Holly Dunn has combined versatility and hard work to become a popular country singer. A musician who writes or co-writes her hit songs, she also oversees production of her records and videos and performs some two hundred live shows each year. It is no wonder, then, that the trim, long-haired beauty has won several of country music’s most prestigious awards and in 1989 was named a regular cast member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Dunn’s music is considered typical of “country-fried feminism,” a tougher approach to lyrics that removes women from traditional victim roles. Her songs—most notably “You Really Had Me Going” and “Maybe I Mean Yes”—fairly shine with self-respect and self-determination. This theme is hardly surprising for a woman who has engineered a top-level career for herself and has written songs for others as well. Dunn commented to the Associated Press, “I’m the only one, as far as I know on the female side, who writes, produces and sings the material. I think this gives me a real legitimacy, a genuineness. I’m not just up there standing where they tell me to stand, singing what they tell me to sing. I ‘feel’ what I do.”
Holly Dunn was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, the daughter of a minister. She had a happy childhood in a large family and was particularly close to her father. While growing up, she enjoyed many different types of music. Her father was a friend of country singer Sonny James, so as a child, Dunn was often allowed backstage at country concerts to meet the stars. On the other hand, she also loved pop music, especially the Beatles, James Taylor, Carole King, and Barbra Streisand.
“I’ve always been a writer of some kind,” Dunn remarked in the Arizona Republic. “Even back when I was just a little kid, like 7 years old, I was writing, little journal kinds of things. By the time I was in high school, my proficiency on guitar was good, and I started writing songs.” Dunn also enjoyed singing, and as a teenager she won a spot with the Freedom Folk Singers, a group that represented Texas at the White House bicentennial celebrations in 1976. During her college years at a small Christian university in Texas, she continued to perform folk and country music, and after graduating, she headed straight for Nashville, Tennessee.
During her first year in Nashville, Dunn worked as a clerk in a bookstore and then as a travel agent while trying to land a job in the music industry. Before long she earned a songwriting contract with CBS Records,
For the Record…
Born August 22, 1957, in San Antonio, TX; daughter of a minister. Education: Abilene Christian University, B.A., 1979.
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist, 1980—. Worked variously as a bookstore clerk and a travel agent. Songwriter for CBS Songs, c. 1982-84; signed with MTM Records, 1985; released debut album, Holly Dunn, 1986; moved to Warner Bros. Records, 1989; named to the regular cast of the Grand Ole Opry, 1989.
Selected awards: Named top new female vocalist by Academy of Country Music, 1986; Horizon Award, Country Music Association, 1987; Named BMI Songwriter of the Year, 1988; Grammy Award nominations for “Daddy’s Hands” and “A Face in the Crowd.”
Addresses: Record company —Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
and she spent nearly four years writing hits for such entertainers as Louise Mandrell, Terri Gibbs, Marie Osmond, and the Whites. Though she was successful as a writer, Dunn longed to perform her own songs. In 1985 she was offered a contract with MTM Records and released her first album, Holly Dunn.
Even before the album was finished, MTM released a Dunn single, “Daddy’s Hands.” A touching memoir of a child’s loving relationship with her father, “Daddy’s Hands” became a Number One country hit and has since become a country classic. Dunn earned her first Grammy Award nomination for the work, and she was also named top new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. The following year she earned the prestigious Horizon Award—given to a newcomer showing the most promise of a stellar career—from the Country Music Association.
Though Dunn is often referred to as an overnight success, her accomplishments were won with hard work and sacrifice. Since she was recording with a small label—which has since folded—Dunn traveled and performed without many of the perks big country stars receive, including deluxe touring buses and expensive costumes. For more than a year Dunn and her band traveled to gigs in a Toyota van pulling a U-Haul trailer. A string of country hits later, she was still touring in a 27 foot recreation vehicle with the trailer attached. She sewed sequins on her costumes and hand painted them to enhance her appearance onstage, and she did her share of late-night driving.
“It’s pretty embarrassing to pull into a place where you’re opening for [singer] George Strait or somebody down in Texas and have his four buses and all his crew and high-dollar production there, and you roll in looking like the Beverly Hillbillies in your RV,” Dunn recalled in the Chicago Tribune. “All we needed was Granny in a rocker on top.” Dunn added, however, that she made the decision to tour in this manner herself. “I actually made money that year, and I talked to other artists at that level who weren’t making anything,” she said.
Dunn’s frugality on the road and her intelligence in the studio helped her to sustain a career that might well have faltered. The artist told the Chicago Tribune that her momentum sagged after her initial success with “Daddy’s Hands” and “Only When I Love.” “I felt there was a whole pack of us [young country vocalists] starting out more or less together,” Dunn explained, “and I kind of pulled ahead there for awhile. But after the Horizon Award, those people who had been kind of behind me passed me up, and that was frustrating.”
Dunn struggled along with MTM Records until 1989. Just before MTM folded, she moved to Warner Bros., a larger label that was able to market her wares more effectively; she has consistently produced hits ever since. Also in 1989, she was named to the regular cast of the Grand Ole Opry, a significant honor for any country performer.
Dunn continues to write many of her own songs. She has a collaborator, her brother Chris Waters, who also helps oversee the production of her albums. With her strong voice, wholesome beauty, and catchy lyrics, Dunn seems destined for a fruitful career in Nashville. She knows what country fans want—basic, traditional tunes with perhaps a little kick to them—and she is glad to oblige. The singer remarked in the Orlando Sentinel, “The day-to-day lifestyles and emotions and values of American life are what country music is all about. Growing up in the heart of Americana, I learned from my parents about those lifestyles and emotions and values. And true country music is the best outlet for me to talk about what I know.”
Holly Dunn, MTM, 1985.
Cornerstone, MTM, 1986.
Across the Rio Grande, MTM, 1988.
The Blue Rose of Texas, Warner Bros., 1989.
Heart Full of Love, Warner Bros., 1990.
Milestones, Warner Bros., 1991.
Vaughan, Andrew, Who’s Who in New Country Music, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Akron Beacon Journal, October 2, 1989.
Arizona Republic, June 7, 1991.
Associated Press (wire report), September 14, 1990.
Chicago Tribune, August 20, 1989; October 26, 1989.
Country America, February 1991.
Orlando Sentinel, June 18, 1989.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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