100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition
2008 Edition: #68 (-10)
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. 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 also turned her attentions to another passion of hers: art. Her mother taught her how to oil paint as a child, and she had often kidded over the years that she performed music to pay for her art supplies. What was a hobby became part of her professional life, as Dunn showcased her art in both New Mexico and Texas, and sold her work to collectors and enthusiasts.
As for music, she announced her retirement from recording in 2003, with the release of her gospel album, Full Circle. It would be the final release of her lifetime, as Dunn passed away from ovarian cancer in 2016. She was only 59 years old.
- 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)
- Academy of Country Music
- Top New Female Vocalist, 1987
- Country Music Association
- Horizon Award, 1987
100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition
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Previous: #79. Lacy J. Dalton
I really liked Dunn’s voice and always enjoyed hearing her on the radio. I was very sad when she passed away.
My favorite song by her was a song called ‘Only When I Love’ from her [I]Cornerstone[/I] album. I’m glad to see she made this list.
Although she did not make a big deal of it, Holly was gay and the BUT obit listed her wife.
I was and am a big Holly Dunn fan
I think that “not wanting to expose herself to career-ending bigotry” might be a better descriptor of the situation than “did not want to make a big deal of it.”
That such a detail could be included in an obit in 2017, only a generation after its revelation would’ve killed her career, is a remarkable sign of societal change. I imagine there have been quite a few country obituaries that could’v accurately included such personal information but didn’t do so.
What killed her career on country radio was the horrendous “Maybe I Mean Yes.” A terribly misguided song. I remember being proud of radio for shunning it. The song only got to #48 and Dunn never had anything resembling a hit again.
I still give her a lot of credit for pulling that single voluntarily. It’s interesting to ponder if she would’ve done better without that single, even if the ultimate irony is the hits package it promoted became her only gold album, so the song is featured on the most frequently owned Holly Dunn CD.
Personally, I think the level of talent that blew up in the early nineties would’ve been too much for Dunn to remain a serious contender even without the “Maybe I Mean Yes” fiasco. She was already in a bit of trouble, with the lead single from her 1990 album barely charting. The second single went #1, but then the next one barely made top twenty. It was similar to what happened with K.T. Oslin, who managed to get a #1 hit off of her third album with “Come Next Monday,” but only after the first single barely charted, and the next three that followed barely made a dent.
So many of the big new names from the mid-to-late eighties fell out of favor on radio before their time. The only woman from Dunn’s era that upped her game enough was Patty Loveless, and she’s Hall of Fame bound because of it.
Holly was one amazing singer. Man, I miss hearing it.