Opry member Holly Dunn had a solid five year run of hits that made her one of the more popular female country singers of the late eighties. That’s a group of women that’s been largely forgotten due to the impact that the women who followed would have, but her extensive gifts as a writer and a special Father’s Day gift she wrote for her Dad have ensured her place in country music history.
Dunn started out young, co-writing songs with her brother Chris Waters and touring the south with the Freedom Folk, a singing group that played for the White House during the Bicentennial Celebration. While attending Abilene Christian University, she joined up with the Hillside Singers, a gospel choir. While still in school, she wrote a song with her brother – “Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind” – that caught the attention of Cristy Lane, who recorded it. The success inspired her to move to Nashville.
She found work as a demo singer, but it was her songwriting talent that really got her noticed. She was hired as a staff writer at CBS, which also employed her brother. She began getting cuts, and when she penned a top ten hit for Louise Mandrell (“I’m Not Through Loving You Yet”), she found herself with a record deal of her own, signing with Mary Tyler Moore’s label MTM.
Dunn set to work on her debut album, and she made the fateful decision to include a song she had written for her Dad as a Father’s Day present. “Daddy’s Hands” was the fourth single that MTM released, but it was Dunn’s first top ten hit. Even though it only went to No. 7, it remains her signature hit, and the wide popularity of the song led to major industry awards. She was named ACM’s Top New Female Vocalist in the spring of 1987, then that fall, she won the CMA Horizon Award, triumphing over fellow nominees Restless Heart and Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
Dunn was soon a hitmaker to be reckoned with, but though she scored a string of hits for MTM records, including the No. 2 “Love Someone Like Me,” it wasn’t enough to keep the small label afloat. MTM collapsed under financial duress, and the label shut its doors. Still, Dunn was a hot commodity, and her contract was picked up by Warner Bros. Her first single for her new label, “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me,” became her first #1 single.
Dunn had another top five hit with “There Goes My Heart Again,” co-written by a young Joe Diffie, but then her singles began to falter. As was the case with many late eighties stars, the new wave of country stars from the Class of ’89 and after began to crowd them off of the charts. Still, she scored a second No. 1 hit in 1990 with “You Really Had Me Going,” her last major success.
Dunn issued a greatest hits album called Milestones in 1991, which became her first gold record, but it also brought controversy. The obligatory new single was “Maybe I Mean Yes,” a song about playing hard-to-get that stirred up a backlash, with detractors saying that it sent a dangerous message that when a woman says no, she’s only playing coy.
When the controversy hit, Dunn took the unprecedented step of asking radio and video outlets to stop playing the single. As she told the Tennessean, “I’m very respectful of women and what we’ve had to overcome.” She added that “the subject of rape is an important issue that needs to be discussed, and if my song has served as a vehicle towards that discussion, then perhaps that is the silver lining to this controversy.”
Dunn released her final album for Warner Bros., Getting it Dunn, in 1992. It featured a solid cover of the Mel Tillis classic “No Love Have I,” which Gail Davies had a moderate hit with in the seventies. It also included “You Say You Will,” which Dunn had received access to because of a publishing snafu, since Trisha Yearwood had it on hold first. Out of professional courtesy, Dunn made a promise to Yearwood that she wouldn’t release it as a single, and Yearwood had a top fifteen hit with it in 1993.
Dunn continued to record on independent labels throughout the nineties, and maintained an active presence on the Opry, which she became a member of in 1989. At the turn of the century, she spent two years as a host of Opry Backstage on TNN. She has also turned her attentions to another passion of hers: art. Her mother taught her how to oil paint as a child, and she has often kidded over the years that she performed music to pay for her art supplies. What was a hobby is now part of her professional life, as Dunn showcases her art in both New Mexico and Texas, and sells her work to collectors and enthusiasts.
- “Daddy’s Hands,” 1986
- “Love Someone Like Me,” 1987
- “Strangers Again,” 1988
- “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me,” 1989
- “You Really Had Me Going,” 1990
- Cornerstone (1987)
- Across the Rio Grande (1988)
- The Blue Rose of Texas (1989)
- ACM Top New Female Vocalist, 1987
- CMA Horizon Award, 1987