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Holly Dunn succumbs in Santa Fe . . .

Holly Dunn succeeded as singer-songwriter . . . and visual artist

NASHVILLE — Enigmatic singer-songwriter Holly Dunn scored successes here over a 10-year span, then abruptly departed Music City, seemingly seeking solace elsewhere. Her untimely death in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Nov. 14, at age 59, stunned many music folk.
Reportedly Dunn, who had been suffering from ovarian cancer, died in Hospice care, surrounded by family. Meanwhile, according to June Keys, manager of her Pena-Dunn Gallery in Santa Fe, Holly’s paintings are currently on exhibit there. This is representative of her latter day career thrust.
Dunn, the pretty but saucy, hazel-eyed daughter of a Texas minister, found success as a songwriter for Louise Mandrell, Marie Osmond, Sylvia and The Whites. As a singer, her breakthrough disc was “Daddy’s Hands,” which earned her the Academy of Country Music’s best newcomer award in 1986, along with the CMA’s similar Horizon Award and a Grammy nod.
“It blows my mind sometimes when I think about the impact that song had on people,” Dunn later mused. She was far from a one-hit wonder, as she later racked up four #1 chart songs as an artist, supplied songs to other artists, earning Holly the sobriquet BMI Songwriter of the Year in 1988.
Holly Suzette Dunn was born Aug. 22, 1957 in San Antonio, Texas, daughter of Western landscape artist Yvonne and Frank Dunn, a Church of Christ minister. She was kid sister to Jerry, Rodney and Chris. “When I was 6 my folks bought me a little drum kit as a humane gesture to the pots and pans,” she recalled, but admittedly learned to play big brother’s guitar when he wasn’t around. That’s the instrument she turned to later in writing songs.
A bright child, at age 8 Holly appeared in her first show at Baskin Elementary and remembered it was in third grade that she also started writing poetry: “I was always a deep, introspective sort of kid, kinda serious.”
While her brothers were more into The Beatles, Holly was inspired by folk singers, especially Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. In high school, she became lead vocalist with The Freedom Folk Singers (1975), which had the honor of representing the Lone Star State in Bicentennial celebrations in concert, on TV and at the White House in ’76.
While attending Abilene Christian College, Holly joined The Hilltop Singers, which became a USO tour group: “When I was with them, all we played were small towns in places like Kansas. I quit, and they immediately left on a Mediterranean tour!”
On summer break from college, Holly visited brother Chris in Nashville. He was already an established songwriter, with hits like “Sexy Eyes” (Dr. Hook) and “In a New York Minute” (Ronnie McDowell), so she hung out at his employer’s publishing firm. The siblings tried their hand co-writing and created “Out Of Sight, Not Out Of Mind,” which indie artist Cristy Lane recorded. Excited over her first “cut,” Dunn decided to make the move to Music City, after earning a degree in advertising (and speech pathology) from Abilene Christian College.
Dunn credits the drum with giving her a true sense of rhythm: “I think I had a natural tendency to give my words meter, and the rhythm just seemed like a real, natural thing.” During days she struggled to support herself, so she could concentrate on writing evenings.
“I was a hostess at Spats’ Restaurant, a clerk in a Baptist bookstore and a travel agent briefly . . . ,” she grinned, adding, “But within 10 months after getting here, CBS Songs hired me. Chris came here three years before I did, and him being established as a writer helped me. I guess his credibility kinda rubbed off on me.”
Most likely her biggest success as a writer was Louise Mandrell’s single “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet” (#7, 1984), on which she collaborated with Chris and Tom Shapiro. A close second would be Sylvia’s version of her “True Blue,” which became the flip-side to “Fallin’ In Love” (#2, 1985). Also consigned to a B side was Holly’s co-write “That Old Devil Moon” on Marie Osmond’s 1986 Top Five “Read My Lips.” For Terri Gibbs, the co-writers furnished “An Old Friend.”
Upon hearing her crisp, clear vocals on demos being pitched to artists and producers, Tommy West, A&R honcho at MTM Records, determined she had artist potential, as well, signing her to a label pact. The first few singles didn’t do much to reassure his bosses, but a song written in 1984 as a Father’s Day salute to her dad, finally did the trick in the summer of ’86: “Daddy’s Hands.”
Incidentally, Sharon White heard Holly recording the demo for that song and decided it would work well on their next album, “Whole New World” (1985), and begged Dunn to let them cut it. Thus the Whites – Sharon, Cheryl, and daddy Buck – were the first to record “Daddy’s Hands,” which became the B side to their 1986 Top 40 single “Love Won’t Wait.”
Holly’s duet with Michael Martin Murphey for Warner Bros., “A Face In The Crowd,” took her into the Top Five for the first time (#4, 1987). It followed her amazing success with “Daddy’s Hands.”
A solo single next up was “Love Someone Like Me,” which proved another major success. Actually, Holly Dunn saw four of her creations reach #1, though two were on Billboard’s hot Country Sales chart: “Love Someone Like Me,” her co-write with Radney Foster, stalling at #2 on the regular Country Top 10 chart; and #1 “Only When I Love,” co-authored with Chris and Tom, ranking #4 on the regular chart, both released in 1987.  Of course, “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me,” again from the pens of Holly, Chris and Tom, hit #1 country Aug. 26, 1989; and their follow-up, “You Really Had Me Going,” scored #1 country for Dunn on Nov. 17, 1990.
In between those chart toppers, were strong entries, three released in 1988: “That’s What Your Love Does To Me” (#5), “Strangers Again” (#7), and “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday” (#11), the latter two Holly helped write; and “There Goes My Heart Again” (#4, 1989), was a Joe Diffie co-write.
Holly hit Billboard’s singles chart 21 times over a 10-year period (1985-1995), also charting six albums (all hit in the 20s), the best sales-wise being “Holly Dunn,” “Cornerstone,” “Across The Rio Grande” and in 1991 a greatest hits disc “Milestones,” which even cracked the top pop albums chart. “The Blue Rose of Texas” and “Heart Full of Love” ranked in or near Top 40.
On “Cornerstone,” she was pleased to share the mic with her hero Emmylou Harris for a ballad “Fewer Threads Than These.” Once Holly got a firmer foot-hold on the success ladder, she began co-producing her LPs, notably “Across the Rio Grande,” “Blue Rose of Texas” and “Heart Full of Love,” mainly with Chris. On “Blue Rose of Texas,” another of her heroes added vocals, Dolly Parton, enhancing the song “Most Of All, Why.”
Dunn said, “I know I looked to Dolly and people like Emmylou and Gail Davies for being kind of female pioneers,” having taken control of their discs, as she later did. “That’d be real flattering, if others thought of me that way.”
“That’s What Your Love Does To Me,” had been cut earlier by Michael Johnson, and The Forester Sisters. According to Dunn, “We knew the song had been covered, but hadn’t been out as a single. . . and we felt they hadn’t ‘hooked’ them.” At the time, she also pointed out that the title track of her album “Across the Rio Grande” had been recorded before by Reba McEntire, but Holly’s version added a Spanish language verse to the melodic Tex-Mex tune. She also had recorded a Spanish rendition of “Daddy’s Hands.”
The biggest lament for Holly with her success as a singer was how it cut into writing time, due to demands to hit the road and promote her recordings: “It’s been one of my biggest frustrations. I went from being totally a songwriter to being on the road almost all of the time. And I’m not one of those writers who can write well on the road. There’s not enough time or else I’m too tired or distracted.”
The difference she faced in writing for herself was another eye-opener: “When you write for other artists, you’re trying to appeal to a lot of different tastes, not necessarily your own. Once I had settled into what I wanted to be, I started writing a lot better and things sort of fell into place for me.”
Success also brought her an invitation to join WSM’s Grand Ole Opry cast in 1989. Then Kenny Rogers invited her to duet with him on “Maybe,” for his 1990 Reprise album “Something Inside So Strong,” which peaked Top 20 as a spin-off single. When upstart MTM folded, Dunn signed with Warner’s, where she hit with the chart-toppers “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me” and “You Really Had Me Going.” Her final Top 20 was a Kostas composition “Heart Full of Love” and a follow-up single, “Maybe I Mean Yes,” was charting fine until radio pointed out its politically incorrect message, in lieu of a slew of recent college date rape incidents.
It was in July 1991, Dunn’s “Maybe I Mean Yes” was being bandied about as potentially downplaying the seriousness of date rape, with lyrics like: “Nothin’s worth having, if it ain’t a little hard to get/When I say no, I mean maybe/Or maybe I mean yes . . . ” Regarding their co-write with Holly, Chris and Tom insisted it was mainly penned tongue-in-cheek and decidedly not created to stir up controversy. Dunn noted, “From the beginning, this song was written to be a lighthearted look at one couple’s attempt at dating, handled in an innocent, non-sexual, flirtatious way.”
Nonetheless, the disheartened diva took to the airwaves and requested DJs no longer play her single and asked TNN and CMT to stop beaming its music video, a first for any artist. From her 1992 album “Getting It Dunn,” Warners released consecutive singles: Mel Tillis’ “No Love Have I,” Holly-Chris-and-Tom’s “As Long As You Belong To Me” and Gretchen Peters-Sam Hogin’s “Golden Years,” none of which cracked Top 40.
Seeking a new start, she signed with River North, an indie label in Nashville, which released an album on her, “Life & Love & All The Stages,” from which her last charting – “I Am Who I Am” – which she co-wrote with Chris and Tom, made a statement of sorts: “You’ve tried to remake me, again and again/You can bend, but not break me . . . I’m taking a stand, I’m all I can be baby . . . I am who I am/No regrets, no apologies/I can’t be right for you, if it’s not right for me.”
River North followed up with another CD, “Leave One Bridge Standing,” released in April 1997, initially selling a disappointing 20,000 copies. In Dunn’s book that signaled time for a change. Taking a break from Nashville, she spent much of ’97 as morning co-anchor on WWWW-Detroit’s W-4 Country station. Suddenly prior to the holidays, she announced to listeners her DJ days were done, she would depart Detroit, Dec. 19, 1997.
Holly never married, and despite sharing the stage with some of the hottest hunks in country music, showed no interest in dating any of them. When asked by an inquiring reporter why she chose not to be part of country’s social scene, she claimed that she preferred her own company. Holly’s private life remained as much a mystery as the lady herself.
Dunn’s final album – “Full Circle” – was released in 2003, primarily featuring gospel sounds. Disillusioned with the business, Dunn quit in order to concentrate on more satisfying pursuits. Like her mother before her, Holly became a full-time painter: “I needed to put my creative energy into pursuing the field of fine arts. I also had a love affair with the Southwest, namely New Mexico. Yes, I had always wanted to live out there (in Santa Fe).”