Dunn Still Stung by Controversy : Country: Singer who last year reluctantly pulled her controversial single, 'Maybe I Mean Yes,' opens for George Strait tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa.

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Who ever would have expected Holly Dunn, a preacher's daughter known for such sensitive country songs as "Daddy's Hands" and "Strangers Again," to be mentioned in the same breath as rapper Ice-T in a national furor over song lyrics?

But sure enough, when Time Warner began defending Ice-T's controversial "Cop Killer" song as constitutionally protected free speech, pundits quickly noted that no such defense arose when Dunn's "Maybe I Mean Yes" was yanked by another Time Warner subsidiary last year after some listeners misconstrued it as an invitation to date rape.

Although she moved on with her career after agreeing to pull the single, Dunn, who opens for George Strait tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre, still has an edge of frustration in her voice when she recalls the incident.

"It was a disappointment all the way around," she said recently by phone from Nashville. "It is very clear if you listen to the whole song what it's about. The first line of the song says, 'When you asked me out, I turned you down / Never thought that would stop you from asking now.' . . .

"All of a sudden there I am on the 'Today' show defending myself. After about two weeks of that I decided that there are women out there who have had bad experiences and if there was something even unintentional in the lyric that was causing them discomfort, then I needed to be responsible and just get it out of their faces. It was a hard pill to swallow because the song was going to be a huge hit, but I felt that withdrawing it was the right thing to do."

Throughout her six-year career Dunn, who co-writes most of her material and co-produces most of her albums, has been a model of the new independent woman in country music.

"It was strange for me," she sighed. "I have been so careful of what I've sung about for so many reasons. No. 1, my father is a pulpit minister down in Texas for a very conservative religion. I have, out of respect for my parents, really kept my subject matter on a higher plain than I maybe would have done if I'd just been left to my own devices.

"I have also tried to be so careful about how I portray the women in my songs," she said. "I've made them strong and not just doormats. Then to be called on the carpet by women for a lyric that supposedly portrays women in a bad light was just a really ironic thing. I'm still trying to figure it out."

Fortunately, after half a dozen years of steady success, Dunn has reached a plateau where she can weather even such a setback as the loot of a sure-fire hit single. In fact, Dunn feels confident enough with her career that on her latest album, "Getting it Dunn," she has dared to tinker a little with the style that has brought her a steady stream of hit singles.

In place of the rather sparse sound of her trademark hits "Daddy's Hands" and "No One Takes the Train Anymore," Dunn and new co-producers Paul Worley and Ed Seay have souped up the production and gone for a funkier sound.

"It was my seventh album, and I've had a lot of success with my brother, Chris Waters, as co-producer," Dunn explained. "We've had four No. 1s and a whole string of hit records. I felt as though everybody knows what I do and is familiar with my sound and who I am. Why not? Why not venture out and do something a little bit different, a little bit spiced up?

"At this point I feel as though I'm comfortable with myself. Because people are familiar with who I am, it's a good time to take some chances," she said. "If it works, great. If not we'll drop back and regroup and do it again."

Dunn's music isn't the only thing that has evolved. Those who remember the tightly buttoned-up country girl who accepted the Country Music Assn.'s Horizon Award five years ago will hardly recognize the sexy, stylish look she sports on the cover of "Getting It Dunn."

"I think I've had a real blossoming," Dunn said. "I was really kind of uptight and conservative in the beginning. I was very insecure and self-conscious about the way I looked. I am not an extrovert. I've had to work at coming out of my shell. I used to get up in front of people and just freeze up. I'd get before a camera and I'd want all my buttons buttoned and my collar tight and high.

"I just think that the older I've gotten, the more comfortable I've gotten with myself. I just turned 35, and I feel there's no looking back. I feel great. I feel as though I look better than I ever have. I hate to sound really trite and gross, but I feel that I'm really coming into my own as a woman."

Although she is very happy with the way her career has evolved, Dunn admits to being frustrated that she's never landed a gold album.

"I've never sold gold," she said. "I've had seven albums and many, many hits. Actually, if you total them up, I've probably had more hits than some of the other ladies that are selling gold and platinum, but for some reason I've just never gotten there.

"When I started I was on MTM, a little label that literally stamped out the records in the basement when they got enough money in to do it. It is sort of like I've had this ball and chain around my leg as far as record sales go. Personally, it would give me a great deal of satisfaction to know that I'd gotten over that hump."

One thing Dunn doesn't mind, though, is being the opening act for Strait.

"In a way it would be great to know that big stage was mine--and all that lighting and all that stuff--and to know that I was making tens of thousands of dollars more than I'm making. It is kind of nice, though, because I can go out and do the best 45 minutes of my life and get off and leave them wanting more.

"George has to stay there and write the checks for all those hundreds and thousands of dollars worth of equipment. It is such a blast working with George. . . . I've always felt we were a great match. We're both from Texas; we're both from San Antonio, and audiences just go nuts."

* George Strait and Holly Dunn sing tonight at 8 at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. $25.85 to $27.50. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).

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