A tractor cab might not seem like the ideal place for an aspiring artist to nurture her musical dreams, but it sure did the trick for Clare Dunn. Growing up in tiny Two Buttes, Colorado (population: 43), she spent days at a time helping plow and plant the family farm, sharpening her ears with uninterrupted music-listening in the driver’s seat, even as she strengthened her work ethic. “That’s where a lot of my creativity came from and where a lot of my vision was forged, was just having nothing else to do other than listen to music and dream all day long in the vast wide open of those plains,” she reflects.
By the time the genial, grounded Great Plains native got the chance to record for MCA Nashville, she had fine-tuned her creative vision and was ready to do what it would take to make it a reality, which landed her in a truly unique position: she is the only female country artist in recent memory to have a hand in all of the writing, arranging and producing for her debut release, the Clare Dunn EP.
“I remember feeling like, ‘I know that I’m asking my label to take this tremendous leap of faith on me. I will be in the studio day and night. I will go until it’s right,’” says the guitar-slinging singer and songwriter. “I feel so grateful that I’ve had a team around me that’s allowed me to do that and supported me every step of the way.”
True to her word, Dunn spent virtually every waking moment holed up in The Cave at Nashville’s House of Blues studios, crafting her standout sound beneath the watchful eye of a Chuck Berry portrait with such A-list collaborators as Terry McBride, Jesse Frasure and Ben West. And it definitely paid off. The hooks have irresistible pop-rock punch, the sentiments are shot through with heartland rock grit, the vocals show R&B-schooled rhythmic daring and the arrangements are both towering and dynamic.
Every lick of guitar on there, from agile melodic figures to aggressive shredding, is hers. “I think there’s, like, one song where I didn’t play a mandolin part or something like that,” she says. “But other than that, every lead part is my playing—acoustic, electric, everything.”
That goes for all of the vocal parts, too—except for a solitary Eric Paslay guest harmony. Dunn doesn’t sound quite like any other singer in any genre, but her sumptuous lower range and the attitude and lustiness she summons whenever it suits the song recalls such world-class pop performers as Pink or Annie Lennox. In her teens, Dunn geeked out over a VH1 “Behind the Music” documentary that showed Fleetwood Mac working out their meticulous vocal arrangements, and in the studio she might devote as many as a dozen tracks to doubling the melody in a different octave or layering precision harmonies, which adds to the sheer size of her sound.
Dunn began paying her dues back in southeast Colorado, where she grew up the second of two daughters born into a long line of farmers and ranchers. “We didn’t have any brothers,” she says. “We did basically everything that boys would normally do, driving 18-wheelers, combines, tractors. I was very grateful that my parents raised us with the mentality that we didn’t even think about it; it was just normal for us to do all that stuff. We were a small family operation, and it’s all hands on deck, all the time.”
In her early years, Dunn soaked up her parents’ favorite classic rock and country records—lots of Bob Seger titles among them—and stocked up on Top 40 singles when the family made the trek to a store in a neighboring town that actually had a record bin. She also absorbed all manner of rhythmic pop and R&B during marathon dance classes, so devoted to her hip-hop dance team that she won a scholarship to study with Janet Jackson’s backup dancers in California.
Says Dunn, “My mom wore out an engine in a Suburban hauling me back and forth to dance. I couldn’t go every day like the other kids, because I lived an hour away. So I would do makeup days, and spend all day from 10 in the morning to 10 o’clock at night just learning dances so that I could be in the recitals and competitions. Dance, for me, is such a form of expression. When I’m making music, I’m thinking about it from a dance perspective—beats and musicality and phrasing.”
For all of her sonic smarts, the aspiring musician lived in a town with zero places to play live shows, and she had no clue how to pursue her dream after high school until she heard about the music business program at Nashville’s Belmont University. The private school was out of her family’s price range, but she didn’t let that stop her, raising a big chunk of her tuition by driving a silage truck. “Anytime that there wasn’t school going on,” she recalls, “I was on that truck. Spring break, summer break, fall break. If you could’ve grown silage in December, I would’ve been on it over Christmas break. Whenever I couldn’t be home to drive the truck, my family kept the wheels rolling. My mom, dad and sister all drove it for me when I couldn’t be there due to classes or internships.”
It wasn’t until Dunn got to college that she learned how to play guitar. Unlike a lot of dorm room dabblers, she wasn’t content to just reach the point where she could accompany herself by strumming basic chords. “Whenever I’d try to talk to a guitar player and explain how I heard things, I could never explain it,” she says. “So I thought, ‘If I can’t explain it to them, I’d better see if I can learn how to do it myself, so I can get it the way that I hear it in my head.’ Lead guitar, for me, was where it was at. I had no interest in learning G, C and D and stopping. I wanted to be able to sing on guitar.”
After college, Dunn signed a deal that went sour and turned her attention to building a grassroots following through decidedly unglamorous touring. “I loaded up me and three guys in a four-door F-150 pickup and a trailer and we took off,” she laughs. “We put 100,000 miles on it in just a little over a year. We played bars—teeny, tiny bars—and honky-tonks and festivals. It was very bleak to start out with, pinching pennies, trying to magically make a dollar turn into three dollars, trying to keep morale up. Like, ‘I know we played for two people tonight, guys, but it’s fine. We’re gonna get beyond it!’ My family helped me then too. They believed in me so much that they were willing to sacrifice in order to help me build that following to get a record deal.”
The audience quickly multiplied when SiriusXM’s The Highway channel put Dunn’s flirtatious number “Cowboy Side of You” in rotation, and the fans who came out to the shows found a vital, confident band leader stomping around, swapping fearsome solos and singing like she meant it. Universal Music Group Nashville soon snatched her up, and she attracted in-demand co-writers like Paslay, West, Frasure, McBride, Tom Douglas, Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges, Chris Lindsey, Brett James and Ryan Beaver, and hit the road with many of her musical heroes including Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan and Seger, who hand-picked Dunn as direct support on his Ride Out Tour.
Now, that her with-it, down-home vision is captured on record and her sensuous single “Tuxedo” is impacting the country radio, Dunn is in the position to bring her music back to the people and places that taught her what determination was in the first place.
“I can confidently say I would not be in this chair had it not been for that work ethic my parents and community instilled in me,” says the forward-thinking, farm-bred artist. “It’s been a tough road getting here and it’s taken longer than I would’ve liked, but I’ve always felt confident in setting and pursuing my goals. That work ethic is what drove me to learn how to play, and to go back out and play another show for ten people. Where I’m from, that’s just what you do—you work.”
Ashley For The Arts 2021