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Doors at 8pm
For convenience’s sake, we can go ahead and call Forever On the Run Kimberly Dunn’s official “debut.” We could split hairs and call it her full-length debut, acknowledging that the vibrant young artist already has a couple of EPs and countless performances under her belt and didn’t just spring up on the Texas music scene with these 15 polished songs from seemingly out of nowhere. But the fact of the matter is, Forever On the Run will still be a lot of people’s first introduction to Dunn, and when it comes to the best musical discoveries, nobody likes to be late to the party. So in the interest of letting everybody catch up at once, we’ll push the back story down just a bit and reset the clock on Kimberly Dunn’s already off-and-running music career to right this moment. Now press play, and watch her go.
“Sunrise over fields of clover
As far as my eyes can see
Oh I’ve been waiting, anticipating
That feeling to set me free …”
That first song on the album is called “So Good,” and it sounds just like that: a giddy rush of unbridled joy and wide-open possibility. Indeed, even when she admits that her “life’s work is owed to the jerk who dared to break my heart,” there’s not a lick of regret in her casual confession. Because whether she’s strumming her guitar “in a shot-slinging bar” on a Saturday night or singing heart-felt hallelujahs from the church pew on Sunday morning, this is clearly a woman feeling empowered and set free by her muse, her faith, and perhaps most crucially, her own belief in herself.
Dunn didn’t come by that confidence overnight. The sense of freedom she celebrates in “So Good” is the result of three whirlwind years of on-the-job training, with the rest of Forever On the Run charting her journey from daydream-prone coed to the fully-formed, studio-seasoned and road-tested performer she is today. Along the way she’s played to hundreds (thousands, actually) of Texas music fans from Corpus Christi to Lubbock and made countless trips up and down the I-35 corridor, entertaining crowds both on her own and as the opening act for some of the top-drawing acts on the regional country scene (including Kyle Park, Aaron Watson, Bart Crow, Randy Rogers and Granger Smith). Johnny Cooper even had Dunn sing on one of his singles, “Moving On,” and invited her to sing it onstage with him at the legendary Billy Bob’s, Texas in Forth Worth — all within her first year of full-time performing.
“That never happens,” Dunn marvels today. “It was really cool and I got a lot of fans from getting to do that song with him. That’s what all of this is about: playing shows and having fun, and making something that people will remember, whether it’s five people or five million.”
Dunn’s not quite at the reaching-five-million-people stage yet, but she’s been well on her way ever since her second single, “Randy Rogers,” hit Texas radio in 2013. Although misconstrued by some as a tribute to the titular country star, the song is actually a bittersweet survivalist’s anthem, written when Dunn was still in college at Texas A&M and trying to reconcile a broken heart with her enduring love for the Texas country music that her ex had introduced her to. Little did she know at the time that in a few short years she’d be a part of that booming grassroots scene herself, with “Randy Rogers” connecting immediately with countless other fans just like her who could relate to every word.
“A lot of people who work in the industry didn’t like it because they thought, I don’t know, that I was just name dropping or something,” says Dunn. “But if you listen to the lyrics to the song, it really has nothing to do with Randy Rogers, and it has everything to do with Texas country and a girl who loves it. And ever since I’ve been playing it at shows, I’ve never seen a fan turn it down, and my fans outweigh everything else. That’s what matters to me, and it’s because of those fans and that song that I’m where I’m at now.”
Long before it ever made it to radio, “Randy Rogers” was one of three songs (along with “Dream Girl” and “When Did We Stop”) that Dunn recorded in her dorm room to submit as her audition for a battle of the bands competition held at A&M in the fall of 2010. Dunn didn’t figure she had much of a shot because she didn’t have a band backing her up, but she practiced hard for weeks and ended up winning. Taking special note of her performance that night was the aspiring management/production team of Scott Willson and Will Harrison. Willson, a fellow Aggie who’d accrued a few years stage and studio experience playing in the popular central Texas based rock band Flawless Escape, had been looking to parlay his distribution and day-to-day management skills into a new project, and his longtime friend Harrison had a degree in sound recording from Texas State and was working at Ray Benson’s Bismeux Studios in Austin. Together they’d been looking for a talented young artist to take under their wing — ideally of the Texas country persuasion — and they recognized Dunn’s potential straight away. They had her in the studio for pre-production by January 2011, on the road soon after that, and by November had released her first EP, One Foot Over the Other. A second EP, The Road, followed six months later. (Dunn diligently managed to finish her degree by taking online classes on the road, majoring in Agricultural Leadership and Development with a minor in music. “My parents taught me and my sisters to have a back-up plan,” she says.)
Truth be told, the San Antonio native grew up wanting to be a veterinarian (specializing in horses), but she admits with a laugh that she was never quite good enough in school for that. But she was always a natural at music, playing alto sax in her high school jazz band and later as part of the Aggie marching band in college. She picked up her first guitar — a baby Taylor — at age 14, inspired by an Eric Johnson concert her whole music-loving family attended at San Antonio’s Majestic Theater. Having been raised on classic rock radio, one of the first songs she figured out how to play by ear was, of course, “Smoke on the Water.” But it wasn’t long before she was coming up with melodies and songs of her own, channeling the country side of the dial for one of her earliest originals, a love song called “Days Go By.” “I wrote it about my parents and the love they had,” she recalls with a smile. “I was too young to really know much about it at the time, but I wrote it from a child’s perspective of what love should be.”
She kept at it though, with her lyrics and melodic instincts maturing in tandem with her burgeoning obsession with singer-songwriters like Damien Rice and Howie Day (and later Patty Griffin and Bob Schneider) as well as acoustic roots and bluegrass acts like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek. She never performed her songs for anyone outside of her family (jamming with her siblings for impromptu house concerts), though, except for once at a school talent show. That one time, though, was all it took to plant the idea in her head that maybe she could some day have a shot at doing it for a living. She admits she probably wasn’t the best guitar player that night (“I wasn’t even playing chords, just the top three strings the whole time, like, ‘ding-ding-ding,’” she laughs), but there was definitely something about the song she sang — an unrequited crush song called “The Dance” — that did strike a chord with the audience.
“I like to think it was the lyrics that people were so excited and happy about,” she says. “And I really liked that feeling I got from seeing a reaction from people, from seeing that something I wrote could mean something to somebody else. So I kept writing songs, and I found that I also just really loved the process itself. It’s funny because I was always an extrovert — I loved being with other people. But when I started playing guitar, I found that I really liked just sitting by myself to make something. It was like a cool form of therapy.”
For the record, Dunn is still an extrovert (a trait that comes in handy for a public performer), and the sunny personality she exudes onstage is as real as the optimism she proudly wears on her sleeve. But her songs on Forever On the Run reveal not only glimpses of what she teasingly calls her guilty pleasure “creep side” (witness the menacing, murder-themed “Bones,” the album’s stand-out rocker), but a strong sense of gritty determination and emotional resilience. She notes that she writes a lot of story songs — like the aforementioned “Bones,” of course, as well as “Sealed With a Kiss” (another song about her parents, albeit with a much more mature perspective than the one she wrote as a child) and “Forever On the Run,” which she describes as a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. But there’s a whole lot of her on the album, too, and songs like “The Road,” “Dream Girl,” and yes, even “Randy Rogers” suggest that getting to the point of feeling “So Good” didn’t come easy.
“‘The Road’ was a song that I wrote as if I was singing to myself, back when I was in a spot of being like, ‘Yeah, this is really tough, but just keep going,’” says Dunn, who wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s 15 songs (the exception being Carolyn Dawn Johnson’s “I Don’t Want You to Go,” a favorite of her mother’s.) “And ‘Dream Girl’ was written on a plane after the same guy that I wrote ‘Randy Rogers’ about told me that I was never going to amount to anything because I didn’t go for my dreams. He told me that I was a ‘B-girl,’ and that I was never going to be the ‘A-girl’ because I just didn’t care enough or I didn’t work hard enough. And when I was on that plane ride, I was trying to find a song on my phone that could help me get through that moment and there just wasn’t one, so I started writing my own.
“That whole first EP was me in college, heartbroken and getting over a person,” she continues, then adds with a laugh, “and then sticking it to him by saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to freaking go for it.’”
That she did, and “So Good” tells you everything you need to know about just how far she’s come.
“I’m very happy with where I’m at in my life right now,” Dunn says. “Like, anything and everything could come of my career, or it could stay where it’s at now and I could play the same venues, just still be doing what I’m doing right now, and I’d still be elated to do what I love.”
So sure, go ahead and call Forever On the Run Kimberly Dunn’s “debut.” And take the album’s title as a promise that this unstoppable A-girl is dead set on continuing to chase her dream for as long and as far as her heart desires. But know this, too: She’s already arrived.