“I like what someone here said about Nashville--that it’s a cold town, in a warm sort of way,” Don Dunn said, laughing.
The transplanted San Diego songwriter was talking by telephone last week from Franklin, Tenn., a community that’s just a twang south of the metropolis known in country-Western circles as “Music City.” Dunn shares a home there with another songwriter, Dennis Lord, who is also his attorney.
“People here are outwardly very friendly,” said Dunn, 46, “but they’re also wary, and you can’t blame them. A lot of singers, songwriters and musicians come to Nashville looking to ‘clean up,’ and that, combined with the competitiveness of the business, puts a hard edge on everything. But I love it here, and I’m planning to stay as long as it takes to get back to where I once was.”
Where Dunn used to be was in the creative penthouse shared by the most successful songwriters in the music industry.
From 1968 to 1982, he wrote songs that were recorded by Diana Ross, Jose Feliciano, Joe Cocker, the Righteous Brothers, Cher, Kenny Rogers, Junior Walker Rare Earth, the Fifth Dimension, Mongo Santamaria and Thelma Houston.
He and co-writer Tony McCashen were awarded both platinum (1 million copies sold) and gold (500,000 sold) records for the song “Hitchcock Railway,” recorded by Feliciano, Cocker and Santamaria. Dunn and Chuck Smith received a gold record for the title track to Ross’ 1977 album, “Baby, It’s Me.”
When Dunn wasn’t writing for others or working on his own projects--he released seven albums, either solo or as part of a group, on the Capitol, RCA, Liberty and Motown labels--he contributed guest vocals to recordings by Ross, Houston, Kenny Loggins, Seals and Crofts, Steely Dan, Kim Carnes, David Gates and Jennifer Warnes.
He made bundles of money and squandered all of it traveling the Hollywood-Malibu fast track that is typified by chic vices and such fate-tempting extravagances as the occasional flight to Hawaii --for breakfast .
Those excesses left Dunn intoxicated with more than just heady success. His steady ascent ended in a rapid plunge into personal and professional turmoil. Dunn hit bottom in 1982 and returned home to San Diego, broke and broken, to begin a long, sometimes painful period of retrenching and renewal. He lived with his mother for a year, then spent a year sleeping on the floors of friends’ apartments.
In 1984, he began holding songwriting workshops at the Writer’s Book Store and Haven on Adams Avenue. He met his future wife there, and in 1986 the two had a son. A family provided the emotional mortar for Dunn to finish rebuilding his life.
Revitalized, he teamed with Gene Warren to play Smuggler’s Inn in Mission Valley and the Jolly Roger restaurants in Oceanside and Seaport Village. When that partnership dissolved, Dunn formed a duo with former collaborator Chuck Smith. All the while, Dunn tried to reconnect with an L.A. music scene that seemed increasingly remote.
“People who had been very good friends didn’t return my calls,” he said. “It was as if I had never worked in the industry.”
Dunn’s inability to reestablish a vital link with his profession only exacerbated his dissatisfaction with the inglorious club gigs at which he had to play Top 40 songs by other artists.
By December, 1988, his writing orientation had virtually completed the transformation from pop to something approximating country. At once frustrated and motivated, he made the first of what would be many trips to Nashville.
“I think there’s always been a ‘folk’ person in me, and country isn’t far removed from folk,” said Dunn, who first got involved in the Kennedy-era folk music movement while attending Mesa College. “That and the fact that country music allows you to write about adult themes--in other words, to be comfortable with and true to your own age--made Nashville a logical destination.
“Besides,” he said, “I just couldn’t see myself competing in today’s pop market with Prince or Ton Loc.”
On his first visit to Nashville, Dunn performed at the Bluebird Cafe, the city’s most important showcase for original songwriting talent.
“That night was the turning point,” he said. “For the first time in 10 years, an audience received me and my songs with something bordering on reverence. My wife and son were there, and when I got called back for an encore, it gave me a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time.”
Because he’d spent $11,000 recording a new, six-song demo in Los Angeles, Dunn wanted to maximize his self-promotional jaunts to the country-Western capital. So he’d try to set up 30 different meetings during each one-month stay.
“I wanted to be a performing artist as well as a songwriter, so I knocked on every imaginable door,” he said. “But I discovered that you have to hang out for a while and become part of the scenery if you want to gain acceptance here.”
Last April, Dunn moved to the Nashville area on a semi-permanent basis, a decision that was complicated by the fact that, for both financial and personal reasons, his wife and son would have to remain in San Diego. Success in Nashville would mean that the family could spend more time together in both cities.
“My wife has been incredibly understanding and supportive,” he said. “But these long stretches away from my family are really hard. I can’t wait for the end of March, when I come home for my son’s 5th birthday.”
Dunn is determined to reclaim his share of songwriting gold, but he is no longer the revved-up innocent transfixed by its glint. Today, his goals have more to do with personal fulfillment and adult breadwinning than with glitz and glamour. He has already been where most of his rivals yearn to go, and that makes him atypical of the wide-eyed aspirants seeking fame and fortune.
Age, experience and wisdom, however, gave Dunn little advantage in Nashville, where the native Southern Californian’s cultural adjustment was slowed by the city’s music establishment that stopped short of sending out a welcoming party. His expertise and track record notwithstanding, Dunn soon discovered--and is constantly reminded in both subtle and unsubtle ways--that he is an outsider and a beginner by Nashville’s musicocentric standards.
“I’m pretty confident about my songwriting ability, and with my background I figured I’d breeze into town and bowl everyone over,” he laughed. ‘But I ran right smack into the Nashville Attitude. When someone would ask me if I lived in Nashville, and I’d tell them I live here and in San Diego, they’d react as though they’d already assumed I wasn’t serious about being here.
“Besides,” he said, “as country as I thought my new music was, to these people I was playing California funk! People here seem more sensitive, too. I’m a naturally honest, blunt person, and I’ve had to learn to watch what I say and how I say it to avoid offending anyone and hurting my own chances of succeeding here. I’ve had to readjust my thinking as well as my writing.”
Dunn studied the rules of the Nashville game, which begin with the realization that there are many players.
“Sometimes, it seems like every songwriter in the world is here,” he said, sighing. “And they’re all willing to work the clubs for next to nothing in the hope of getting a break. There’s just an amazing amount of competition, but I’m finding that it’s actually healthy as far as my creativity is concerned. Being surrounded by so many talented people compels me to do my absolute best work.”
If it has been tough sledding, at least Dunn is beginning to see some cracks in the ice. Not long after he moved to Nashville, his attorney introduced him to the wife of singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton (“Joy to the World,” “Greenback Dollar,” “The No No Song”). Dunn gave her a demo tape, and was pleased that she thought her husband might like one of the songs, “Bible and a Gun.” Axton waited four months before calling Dunn, who then failed to return two different phone messages.
“After that much time, I’d completely forgotten that I’d given the tape to Hoyt’s wife,” Dunn said. “So when I heard that he was looking for Don Dunn, I assumed he was confusing me with Donald (Duck) Dunn, the famous bass player. I almost blew a major opportunity.”
Dunn eventually contacted Axton, who just now is poised to release a single and video of “Bible and a Gun.” The song’s lyric describes a woman trying to win back her estranged lover, but Axton slightly modified it to relate to the war in the Persian Gulf. And Dunn can’t wait for the royalties.
“I’m not making any money yet from my country songwriting, and since June all that’s been keeping me afloat is a weekend gig I play in Pensacola, Florida.”
Every week, Dunn makes the long drive--about 13 hours round-trip--to play cover tunes and Top 40 material.
“I know that’s a long way to go for a bar gig, but it pays well enough that I don’t have to pull a five-nighter every week in Nashville,” he said.
Inconvenience and lean times are part of the price Dunn is willing to pay to remain a songwriter.
“This is the one thing in my life I feel I’m an expert at,” he said. “And after living here for a while, I know that Nashville is where I belong. Besides, the cost of living here is about 20% lower than in San Diego.”