SARAH DUNN BAND – WILD WILD HEART
There’s a story that bandleader Sarah Dunn likes to tell about the extraordinary way in which she entered the world 27 years ago. Her mother Deborah, nine months pregnant, completed a full shift at the restaurant where she worked, drove herself to a midwife a half hour away to give birth and then drove back home with her baby girl. Incredible as that all sounds, she didn’t stop there.
“Then she mowed the yard with a push mower,” says Dunn, shaking her head in disbelief. “That is a woman! That’s where I get my toughness.”
Like her mother before her, Dunn possesses a tough sensibility that translates loud and clear in her music. The Missouri-based singer-fiddle player and her Tulsa, Oklahoma-based band — Roger Caple, Teddy Scott, Sean Fisher and Jake Lynn — rip through the seven tracks on the group’s latest release Wild Wild Heart with the kind of scrappy attitude that comes from a lifetime of having to fight to make headway in an unforgiving world.
Born and raised in southwestern Missouri, Dunn grew up surrounded by a musical family. Her grandfather was an early rock & roller in the area, and she started learning to sing by sitting at the piano while her mother played. Her musical career began when she assembled her first band at the age of 13, performing to rough crowds in local bars and using every weapon in her arsenal to win them over. She loved being onstage, but it was a lonely experience until she could legally enter a bar.
“I’d have to sit at a little table by myself by the door, and have security stand there by me,” she recalls. “And they’d walk me to the bathroom and back and on the stage and back. I was there for work. I was so excited to turn 21 — not because of the drinking — just because I could go in there and not have to sit at a table by myself.”
Music was also a respite from the hours of hard work Dunn’s family had to put in on their small farm. They didn’t have much in the way of material wealth, but they had one another and wisely worked to inoculate themselves against lean times. They’d can vegetables for later use and raise a pig or cow for butchering, doing whatever they had to do to survive.
“We worked so hard, there was not very much time for entertainment,” says Dunn. “So at the end of the day that’s why music is so important to me. It’s such a rock in my life because that was a lot of our fun time.”
Dunn rolled those experiences into Wild Wild Heart, writing six of its seven tracks and mixing a hard-nosed traditionalism in with her resonant stories of heartbreak, struggle and joy. That much is readily evident in “Rent,” in which Dunn describes the all-too-common reality of being overworked and underpaid. Though it glides with a carefree ease, there’s no mistaking the desperation in her words.
“I was working two jobs. I was in a crappy relationship. I was living in a Winnebago with no electricity or water and I washed my hair under the garden hose,” explains Dunn. “I was still playing music several nights a week. So I’d be working, working working, and playing music until 1 in the morning, just burning the candle at both ends. It seemed like there was never enough money. It’s like, I’m working for all of this, where is it going?”
Still, she’s not afraid to let her hair down when the mood strikes. Wild Wild Heart’s first single “Dirty” is a stomping rocker that showcases Dunn’s blazing fiddle and sings the praises of a life that’s miles from immaculate white dresses. The title track is a soaring ode to crazy love, while “Love Hate Relationship” strafes agitation at a lukewarm lover.
Dunn also evokes the mighty vocals of Martina McBride on EP highlight “Pieces,” a heart-rending waltz that ponders the unsettled scores after a relationship’s end. “Forever is just a flippant turn of phrase, but for me it comes down to how much love I gave,” she sings in the chorus, the gracefully shifting arrangement blanketed by a generous helping of pedal steel and mandolin.
“The guys in the band hate it because there’s a chord change every other word,” says Dunn, laughing. “That was one I stayed up a lot thinking about. It’s my favorite to perform.”
And rather than casually tossing a mention of Merle Haggard’s name in her lyrics, Dunn goes all in on the late country icon with “All My Best.” Twanging like Loretta Lynn after a visit to Bakersfield, Dunn makes a whole narrative out of Haggard’s song titles. It’s an impressive and affecting show of appreciation for history.
“My roots run really deep, not just in country but also old time music,” she says. “I’m an old soul. I feel like I was born a hundred years late sometimes. To know that, in a world where everything is so flash in the pan, so disposable — to be described as traditional and classic, that’s a huge compliment.”
Along with musical history, Dunn has great respect for her personal history. The one song on Wild Wild Heart that Dunn didn’t write, “Ain’t Got No Home,” came from her mother.
“I listened to it a few times and went home and put it in the back of mind,” says Dunn of the song that soulfully depicts someone weathering a breakup. “Weeks later I found myself singing it. It was stuck in my head and I’d get obsessive about it to the point that I couldn’t sleep because I could hear it. So I called her up and asked her if I could record it. She was more than happy.”
It’s a fitting way to honor one of Dunn’s most important musical influences, not to mention the person who showed her how to be tough and work hard. That’s what ultimately prepared her for the rigors of a career in music.
“My mother said you have two paths in life,” says Dunn. “One of them is a wide and smooth, paved road. It’s no resistance. And then there’s this little foot path that keeps going up and you have to fight the whole way, but you’re going to see amazing views and when you get to the end of it, you’re going to be at the top.”