Holly Dunn

by Amanda Flinner

A few months after this interview took place, Dunn announced that she was fighting ovarian cancer. She passed away on November 15, 2016.

If you wanted to find Holly Dunn back in the '80s and '90s, you'd look no further than the country charts, where she was a regular fixture with hit songs like "Daddy's Hands," "Are You Ever Gonna Love Me," and "You Really Had Me Going." But after more than two decades, 10 albums, and multiple hit singles, Holly hung up her cowgirl boots in 2003 to pursue a new artistic endeavor as a painter. These days, you'll find the retired singer-songwriter far from the Nashville scene in a little village in New Mexico, where she runs the Holly Dunn Art Song Gallery (under the banner of the Peña+Dunn Gallery) in Santa Fe.

Holly doesn't revisit her musical days very often, but she recalls some highlights for Songfacts, like writing her career-making hit "Daddy's Hands," penning songs with her brother Chris Waters, and performing with the legendary Dolly Parton. She also gives us the real story behind her controversial single "Maybe I Mean Yes."
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): You've often joked that you only wrote music to pay for your art supplies.

Holly Dunn: Yeah, it sometimes felt that way. Definitely now that I'm a full-time artist, I can sort of see that pattern.

Amanda: How did you get involved in music when painting has been your passion for a long time?

Dunn: Well my mom was a painter, and I grew up in a household where there was a lot of art, but there was also a lot of music there, too. My dad was a wonderful singer and my mother as well. They didn't do it professionally or anything, but my dad was a preacher so there was a lot of music, a lot of church gatherings, us singing around the house and when we had our family gatherings and things like that. I grew up thinking that every family sat around singing together, you know?

So, music really was my first draw. I started playing the guitar when I was about eight or nine years old, and I played the drums before that. That was probably the most natural thing for me, to be perfectly honest. I can fall right into music. Art takes a little more thought and planning, and I have to work a lot harder at it. I grew up with both, but music got me first. But I always had this love of art and appreciation of it, and I collected it when I began to have some money to do that. It was a real natural segue to go right into the art thing when the music thing was fading out.

Amanda: Was that always in the back of your mind, that you would make that transition into art someday?

Dunn: Not really. I just figured I'd do music until I fell off the stage somewhere, but in the late-'90s/early-2000s, I began to see the writing on the wall. I was putting records out that weren't getting played or not played very much, at least. I could tell the business had moved on from me, opportunities were getting fewer, and the shows were getting a little less glamorous.

The wheels start to come off the bus at a certain point, for everybody. It doesn't matter how big or little you've been, it just happens; you get your moment, and I kinda had this epiphany. I was standing backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, at which time I was a member, and I was watching Little Jimmy Dickens and he had this little funny bit in his show where he said, "I'm going to do my brand new hit from 1952" or something. It's very funny - it always got a laugh. It was really cute the way he did it, but I thought, "Man, do I want to be standing up here when I'm 80 years old in my worn-out Manuel jacket singing 'Daddy's Hands,' saying, 'This is my latest hit from 1986'?" You know what I mean? I thought, "You know, I just don't; I just don't want to do that. I think there's other things I want to do."

I don't know that I really had a real clear focus or vision or plan at that moment, so I almost subconsciously started working in that direction to end the music career. Then eventually I did, in 2003. I did my last show in October of 2003 and never looked back.

Amanda: As far as how inspiration works, does it strike you the same way in songwriting as it does in painting?

Holly's painting, "I Saw The Light"Holly's painting, "I Saw The Light"
Dunn: It really comes from the same place. People ask me all the time, "How could you give up music? Don't you miss the writing and blah blah blah?" And I really don't! I miss the camaraderie of my fellow writers and things like that, but I don't miss it because I'm still in that space, that creative space, with my art. It all comes from the same part of your brain, and the creative spark that made me want to sit down and write a song is pretty much the same one that makes me want to sit down and paint something. It's two different forms of expression, but it comes from the same place inside of me.

Amanda: When I was listening to "Daddy's Hands" and I was reading the lyrics at the same time, I noticed how there was a strong visual image, the way you described his hands. It made a lot of sense to me that you're also a visual artist, and that came through in your music, too.

Dunn: Yeah, and I really enjoyed when we would take a song and we were able to do a video with it. I loved that process of fleshing out those lyrics and that story visually; it really went full circle for me to get to tell that story and then see it in pictures. I really enjoyed that process, and I actually thought several times in my life, if I'd done something else, I probably would have enjoyed being a video director or a writer or something.

I am a very visual person and when I was writing songs I could see it in my mind, almost like I could see the video already done. A lot of times I would come to the directors of my videos when we were doing some and just say, "Look, I kind of have this vision in my mind" and we would work together, you know, "Yeah, so what do you see?" A lot of my videos were out of my head and not necessarily from the directors of the videos. We just really worked together collaboratively with my ideas and their ideas, so that was always a lot of fun for me.

Amanda: Is there a particular music video you had a hand in creating?

Dunn: I really had a hand with all 11 of my videos, but my favorite was "You Really Had Me Going." That was a lot of fun to shoot and stayed in the number one spot on CMT for several weeks I believe.

Amanda: Back to "Daddy's Hands" again, that started out as a really personal song for you. Was it always the plan to record it and then include it on your debut album?

Dunn: When I wrote that song in 1983 I didn't have a record deal, and we were still a couple of years away in getting my first record deal. My thought was I was just getting paid to write songs that hopefully somebody else would record and make a hit out of. That was the pressure I had then. The expectation was from my publishing company that was paying me to write for them, was just: "Get in there and write a hit that we can pitch and get recorded."

Really that's where I was coming from; however this song was very personal, and I wrote it as a gift for my dad for Father's Day. I wrote it in March or April of that year and saved it and did a little cassette recording of it and put it in a card and sent to my dad for Father's Day in June of that year. Nobody jumped up and down at my publishing company when I did it. Country music had kind of gone into that crossover period where it was Anne Murray and Ronnie Milsap and it sounded more like a pop kind of thing - and not as country. And this song was definitely country.

So nobody really jumped up and down, nobody ran out the door, up and down Music Row wanting to pitch it to anybody; it just kind of laid there. But there was one guy at the publishing company that believed in it, a guy named Gary Petty, who recently passed away. Gary believed in that song and had Sharon and Cheryl of The Whites, who recorded with their dad Buck, coming in to listen to some songs one day and he played it for them, probably about a year after I wrote it. And they loved it. It fit their little family unit perfectly because here's two girls singing with their dad, and it was the perfect fit for them. They actually recorded it first, but because they recorded it first it made me realize this song might have a little wider reach than what I think it does and what everybody else thinks it does. So, that actually helped me see a bigger picture where that song was concerned.

Amanda: And that really set the tone for your career and was the beginning of a hot streak.

Dunn: It was, yeah. It was my fourth single. The first three had mid-charted and got me a foot in the door but not both feet, and then "Daddy's Hands" was my fourth single. I think it surprised everybody. I really had to talk the record label into releasing it. We had recorded it and put it on my first album, mostly for posterity's sake more than anything. The Whites had a version out, but they never got to release it - they had some contractual stuff happen at their record label, so it got lost in the shuffle with them. And I thought, "Well, I can just record it on the first album."

It meant a lot to my dad and me and my family, so I put it on there. But I had begun to do some live shows, and as I was promoting my other records before that, I could see every time I did "Daddy's Hands," people were weeping. It was like, "What is going on here?" I was looking around at the band. "What the heck? Something's really happening when I do this song."

So, when it came time to try to figure out what the fourth single was going to be, I brought it up to the record label guys and I said, "Look, something's happening out here. I don't know what's happening but something's really happening with this song. I really think we should consider putting this out because it seems to be really touching people."

There really wasn't anything else on that first album that was any better or any worse, so the whole thing we just stumbled into in a way. Then they put it out and it just took off like a rocket, and it stayed on the chart for six months and was a Top 10 record. There were a couple of hold-out radio stations that never got on it because I was so new. They just resisted getting on it, but we had enough momentum that we had a Top 10 record and my first two nominations for any awards were two Grammy nominations for that song, partially. What a way to start, you know?

Amanda: Right. Even though it didn't hit #1, it was almost like a #1 in spirit really, the way it worked out.

Dunn: Yes, it's amazing. It was a wonderful lesson to me very early on that where a song goes in the chart, it really doesn't matter. Whether it's #10, #1, #30, it's how it has an impact, what kind of impact it's going to have out there in the world and the longevity. I had #1 records later on, and I had quite a few Top 10 records after that, but that little song has absolutely out-earned and out-lasted all of my other singles put together. It's been an incredible experience to have had that song from the writing phase all the way through today. Thirty years later, I still get emails about it every day, so it's really been an incredible situation to experience with that song.

Amanda: Then you did have your first #1, not too long after. That was "Are You Ever Gonna Love Me?" What do you remember about the process of writing that song?

Dunn: I wrote that song with my brother, Chris Waters, and our favorite co-writer Tom Shapiro, and that was a real easy process for writing. The three of us always had a great time writing together. Chris and I, of course, being siblings we could practically read each other's minds most of the time, so one of us would start a line and the other one would finish it and vice versa. I remember writing that song was a lot of fun and we had momentum, and it was exciting, and we were really writing for something now. It was just fun to have a real reason to be writing and the excitement around knowing that whatever we put out had a good shot at getting played, and we certainly scored with that one.

Amanda: I've talked to some other songwriters about the male and female dynamic in writing love songs, but it's so interesting in your case because your writing partner was your brother. Just to be writing a love song with your brother sounds like a funny situation.

Dunn: Yeah, you know, I guess that's weird. We never really thought anything about it because we'd been professional writers for years before that, and I wrote with all kinds of guys and other women, and you knew that you were just writing - it wasn't necessarily personal. Sometimes an idea came from a personal place, but you were crafting it. It's like two artists getting together and working on the same picture or the same sculpture. I was just in the process, so I didn't really think, "Oh, gee! I'm writing this love song with my brother. How weird is this?" We're just two writers. When we're in the room we're just two writers that happen to have grown up under the same roof. But we were just in our process and in our craft.

Amanda: Growing up in a Christian environment, especially with your dad being a preacher, did that affect your music? Did you feel pressured to present yourself a certain way?

Dunn: It did. I'm sure it did. I knew that I didn't want to do anything in my life or in my career to embarrass my family. My dad was still a full-time minister with a church in Austin, Texas, and I didn't want to do anything that would come back and (a) bite me on the rear and (b) cause them any distress and embarrassment. They were so proud of me and so proud of my career, so it was something I was definitely aware of. I really tried to be careful about what I said publically and how I comported myself out in public. Not that I was some wild and crazy person on the side, behind the doors. I was raised with a fairly strong sense of values, so it was very much a big elephant in the room for me all the time, just to keep my nose clean and not to do something that was going to be embarrassing or distressful to my family.

When Holly released her Milestones: Greatest Hits album in 1991, she wrote two new original songs, including "Maybe I Mean Yes." The single was climbing the Country chart when it came under fire from feminist groups that claimed the song was "an invitation to rape" for allegedly undermining a woman's right to say no. In response to the controversy, Holly pulled the record and released a statement: "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."
Amanda: But you can only do so much and then things still happen out of your control, like the controversy surrounding "Maybe I Mean Yes." Where were you actually coming from when you were writing that song?

Dunn: You know what, that's another one that I wrote with my brother Chris, and Tom. Wow, that surprised us all, and I look back on then and I think, "How could I?" Because I was a fairly feminist-type thinker at that time and still am. How could I have been so unplugged from the subject matter to miss that? Let me tell you how it happened.

My brother Chris came in and he had watched an old Cary Grant movie. I don't know who the female lead was - it might have been Grace Kelly. But they were having this little playful, flirty chat with each other, and Chris came to me with this idea based on that conversation in the movie. The woman was saying to Cary Grant's character, "Well, gee, why haven't you called me?" And he said, "Well, you said not to." And she said, "Well, I thought you knew that when I said no I meant maybe." And so we were just coming from a totally lighthearted, flirty thought. Almost an old-school relationship between men and women with that old-fashioned, flirty game-playing kind of thing that happens sometimes.

Maybe because I'd been stuck in a tour bus for 10 or 15 years at that point, I guess we were out of touch with reality. I don't know! But we missed that one coming. We just didn't see that. We wrote it one year and then it was going to be on my Greatest Hits, and those albums take about a year to come out. So, we wrote that song a year before it actually came out. About two weeks before that record came out, there was a picture on the cover of Time magazine of a college co-ed with a tear coming down her cheek, and the two-inch lettering on the front masthead of the magazine said "Date Rape: When a woman says no, she means no."

It was just disastrous for us because how could we anticipate that? That at that very moment in history, when we put out a song called "Maybe I Mean Yes," it's going to come out in the world two weeks beforehand and just blow up that entire conversation about date rape - as it should have, we needed to talk about those things in society - but how did we know. It's just the worst piece of timing and luck that you could possibly have in your entire career and there was no way to anticipate that. Nowhere in between writing the song and putting it out did we have any real red flags that that was going to be an issue.

There was one woman at the record label, at Warner Bros, that was from California and a very hip and very forward-thinking woman, and she did raise a question at one of our meetings about the album. She was the only one that said, "You know, I'll be honest, this song gives me a little bit of heartburn. Am I the only one that has a little bit of trouble with the message of this song? Are we saying the wrong thing here?" I hate to admit being this stupid, but we all kind of looked at each other like, "What?" We'd already done the video and put it on the album, and it was way too late to pull it back. I mean, it was already in the chute and headed out the door. There was no way.

But it did give me a pit in my stomach. I remember after that meeting thinking, "Geez, I didn't even think about that, hmmm." But that was back in the late-'80s/early-'90s, and we still weren't really talking about stuff like that. But, boy, suddenly we were and I was caught right in the middle of it.

Amanda: You wrote almost all of your own music, but there were a few songs written by others that you recorded, too. What did you look for in those songs that you didn't write yourself?

Dunn: Well, first of all, Nashville is a song town and I had written enough with other writers and I had been a demo singer. I had sung a lot of other writers' songs, doing demos for them through the years, and I knew that it was absolutely stupid to not get out there and farm some other material. It would have been a real greedy thing to think that I could write every single solitary song on my albums. I could have; we certainly had the material and the knowledge to do that, but I wanted to avail myself of all the great writers out there.

We were trying to be successful and there's so many great writers in that town, so that was a real compelling reason why I wanted to not just do all my own songs because I thought I'd be shooting myself in the foot. I wanted to have the access to the same songs that Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea and Pam Tillis and all my peers had, so that was the first thought.

The second thought was I looked for writers that said things that made me slap my forehead and go, "Oh, man, why didn't I think of that? Why didn't we think of that, but what a great idea, or what a great melody." Maybe the storyline was something that especially appealed to me or it made me feel an emotion that fit in with the overall theme of the album. You look at all those things. What's going to fit in there when you lay the deck out and you shuffle those cards, all those songs that are going to be on that album? What's going to fit right in there and make the album complete and hopefully give you another hit record?

So, it was all the same things we looked at with our own songs: Does this hold water? Is this going to be as strong as something else? And you just shuffle the deck and pull things out and pull things in and switch them around until you feel you have the best stack of songs on a project that you can have.

Amanda: And out of those songs you didn't write, did you have a favorite?

Dunn: Oh, man. Well, there was a big hit for me that went to #2 - we all wanted to kill ourselves, but we had to go to #2 with a bullet and not go to #1. Oh we all want to die, like take a long walk off a short pier. But it was a great song called "There Goes My Heart Again," and it was written by Joe Diffie, who at that point was unknown. He might have been working on his first record deal, I'm not sure, but he wrote it with Lonnie Wilson and Wayne Perry.

Anyway, I just loved it. It had that Bakersfield shuffle, Buck Owens kind of thing that Dwight Yoakam had brought back and made popular again. I loved that stuff; I loved the traditional country sound a lot, and my records reflect that. It was a great song and the minute I heard that, we put that on hold and there was no question that that was going to be a single.

Holly appeared on Dolly Parton's variety show, Dolly in 1988, and performed her hit song "Daddy's Hands" with Parton as a duet partner. The pair reunited the following year for Holly's Blue Rose of Texas album, with Parton providing backing vocals for a cover of her own 1974 tune "Most Of All, Why."
Amanda: You also got to collaborate with Dolly Parton a couple of times. Did she give you any advice?

Dunn: Oh, Dolly. Dolly is the most delightful human being that was ever created. She's wonderful; she's just fun, you know? I don't know that she really gave me advice, so to speak - just watching her was advice.

For years I watched her. I was a fan of hers before I even went to Nashville when I was in high school and college. Just watching her and the way she so graciously has run her life and her business, and she's the same on screen as she is off and in person. Her whole life has been a lesson to me. I can't really say that she really specifically taught me, but she was always so gracious to me and giving and generous of her time. She put me on her TV show literally right after I won a Horizon award. I went immediately out to California to be on her television show. She has been so gracious to me and so sweet. I haven't seen her or talked to her in a while, but I know if we did we'd pick right back up. She's just one of those people. Really, her whole life has been a great event for me.

Amanda: You also wrote a Top 10 hit in 1984 for Louise Mandrell: "I'm Not Through Loving You Yet." I'm not sure if you ever recorded it yourself.

Dunn: I did stick it on one of my last albums, which unfortunately the whole album project never really saw the light of day. I can't remember if it was the last album I did for Warner Bros or one of the other two that I did for River North, but I did record it because I have always loved that song and loved the record. It had a real signature guitar lick in it that we just always loved.

It went to #7, and it was the biggest record Louise ever had, I think [almost - she hit #5 the following year with "I Wanna Say Yes"]. So, that was fun and it was fairly early in my songwriting career, so it was a real kick to me to have a hit record. It was just a lot of fun.

Amanda: Was that something that you wrote specifically for her?

Dunn: No, we just wrote it. It was another collaboration with my brother Chris and Tom Shapiro, and I remember the day we wrote it. We were sitting at my brother's kitchen table at his house and I came in with the idea, but that's about all I had. I said, "Hey, guys, I've come up with this kind of idea: [sings] I'm not through loving you yet."

It had its own little rhythm to it already and it was very easy. I remember jumping on it and it just fell out. It had a great rhythm to it and the lyrics had a real rhythmical pattern, and I remember that particular writing session we had a lot of fun. We always had a lot of fun anyway, but I do remember that because I think we all knew. We all were fairly new writers and looking for our first big record and Chris and Tom had already had some, and I was certainly looking for my first big cut. We knew we've got something here, and it wasn't very long after that that she recorded it.

Amanda: Were you always more comfortable writing in a team rather than writing on your own?

Dunn: Not necessarily, because I wrote "Daddy's Hands" by myself. I wrote a lot of songs by myself. It's just a bigger gene pool, it's a bigger pond, a brain trust, so to speak, when you're writing with other writers and especially two writers as incredibly talented as Chris and Tom are. Once again, you're just giving yourself the opportunity to really knock it out of the park, to really have at your fingertips three good minds that are good writers and instead of this one head you've got three. It's a lot more fun than sitting in a room all by yourself, staring at the wall and a blank piece of paper.

Amanda: We covered this a little bit earlier when we were talking about inspiration, but does that songwriting muse ever stop? Do you still get an idea that you just have to sit down and write it out?

Dunn: I do get ideas, I really do, and that's probably frustrating at this point because I'm not connected to Nashville really in any appreciable way now. I have a few friends that are still in the business, but a lot of my friends have left or retired. We're all getting to that age where people want to go do something else.

So, I do get ideas. Every now and then something will hit me and I'll go, "Man, this is a great song." And sometimes I'll jot it down but I really don't. Unless somebody was to ask me specifically to write about something for a certain reason, a project or something, I just don't even take the time to do it because what am I going to do with it?

I'm living in New Mexico at this point in a little, tiny village - where am I going to record this thing? It's become an exercise in futility and in the time it would take to sit down and write it out, I could maybe put something down on canvas or a piece of paper that I could actually sell. So, I try to re-channel the energy into an art project. But you never stop being a writer. I'll hear a line in a movie - I'm a big movie-goer, and I'll be sitting there in the theater sometimes, and I'll hear a line come out of somebody's mouth and I'll go, "Oh man, I wish I'd heard that 30 years ago or 20 or 15. That's huge." But then it's like, "Oh well, I can't do much with that at this point. So, maybe somebody else will hear it and do something with it."

Amanda: "Maybe I Mean Yes" came from a movie, but did you have any other songs that inspired you that way?

Dunn: I wrote a song, we did a video, but it was all in the last projects and it never got a chance. It was a song called "Cowboys Are My Weakness." A friend of mine from out here had given me a book called Cowboys Are My Weakness. I haven't looked at that book in years - it was just about old movie cowboys and stuff like that. I thought that was a really cool line, and I thought about it for a while and asked myself how could that become a song? Thank goodness you can't really copyright book titles or song titles because there's a million of them out there the same. So, I just thought about it for a year or so, and I wrote a song called "Cowboys Are My Weakness." The big hook is "it must be the jeans" or "it could be the jeans" - j-e-a-n-s or g-e-n-e-s. So, it had a little twist to it. Another song also penned by me and Chris and Tom, I think. But that title just popped out at me.

Amanda: Now, I don't know if I should've saved this question for last, because it's kind of a big one, but I was reading an interview you gave for the book Telling Stories, Writing Songs and you said, "When I don't have to worry about working in this business any more, I'll tell the whole story because it's a whole other story, let me tell you." What exactly did you mean by that?

Dunn: I don't remember saying that, but you just go through stuff, and there's always a backstory to the business, and there's stuff that happens. It sounds like I was going through kind of a bitter moment. I'm not so much there anymore. I don't remember saying that, but I probably did because I probably felt that way a couple of times, especially towards the end. It got very frustrating to have been in a certain place success-wise and then to have the gravel start to slide out from under your feet. It's a very frustrating place to be. People that were taking your phone calls at one point and tripping all over themselves to talk to you and get your business are suddenly not picking up the phone. You know, it happens to everyone, it's not just me, but it's hard not to take those things really personally. So, probably I was in a place where I was in a frustrated place when I said it.

There's always a backstory. There's always another story to everything and stuff that happens and people that hurt your feelings and heartbreaks and disappointments and rejections and things like that. That's just all part of the business and life in general.

March 20, 2016. See more of Holly's art at hollydunn.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Camille from OhioGreat article on Holly Dunn. I was new to listening to country music when she was at her most popular in the music scene. I listened to a couple of these videos included with the article and was reminded of her gorgeous voice. I really appreciate her honest backstory about Maybe I Mean Yes. Bad timing for sure. Her song and video "You Really Had Me Going" was a favorite of mine, sort of female Elvis-esk, white t-shirt, big, beautiful guitar and a bit o attitude, all the right components for a visually appealing video. Thanks for a nice write up on Holly.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Album Cover Inspirations

Album Cover InspirationsSong Writing

Some album art was at least "inspired" by others. A look at some very similar covers.

Songs in Famous Movie Scenes: '80s Edition

Songs in Famous Movie Scenes: '80s EditionMusic Quiz

You know the scenes - Tom Cruise in his own pants-off dance off, Molly Ringwald celebrating her birthday - but do you remember what song is playing?

Billy Steinberg - "Like A Virgin"

Billy Steinberg - "Like A Virgin"They're Playing My Song

The first of Billy's five #1 hits was the song that propelled Madonna to stardom. You'd think that would get you a backstage pass, wouldn't you?

Christopher Cross

Christopher CrossSongwriter Interviews

The man who created Yacht Rock with "Sailing" wrote one of his biggest hits while on acid.

"Private Eyes" - The Story Behind the Song

"Private Eyes" - The Story Behind the SongSong Writing

How a goofy detective movie, a disenchanted director and an unlikely songwriter led to one of the biggest hits in pop history.

Dave Edmunds

Dave EdmundsSongwriter Interviews

A renowned guitarist and rock revivalist, Dave took "I Hear You Knocking" to the top of the UK charts and was the first to record Elvis Costello's "Girls Talk."