Singer, songwriter, producer, and pastel artist Holly Dunn was among the most popular female country musicians of the late ’80s and early ’90s, charting over 20 hit singles, most famously the timeless “Daddy’s Hands.”
The San Antonio, Texas native was immersed in music from day one. “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.”
Dunn also showed an early ability as a songwriter. “I’ve always been a writer of some kind. Even back when I was just a little kid, like 7 years old, I was writing, little journal kinds of things. By the time I was in high school, my proficiency on guitar was good, and I started writing songs.”
“Later on in college, I had the desire to do music all the time. I was writing songs and beginning to perform a lot. By the time I graduated from college, [my older brother] Chris had moved to Nashville and had established himself as a songwriter and was doing quite well. So, I thought if big brother can do it, maybe little sister can too.”
Holly spent nearly four years in Nashville writing for such performers as Louise Mandrell, who reached the Top 10 with Dunn’s “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet.” Though she was successful as a writer, Holly felt that “The best vehicle to get my songs out there was to do them myself.”
In 1985 she was offered a contract with MTM Records and released her first album, Holly Dunn, achieving a breakthrough with the album’s fourth single, “Daddy’s Hands.” “No one at the record label was all that enthusiastic about ‘Daddy’s Hands’ as my next single, but I had been touring a little bit, and had been surprised by the emotional reaction people were having when we played that song. Folks were coming up to me after my shows with tears in their eyes asking where they could get a copy. … No one, however, could have anticipated the incredible success it would have, and continues to have, all these years later. It still just amazes me!”
Holly Dunn earned her first two Grammy Award nominations for “Daddy’s Hands,” and she was also named top new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music in 1986. The following year she earned the prestigious Horizon Award—given to a newcomer showing the most promise of a stellar career—from the Country Music Association.
A string of hits on MTM Records and Warner Bros. followed, including the #1’s “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me” and “You Really Had Me Going,” “Love Someone Like Me,” “Only When I Love,” “Strangers Again,” “There Goes My Heart Again,” and the Michael Martin Murphey duet “A Face in the Crowd.” Holly was crowned as 1988’s BMI Songwriter of the Year and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1989.
Notably, Holly Dunn wrote and produced much of the material on her ten original albums. “I’m the only one, as far as I know on the female side, who writes, produces and sings the material. I think this gives me a real legitimacy, a genuineness. I’m not just up there standing where they tell me to stand, singing what they tell me to sing. I ‘feel’ what I do.”
Additionally, the multitalented Dunn was heavily involved in the production of her music videos. “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.”
Equally inspired by musical and visual art, Holly Dunn pivoted from recording artist to painter after retiring from performing in 2003. “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.”
“I was still in my early 40s and had a lot of other interests and wanted to put my creative energy into pursuing the field of fine arts. My mother was a wonderful oil painter, and growing up I had an equal love affair with music and art. I used to carry art supplies on tour and would draw and paint whenever I could. I also had a love affair for the southwest, namely Santa Fe, and had always wanted to live out there. It just seemed like the right time to close out one chapter and start another. I pretty much left Nashville and never looked back.”
Holly owned and operated her own gallery in Salado, TX for many years while also travelling to display and sell her art at various shows. She was a member of the Central Texas Pastel Society where she was awarded accolades for her work. In 2015, Holly became co-owner of the Peña+Dunn Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where her paintings of the Southwestern United States were displayed and sold. Tragically, Holly Dunn died of ovarian cancer in Albuquerque, New Mexico on November 14, 2016, aged just 59 years old. Yet her legacy lives on, with fan covers of “Daddy’s Hands” alone numbering in the hundreds on YouTube. Holly Dunn’s life’s work brims with emotion, heart, soul, and authenticity.