Where Are They Now: Holly Dunn
Born in San Antonio in 1957, Holly Dunn’s first taste of country music success was as a songwriter and a co-write called “Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind” which was recorded by Cristy Lane. At the time, she hadn’t even graduated from college. But that early success led Dunn to head to Nashville, where she worked as a demo singer before joining her brother as a staff songwriter at CBS. She continued a strong songwriter’s initiative while pursuing her own record deal, a period which produced Louise Mandrell’s Top 10 hit “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet.”
In 1985, Dunn landed a recording contract with MTM Records (Mary Tyler Moore). Her first three single barely dented the Billboard charts, but the fourth time was a charm. “Daddy’s Hands” (1986) became her first Top 10 hit and would become her signature. 1987’s Cornerstone produced three more Top 10s–“Love Someone Like Me,” “Only When I Love,” and “Strangers Again”–and so began a six year run where few artists were scoring as many friendly hits as Dunn.
During that window, she notched two #1s, including “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me” and “You Really Had Me Going.” She was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1989.
But after 1990, the hits vanished, and in 2003 Dunn announced her retirement from her musical career to pursue her other passion, art. On her website, she explains, “Early in my music career, I made a little promise to myself that if time and circumstances allowed, I would someday pursue my passion for making art. I am truly thrilled to now be a full-time professional artist living and working in the great Southwest that I love, and love to paint!”
The 9513 had a chance to talk to the personable Holly Dunn and talk about her tale of two careers in artistry.
KEN MORTON, JR.: Both you and your brother ended up in the music business, your brother more on the songwriting side of things. What prompted that career choice?
HOLLY DUNN: We grew up in a musical family. Some families are more focused on sports, ours just happened to be more on music and art and writing. Our dad was a preacher. My brother, Chris, started playing guitar at a very early age. And he’s the one that influenced me, so that by the time I was eight or nine years old, I was also playing guitar. It kind of grew from there. It was just our love and our talent. It was our “thing,” for a lack of a better way to put it. I was actively performing in high school and in college and singing all the time. Chris moved to Nashville in the late 70s and I graduated college in 1979–I’m giving away how old I am–and I just followed him out there. I really have to give him credit because he is the one that made it seem possible. We started writing songs and having hits as songwriters. It made the dream seem like it was attainable.
KMJ: Was a performing career your ultimate goal as a music artist or was it songwriting–or were you just following your brother?
HD: I loved to perform. That was my thing, although I loved to write songs and sing my own songs. That was part of the package I guess. I think when I moved to Nashville, I didn’t know what I’d be able to do. I had hopes and aspirations, and I probably would have been satisfied just being a songwriter, but my goal was to sing in front of people and make records. And do my own music was big. I’m just thankful it worked out that way.
KMJ: Talk to me about what life was like for you in the late 80s and early 90s.
HD: In the early 80s, I was a struggling songwriter making about $100 a week trying to survive living in a little apartment.
KMJ: And probably wondering what your brother had gotten you into?
HD: (Laughing) Exactly! My parents were back in Texas and I was the only girl in the family and every time I would talk to them, they would just say, “Come back to Texas. There’s a music scene here in Austin.” They were putting pressure on me to come home and get real and move back. It wasn’t that they didn’t think I had talent, they just wanted me closer to them. I stuck with it. I had enough encouragement. It’s kind of like gambling–if you win just enough, you keep playing. That’s how encouragement works in Nashville. I had just enough pats on the back.
Other songwriters would have me sing their demos. There were enough positives rolling in to keep going. By 1984, I met a guy named Tommy West who had produced Jim Croce, someone whose music I was very familiar with and whose songs I would sing a little bit. He was forming a record label with some guys from California for MTM, Mary Tyler Moore music group. I was the first artist they signed. I was hardly a recording artist at that point. It’s really what started things.
KMJ: Was it “Daddy’s Hands” that really was the launch pad for your career?
HD: It really was. That little song. Man. It’s been such a gift. It was a gift to me the way it fell into my head. That little song was amazing. It was my fourth single. Each single did a little better and a little better, but I hadn’t even broken the Top 40 yet. I was barely known. My name was barely out there with the DJs and the public. We had barely scratched the surface when we put out “Daddy’s Hands.” It blew the lid off of everything. It was instantaneously accepted. It didn’t go number one, oddly enough. It went number seven. It was on the charts for over six months which back there was unheard of. I got two Grammy nominations because of that song and had eleven award nominations because of that little song. It was gangbusters for me. I won the Horizon Award at the CMA Awards and I won the New Female Vocalist Award at the ACM’s. All of a sudden, it exploded. Then I felt like I was trying to hold on for dear life.
KMJ: Are your ACM & CMA Awards as meaningful today as when you won them?
HD: You know, I’m sitting here in my office looking at them right this minute. They really are. They’re right up there with my three Grammy nominations and my BMI Songwriter of the Year Award. I don’t have a lot of those things out any longer, it almost seems like another person. I’ve been gone long enough where it’s kind of a memory at this point. They symbolize that what we did mattered. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in those awards. There are a lot of miles on the road for those.
KMJ: Looking back, would you have done anything differently, anything over again?
HD: (Laughing) Oh gosh yes. Looking back, we were all so young, I can say there are lots of things we’d rather do over again. I thought I was so very mature at the time, and now at my ripe old age, I can say that there are a lot of things I would have done over again. But that’s just life. Some people I would have kept in my life and others I would have jetted a lot sooner than I did. I would have done things more calm and collected than I did. But you have to just look back and think that you did the best you could. You’d do it with a little more perspective.
“You Really Had Me Going”
“No One Takes The Train Anymore”
KMJ: You’ve retired from music and dived, full-time, into art.
HD: I have. My mom’s a painter and I grew up in a household where music and art kind of ran neck and neck vying for my attention. I knew I had some artistic abilities, but music so grabbed me, that I never gave the art thing any time. I loved it and I collected it. And when I began to make a little bit of money, I became an avid art collector. On the road, we’d always have to stop at art galleries. Santé Fe became one of my favorite places because it’s such an art place. Bit by bit, as my music career began to wind down and as I started to purposefully remove myself from the music business, I began to give myself some time and space to work on my art. This is probably about 10 years ago when I really gave myself the opportunity to work on it.
At that time, I had made a lot of friends in the art business that were very encouraging to me. They are true artists. They said they’d look at my first fledgling pieces and told me to keep going. It was enough to make me want to keep going. I knew I could write a hit song and sing a hit record, but it’s this whole art thing that still fascinates me. It’s really harder. Music comes out of me so effortlessly. This art thing is much more demanding of me–and I love that. It’s a challenge. I feel very blessed that I got to have two artistic focuses and endeavors in my life and paths to go on. When I left the music business, I was in my 40s. What a great blessing it is to totally be able to reinvent yourself and have a whole other passion halfway through your life. I thought I had gotten everything out of the music business that I was going to get. I made a conscious decision one day–I was standing backstage at the Grand Ole Opry–that I could be 80 years old in the same Manuel jacket I had always worn singing “Daddy’s Hands” or I could just say, “Thank you very much.” I had been there 25 years and gotten everything out of it that I was going to get in a big sense, and proved everything that I had set out to prove.
I just decided to go do something else. And I haven’t regretted it. It wasn’t probably the most sound financial decision I ever made to walk away from six figures. (Laughing) But I’ve never regretted it–it’s led to the chance to do this.
KMJ: Was walking away from your Grand Ole Opry membership the hardest piece of that decision?
HD: It was. And I would still be a member of the Opry if they’d allow it. But I’d been away from it for awhile–I think I’d been gone for two years solidly. And I got a phone call from Pete Fisher. And I knew it was coming. They like to keep the Opry role at about seventy people who are actively performing. And I knew that they’d been adding people since I left. But it hurt. I’m not going to tell you it didn’t. Because I loved the Opry. And I still love the Opry. And I had really participated as a younger member. It wasn’t just something I wanted on my resume like some who said that they wanted to be a member of the Opry and never showed up. I really was an active member. My last two years in Nashville, when I wasn’t on the road, I was at the Opry. I hosted the TV show and I hosted the backstage show for two years. I was Bill Anderson’s substitute host when he couldn’t be there. And I did commercials for them and radio stuff for them and on and on and on. I loved the Opry and what it stood and stands for.
That was hard. The day they said they were going to remove me from the cast list, that hurt. But I understand and wasn’t surprised. But that was a sad day. But I have some amazing memories. I wish there was a way though to–just to make a suggestion to them–to keep a list of folks that were members in the past. This whole total expunging you from the list is sort of a little harsh, I think. There are people on that list, that I know for a fact, that might make it once a year if they’re lucky. It’s a little subjective. That’s my only gripe.
KMJ: Any side singing? Church? Little clubs no one knows about? Karaoke bars? Anything?
HD: (Laughing) No, not really. When I lived in New Mexico, I went to this little community church just literally around the corner from my house and I sang a little bit for them. And that was nice. It kept my chops up. I have a guitar that I keep out in my living room and occasionally I’ll pick it up because I just don’t want to totally lose my skills. But my total creative focus is on my art. I do five or six art shows a year. People come to see me there. I’m growing the art thing. There’s nothing like the music world and nothing will be. Art is a whole different thing. But this fulfills me creatively. I don’t miss the music thing because they both come from the same place. It doesn’t matter if it is a song or a piece of art, I just need to be making something. It puts me in my zone.
KMJ: Mostly Southwestern in theme?
HD: I work in photo realistic forms. My work is representational. It’s almost photographic. I work in pastels and it’s highly detailed. I do a lot of southwestern themes because I’m drawn to that. I lived in New Mexico and I’ve gone back and forth between there and Texas since I was a little girl. I love the architecture and the colors of the southwest. I love the sky. I do a lot of iconic images of the southwest. I do a lot of churches. But I also do a lot of wildlife. I’ll pair an old Native American pot or antiquity and put a bird in the picture with it. I like to pair an animate and an inanimate object. I sell everything I make and as long as I keep doing that, I’ll keep chugging along.
KMJ: Do you anticipate ever going back and recording or writing new music?
HD: I never say never. I’m a person who just never closes doors like that–mostly because I have gratitude to the people that I worked with. I don’t see that happening. I’ve been gone so long now. I still get my CMA magazine every quarter and I recognize fewer and fewer of the people in there. I realize I’m getting more and more far away from that business and out of touch. I’m not even sure it’s possible. I’m sure I could go and make a little record. I could drive an hour down to Austin and make a little record by myself and sell it on my website. I could do that. But I don’t have any plans to do that. I might do it someday, but it will just be for my own self-satisfaction. There’s not a spot for me in Nashville any longer. They’ve moved on.
When you’re off the charts for over a year, you’re as good as gone. How many people do you know that have really ever made a comeback? What they like now is the really young, cute, little skinny girls. (Laughter) I’m cute–just not as cute as I used to be! It happens to all of us. I just don’t think I want to go out and have to have a lot of surgery to get back to where I’d need to be. That darn Father Time. I’m probably in the best place I could ever be right now. I’m perfect in my personal life, right nearby my mother and having the time together is really a blessing for both of us.
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