Little had been heard from country singer-songwriter Holly Dunn since the early 1990s, when she left Nashville for New Mexico and a career as a visual artist. Still, news of Dunn's death yesterday at 59 evoked great sadness among those who knew the artist, whose 1986 signature hit "Daddy's Hands" still resonates.
"I met Holly the day I made my Grand Ole Opry debut in 1989," says Chely Wright. "We shared a dressing room and we'd go on to share Opry dressing rooms for years and years after that. She was so generous with her time and with her wisdom. Holly and I grew closer over the years and I cherish our special friendship and bond. She was a real songwriter, a genuine artist and a whole person. I'll remember her for her grace, her elegance, her faith, her courage and her strength."
Veteran Nashville talent agent Trisha Walker-Cunningham, head of the Trisha Walker International agency, recalls Dunn as "lovely to work with and such a talent."
"As an international talent buyer, I had the pleasure of working with Holly Dunn in Europe some years ago at festival appearances," says Walker-Cunningham. "She really connected with audiences through her songs like 'Daddy's Hands,' not to mention her personal warmth, kindness and professionalism. She loved her fans and would never hesitate to sign autographs and have photos taken for hours on end--and had such a beautiful smile."
Dunn began her recording career in the mid-1980s at MTM Records, and moved to Warner Bros. Nashville in 1989.
"She was always an amazingly pleasant person," says former Warner Bros. Nashville executive Janice Azrak. "Very sweet and nice—with no attitude. It was a joy to know her!"
Earlier this month, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of "Daddy's Hands," Dunn told Nashville's Music Row magazine how MTM wasn't keen on it being her next single, but that she had seen the emotional reaction to it from audiences while touring and was able to convince her label to release it.
"Daddy's Hands" became her breakthrough hit and brought her a dozen or so award nominations in 1987, winning her the ACM New Female Vocalist Award and the CMA Horizon Award as well as the BMI Songwriter of the Year honor in 1988.
But by the late '90s Dunn had fallen out of favor at country radio. She tried to reinvent herself as a radio personality and TV host, then decided that she didn't want to be an Opry regular singing a 40-year-old "latest hit." So she moved to New Mexico to care for her mother, who had been a successful oil painter, and became one in her own right.
"Holly Dunn had a nice run on the country charts during the '80s but I always felt she deserved even more success," says music historian John Alexander. "She had a lovely voice and was very underrated as a songwriter. 'Daddy's Hands' was an incredible piece of writing, and she wrote it all by herself."
Alexander notes that while Dunn had bigger hits, including the No. 1 singles "Are You Ever Gonna Love Me" and "You Really Had Me Going," "Daddy's Hands" "remains the jewel in her crown, and one of country music's most defining songs of the decade."
Dunn was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer last February.
"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," she told Music Row. "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."