-Article courtesy of Craig Shelburne
In November 1986, Holly Dunn earned a breakthrough hit with “Daddy’s Hands,” a self-written story song that touched country fans of every generation. The nostalgic ballad led to recognition from ACM, BMI, CMA and the Grand Ole Opry, and she soon became a staple at country radio and TNN.
Dunn faded from prominence in the early 1990s, and in time, she left Nashville to pursue a career as a visual artist. Now based in New Mexico, Dunn graciously chatted with MusicRow about the 30th anniversary of “Daddy’s Hands.”
MusicRow: It’s been 30 years since “Daddy’s Hands” hit the charts, and I’d say it’s now a classic. What are some of the best memories you have from that time in your career?
Holly Dunn: This was my fourth single and I badly needed a hit! No one at the record label (MTM) 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.
It didn’t take a genius to know that something special was happening. I think I had to do a little bit of convincing to get the label to release it, but thank goodness they did! 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!
Co-writing is the norm in Nashville now, but you wrote “Daddy’s Hands” alone. That is something to be proud of. Did that song help the industry see you as a songwriter as well as an artist?
Well it certainly helped ME believe that I was a bona fide songwriter, even though I had been writing for several years already. I’m also very grateful that because of it, I was nominated for more than 11 awards in 1987, including two Grammy Award nominations specifically for “Daddy’s Hands,” as well as winning the ACM New Female Vocalist Award and the CMA Horizon Award that year. I also was named BMI Songwriter of the Year in 1988 and “Daddy’s Hands” was a big part of that. Of all the awards I have won or been nominated for, my BMI songwriting awards still mean the most to me.
What was the songwriting community like in Nashville in the 1980s?
I’m so glad I was a songwriter and a recording artist back then, because it was a kinder, gentler business. Really, more like a big family. For me it really was family because I got to co-write often with my brother, multi-platinum songsmith Chris (Waters) Dunn, and so many other incredible future Hall of Fame writers.
I just remember learning a lot, laughing a lot, and eating a lot of sushi lunches. 1980s rural America would be shocked at how many great country songs came together over a sushi lunch! It was just a magical time that I doubt will ever be captured again. Truthfully, I was always happiest when I was sitting in a room with my guitar, a co-writer and what we thought was a killer idea!
Over the last few years in Nashville, hit singles from female artists have become increasingly rare. And it seems like there were many more female artists in the 1980s. Do you remember any conversations or concerns about a lack of female artists during that time?
I think this has been a topic of discussion since a woman first made a recording! The ‘80s were no different. In my day, the reasoning went something like this: Since female consumers have always tended to drive record sales, male artists will ALWAYS have the edge no matter how many female artists have record deals. Sad but true, I’m afraid.
What led to your decision to move away from Nashville, and where do you live now?
By the late 1990s, radio wasn’t interested in anything I had to give them, and without a current single it gets harder and harder to keep a career going. I made several attempts to reinvent myself—as a radio DJ and TV host, etc., but nothing takes the place of a current hit record in terms of excitement and opportunities. I just remember standing backstage at the Opry one night watching one of the great legends perform and thinking to myself, “Do I really want to still be here singing my ‘latest hit’ from 40 years ago? Or do I just want to say a prayer of thanks for all I’ve had, and leave?”
I chose the latter and have never been sorry. I got to spend the last days of my mother’s life caring for her, and I’ve owned art galleries in Texas and New Mexico, and have had incredible adventures I never would have had otherwise. I currently live a bit south of Santa Fe, in a house on the side of a mountain with a forever view. I’m very content.
Why is painting so satisfying for you?
My mother was a wonderful and successful oil painter, so I grew up loving both music and art. I carried a sketch pad with me on the road, but it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I began to seriously work at making art. It satisfies my need to create and it is a challenge I never tire of. Living where I do, I never run out of inspiration. I truly love it and am thankful that I’ve been able to sell pretty much everything I’ve ever painted.
What is your day-to-day routine now? And what lies ahead for you?
Well, that’s a loaded question! Since February 2016, I’ve been dealing with a rare form of ovarian cancer. That was a fork in the road I never saw coming. I’m still making and selling my artwork, but my biggest daily focus is on my health, and frankly, trying to stay alive. I’m hanging tough and keeping a positive attitude and a grateful heart. None of us really know what lies ahead for us no matter how many plans we make.
This may sound weird, but while I hate having it, this disease has taught me so much about what is really important in life, and how truly valuable it is to live in the present. So much of my music career was spent worrying about the next song, the next hit, the next show, the next…whatever. Now I just wake up every day feeling so incredibly blessed that I can look at this amazingly beautiful world, feel the sunshine on my face and the love of my family, friends and countless others out there who are praying for me. They don’t give awards for that. Life is its own gift.