New Bern, NC – INTRO - Most people dream of a life in the spotlight, and when that doesn't come about settle into the work-a-day life. A musical late bloomer is trying the opposite tack. George Olsen talked with Raleigh's James Dunn about his latest CD and has this.
If every child who dreamed of being an astronaut and living on the moon actually became one there wouldn't be very many people left on earth to watch the space launches. Every dream of a child won't necessarily determine the path of the man, further evidenced by Raleigh musician James Dunn.
02:52 "I can distinctively recall being at home growing up and my sister playing the piano and yelling at her to turn it down because I didn't like it, so I never really had anything going on as far as doing music myself."
He ultimately went to college and in his mid-20s got a job in corporate sales. But when the health of his grandfather a big band musician in the 30s & 40s who James says could "play everything" started to decline, the music he grew up around started to assert itself.
01:14 "At the time, in the later years of his life, I started playing guitar a little bit, took a lesson here and there, and then I just tried my hand at writing I was always pretty good at creative writing, and I just put the two together. I knew how to play a couple of chords and I was pretty good at writing and as my grandfather's health was declining and I saw his life, I saw some of his final years coming, I wrote him a song. It was the first song I ever wrote. It was pretty simple. I don't know what happened but when I did it I realized I can do this. I can write a song from beginning to end and I can write a story. It just really all went from there."
and it progresses today, with the recent release of James' first full-length CD "The Long Ride Home." It's a rootsy rock album whose vibe is definitely reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen not a surprise as James cites the "Born to Run" album as an early and intimidating influence.
05:39 "As I listened to the songs I thought, gosh, this is just amazing stuff. I continued to listen but from a musical perspective, Springsteen's album from 1978 "Darkness on the Edge of Town" had more of a musical inspiration on me from the point of "I think I can do this," because when you listen to "Born to Run," it's such a masterpiece of epic proportions it's kind of intimidating thinking about how can I ever do anything like this."
The key to the success of "The Long Ride Home" may be that James didn't try for a "masterpiece of epic proportions" but performs tunes that he sounds entirely comfortable with. It might not put him among the pantheon of rock greats but will certainly please a crowd. The songs that populate the disc are primarily love songs loves past, love to come and when you're talking about a topic well-covered by countless writers it's hard to come up with anything too original. So it's surprising when you hear a song like "Oak Tree" which centers around the prototypical display of love initials carved together into a tree and your eyes don't roll back into your head because you've heard this one-too-many-times before. By his own admission, James admits he hasn't come up with anything new and what is new under love's sun after all so he concentrates on what he can control.
14:45 "Although it's kind of clich d and corny, everybody loves it you can meet someone who writes a review that thinks it's overly clich d, but I've always kind of believed if you sing it the right way and its coming across with conviction and emotion, it doesn't matter what you're saying because its all about how the listener hears it and I think most people have responded positively to that song."
The performance aspect also plays into his songwriting, most notably "The Long Ride Home's" closer "Till the Sun Comes Up," a roadhouse rocker if ever there was one.
25:35 "I remember writing that song before my first public show ever. I remember thinking I've got a good opening song that gets the crowd rocking. You want to come out with something rather high energy. I just wanted to have an upbeat song and something sort of fun that people could drink beer to."
A relationship to his audience also was a factor on the songs that appear on "The Long Ride Home." The track "Crush on You" was one James originally thought he would leave off the disc he didn't think it fit with the rest of the material, and he was probably right. The song has a "tunes for the drive to the beach with the top down" groove about it that doesn't quite mesh with the Springsteen-influence on the bulk of the disc. But the public spoke in the clubs and at the family table.
19:30 "And honestly it was one of the least favorite songs I'd written because I felt it was one of those "clich songs" with corny lyrics but everyone I played it for loved it and they just said that's your best song, that's my favorite song, and the thing I found interesting is the age range of people that liked it I remember my dad heard it and said "oh, that's a hit, that's a song everyone can relate to because everybody in their life has had a crush on somebody. That's your song."
If the word "clich " popped up several times in our conversation, it was more happenstance than critique. Granted, there's nothing revelatory in listening to "The Long Ride Home," but I don't necessarily want a revelation everytime I pop a CD in I want something to energize me, I want something I can relate to, I want craftsmanship and a performance delivered out of belief rather than driven by focus groups. So if in producing "The Long Ride Home" James Dunn didn't deliver the next "Born to Run," that's o-k and James is o-k with that as well.
17:42 " I don't take myself that seriously from the standpoint of, if you can write something that people like and it has some artistic appeal and you're just trying to reach people with the song and if you can avoid copying everything that's been done before and put your own spin on a nice tune, you're doing your job as a songwriter and just kind of take the listener to another place for 3-4 minutes and make them recall something from their life that's always why I've listened to music and how it's affected me."
"The Long Ride Home" is the new CD by Raleigh's James Dunn. I'm George Olsen.