangible portal toward an untouchable subject, and they made me think about my father's mark on my life's approach and direction. My father is in everything I do. He is in every mistake I make and every triumph I achieve.
I see him every day when I look at my children. And every day that passes, he was a little bit more right.
Dunn inadvertently reminded of that with a story that proved to be a verbal haymaker.
We were discussing the "Honky Tonk Truth" video, which he and Brooks shot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and featured a cameo by Earnhardt. They were positioned in front of the casino's main sign, out front on a hoist, high above the ground.
And they were winging it. There was no script. Brooks and Dunn felt badly about asking Earnhardt to participate in the first place, and by now they'd kept him there longer than was originally planned. During a lull in the action, while director Sherman Halsey and his crew worked through some set changes, Dunn turned to Earnhardt and mentioned his father.
Dunn said it struck a nerve.
"He and I were up on this hoist, and I forget what it was, something like, 'What would our dads think of us standing up here in the middle of nowhere doing this crazy stuff?' " Dunn said. "And he spun around and said, 'What the hell?!'
"His reaction gave me a little insight into how driven he was -- and why -- and about what his dad had accomplished, and him as a kid and how big that was to him.
"I felt the same way about my dad. He really wanted to be a country singer. He did his deal at a certain level, but never broke into the big time. That's interesting psychologically, how that goes on to motivate and drive us along the way -- forever. We talked about that -- I talked about my dad and he told me about his. It was a common bond. It made him what he was."
Brooks explained that the idea for the "Honky Tonk Truth" video was born by chance at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Brooks and Dunn were walking across the Brickyard garage toward Earnhardt's No. 3 transporter to see their buddy when they heard longing whispers behind them.
"Ronnie and I had gone to the track to watch him drive the night before we shot it, I think at Indy, and some girls were walking behind us going over to his trailer," Brooks said. "And I could hear one of them from behind us going, 'That's him, isn't it!' And of course, my arrogance assumes they're talking about me, so I puff up. And I look over my shoulder and one of them goes, 'Aw man. That's not Earnhardt!' I'm like, 'Well, s---!' "
When they arrived (defeated) at the transporter, they told Earnhardt the story. Then they hatched a concept for the video. Like Earnhardt, Brooks had a famous mustache. Wearing cowboy hats, they looked quite similar. He also noted that he carried two exact items of everything he wore. Earnhardt would dress exactly like Brooks and strum a guitar, lip sync a little bit. They'd take quick shots of both and the audience wouldn't be able to distinguish between them until later in the video, when the shots got longer.
"He goes, 'I ain't doin' that! I can't sing! I can't act! I'll wind up looking like an idiot!'" Brooks laughed. "And I go, 'I swear, if you don't like this video, you have my word, I'll cut out every part with you in there! Regardless, come out and have some fun and a couple of drinks, and you can see how the video's made. I swear this will be fun, Dale.'
"So he came out there and we went to dinner and had a few drinks, and he loosened up and quit worrying about it. And we got up on top of the Rio, where most of it was shot, and just hung out all night and laughed and had a great time. That video is one of the most fun ones we ever did."
Earnhardt loved it.
"When I sent it to him I was on pins and needles, because I really wanted him to like it," Brooks said. "He called me up immediately and goes, 'This is so frickin' good. I love this!' I was so relieved! As far as the night we were doing it, we were just cocktailing and having a good time. Both of us off the clock."
That was the rare moment when Earnhardt played a part. In real life, what he played is who he was. He was honest-to-God intimidating. Both men agreed wholeheartedly to that.
"He was intense. So intense," Dunn said. "The way he goes about things, and his demeanor. His aura is that way. He just didn't have any tolerance for bulls---, unless he was out with the boys handing it out and dealing it."
Brooks: "There was nothing subtle about anything he did. He certainly had a very sincere and very serious side to him, but when we were out in the open, it was always just wide-open. He lived his life just the way he lived on the racetrack. He was very intimidating. He was dangerous. And there was really no one I enjoyed spending time with more than him."
Dunn told tales of fishing expeditions during which business suits tagged along. Big E didn't like that so much. On one such outing, he caught a monster bass, removed it from the hook and flung it directly at an unwelcome business-type.
"It was like, 'Here, throw that in the ice chest, man,' " Dunn howled.
Then there was the time they were fishing in the Bahamas, Dunn continued, howling still, that Brooks snagged a rare white marlin. Earnhardt was overjoyed, grabbed Brooks by the shoulders and started hollering about how amazing the accomplishment was. ("Do you know what you just did?! That's so rare, man!") Then he shoved Brooks in the ocean.
"So here he is in the middle of the f---ing Bahamas, shark-infested waters, [thinking] I'm gonna die!' " Dunn continued. "And sure enough, Dale turned around and came back and got him. But it scared the hell out of him! That's just [Dale's] natural personality, and the makeup of what he was. He was crazy!"
He shared a tale from Richard Childress about a horse-riding outing in Wyoming, next to some steep cliffs, when Earnhardt ran up and slapped Childress' horse as hard as he could. Childress nearly went over the ledge.
"Dale thought stuff like that was funny," Dunn laughed. "You had to keep your distance and be cool, and be very aware that he was around you, that he was even in your zip code."
Brooks: "He was a super fun guy, just Type A to the max. When I'd go visit him at the track, I'd always be looking over my shoulder, because his way of saying hello is to knock you to the ground like a fullback and give you a noogie like a third-grader."
Despite The Intimidator persona, Earnhardt was a very caring person. For years, at least once a week, Brooks chatted by phone with Earnhardt. The conversations were typical of run-and-gun famous fathers who lived in the revolving door that spins between the restlessness of fame and refuge of family.
That door is glass: From one side of life you can always peer through and see the other. And it never stops spinning.
Theirs were different lives but the same, one a country music superstar and the other a transcendent icon in auto racing. So to have an understanding ear was wonderful. Both were the everyman, entrenched in here-today-gone-tomorrow whirlwinds; another stage in another town, pushed, pulled, tugged, scheduled. Glamorous but taxing. With it came much expectation.
During one particular Wednesday morning conversation, Earnhardt wasn't attentive. He was preoccupied. Brooks noticed readily and told his friend they could chat another time.
"He was upset," Brooks recalled. "I could tell he wasn't half paying attention. So I go, 'Hey, man, you busy or something? If you gotta go, go.' He said, 'Naw, I gotta tell you. I don't let anybody ever sign my name. Ever. That's a fightin' deal right there for me.' "
He said, 'If I'd have called on Monday, I'd have been able to talk to that kid.' I said, 'Man you just gotta let that go.' But he said, 'Right now, I just feel -- it's not selfish, I don't know what it is, but I really feel like I screwed something up real bad.'
"-- Kix Brooks on Dale Earnhardt's feelings about missing an opportunity to reach out to a fan who had died
Earnhardt wanted every autograph to be authentic. It was a piece of him that his fans deserved to know was real. As a result, Brooks explained, Earnhardt kept a schedule. Monday was mail day. He would come into the office, where two stacks of mail sat on his desk. One pile was standard fan mail. The other stack contained items that required greater attention and more urgency.
On that particular Monday, Brooks continued, Earnhardt had an engagement he wanted to attend, and did. Brooks said possibly it was a fishing trip. The mail on his desk sat for two extra days.
" 'So I got in this morning,' " Brooks said Earnhardt told him during that Wednesday chat, " 'and looked at my pile, and there was a note on there from a kid at a hospital, and he was a big fan of mine. And he was like a Make-A-Wish kid, and he wanted to talk to me, was his wish. So I called him up, and the kid passed away yesterday.'
"He said, 'If I'd have called on Monday, I'd have been able to talk to that kid.' I said, 'Man you just gotta let that go.' But he said, 'Right now, I just feel -- it's not selfish, I don't know what it is, but I really feel like I screwed something up real bad.' "
The friends discussed the situation for some time afterward.
It was a rare peek for Brooks into his friend's soul.
"I'm barely famous compared to what he was, and all the demands on your time and everything else are hard, but those were real things in his life that he really cared about," Brooks said.
"He was hard-ass and a wild-ass, but he had a heart as big as North Carolina. Things that mattered, mattered to him. He couldn't do it all. Every now and then I'd catch him on a day like that and I'd realize what a soft center he had."
Another example of that was the No. 1 Brooks & Dunn smash "You're Gonna Miss Me." Brooks, Dunn and Don Cook wrote the song, and Earnhardt embraced it like none other.
"That meant a lot," Brooks said. "It's funny that that song, him and Ty Murray, as much fun as we had together, two hardcore badasses that I really respect, both loved that song.
"And it kind of shows you a lot, from a rodeo cowboy to a race car driver, both of them, you just consider being completely hard-ass competitors, they both came to me as friends with a soft side, for lack of a better way of putting it, and sincerely told me how much they loved that song.
"It's sort of a testament to the human condition that all of us hate to let people know that we've got a soft side when we're grown men. We want to be badasses. Those are the things in your life -- especially like a song you create -- that allows you to sort of break through the bulls--- and find a friendship that's a little deeper than just hitting each other in the arm."
I wondered aloud what it must be like for your words to matter so deeply and so personally to someone so transcendent. Dunn paused for a long while when asked. He told me, as a kid growing up in Oklahoma and Texas, NASCAR was never his thing. He had no interest in investing the time to sit and watch. Then he saw Earnhardt race live at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It changed everything.
"I saw him come from two laps down with 38 laps to go to win the race. I was blown away by what I saw," he said. "It made me respect so much what he did.
"I remember him calling us back to the back of the trailer. I was always very self-conscious about not getting up into his space. He'd go back to the back of the trailer and take a nap. That was a big tradition for him.
"And I never wanted to impose on him. He'd buck up, shoot the breeze, and I'd always catch myself going, 'What the hell am I doing back here?' I don't know what connection there was there. But there was an unspoken thing that drew us together."
Earnhardt's death affected Brooks and Dunn differently. They both remember the day vividly.
They were in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to play a show at the Trump Taj Mahal. Both watched the Daytona 500 in their respective hotel rooms. Both saw the crash. Both said they received separate phone calls from the racetrack with the news that their friend had died.
"It dropped me to my knees," Dunn said. "I got a call, after seeing [the wreck], maybe 15 minutes after from a friend who was close to Dale. He said, 'Dale's gone.' I hung up the phone, knocked on Kix's door. I told him I just got a call. Dale didn't make it."
"It's so hard to talk about, even today," he continued. "In some ways, it doesn't make sense. I don't know. There's something weird about how ... I don't know ... about him. If it was someone else, it probably wouldn't have affected me that way. I remember the funeral, seeing people come in from all over the world, sports figures from everywhere.
"It dawned on me the outreach he had, and the impact on people's lives he had. And more than just being a racecar driver. He's just a really strong personality. Johnny Cash was that way. Once you've been in a room with him a couple of times ... they're so rare."
Brooks said he has a governor for that emotion. He lost his mother when he was 4 years old. His grandmother came to help raise him, and she died when he was 7. That built an emotional filter within him that allows those feelings to seep in from time to time.
"I'm still getting over it," Brooks said. "And at the same time, I was able to cope with it, kind of that same day. I'll never forget it. I was at the Taj Mahal, and we were fixing to play in Atlantic City, and I was watching the race and that wreck hit.
"I remember [Michael] Waltrip going, 'I'm still worried about Dale.' They were all celebrating the win. About that time, somebody called from the pits and said, 'Man, Dale's dead.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'I gotta go now. I just wanted to let you know.' I just sat there going, 'Holy s---.' And then all this stuff broke loose."
Brooks said he and Dunn decided they would press on with the scheduled show and try to block out the news. When they walked onstage that hope became immediately impossible.
"I walked out on stage that night, and the first thing I saw staring me right in the face, in the front row, there's this guy with tats all over him and a Dale Earnhardt No. 3 T-shirt, center stage, right up front, with big ol' damn crocodile tears rolling down his cheeks," Brooks said. "I'm thinking, 'S---, he knows.' So I watch this guy all night. It was very surreal.
"I couldn't think about anything else. Words were coming out of my mouth but it totally dominated. And then from there, it was just ... on, all the stuff that comes with losing a friend, without getting to say goodbye."
Both men take great solace in the keen memories. They belly laugh now at the stories. They could not possibly have enjoyed one another's company more. And they're still learning.
"I'm damn near 60 years old, I got to Nashville 30 years ago!" Brooks said. "It seems like yesterday. Ronnie and mine's career flew by in the blink of an eye. It seems so cliché, but if you get to experience that kind of friendship, whether it's your girlfriend or wife, if you get to experience that kind of love ... I'm just learning not to live with regret.
"I'm learning to appreciate the blessings. Because regrets aren't something you want to spend any time on."
Following a vacation trip to Africa, Dunn said he woke up jet-lagged one morning recently and flipped on the television. There was a program on about important moments in NASCAR history. One of them was Earnhardt's fatal crash.
"To this day, I catch myself tearing up when they showed the wreck and talked about it," he said. "There's a profound impact there for me. I don't do that [reaction]. I don't understand why I did."
Dunn paused again to collect himself, not sure what exactly to say. During that moment I said to him what I say most every time I discuss Earnhardt:
"Superman's not supposed to die."
"That's it, buddy," he said. "That's exactly it."