The first thing that gets you about country singer Kimberly Dunn is her friendly and spunky personality. Then, when she starts strumming her guitar and singing in a country voice both tender and powerful, you're hooked.
That's what happened to Scott Willson and Will Harrison of Up and Out Artists in November 2010. The managers met San Antonio native Dunn backstage at a Battle of the Bands contest at Texas A&M, where Dunn was a senior.
"We had a great talk about music," says Dunn, who had played alto sax in the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band, but longed for a career singing her own songs. Harrison remembers thinking that "if her music has as much charisma as she does personally, she'll really have something."
The only solo acoustic contestant out of 30 acts in the Battle, Dunn walked onstage with confidence, kicked off her high heels with a laugh and started into a guitar riff, as she stomped out a rhythm on the stage's hollow floor. It was only her fourth live performance as a singer-songwriter (the first three were the preliminary rounds) and yet Dunn had an instant hold on the audience. She ended up winning the contest.
"We knew from the first downbeat that we wanted to get involved with Kimberly," says Harrison, who also works as an engineer at Ray Benson's Bismeaux Recording Studio in Austin. Dunn recorded her debut EP, One Foot Over The Other, at Bismeaux, with Harrison producing.
Everything seems to be happening fast, but it's going according to a plan Dunn conceived while attending Northside Health Careers High School, a magnet school in San Antonio. Dunn wanted to be a veterinarian at a young age, but after seeing Eric Johnson in concert when she was 13, and buying a guitar the next day, she switched her long-term goal to a music career.
"I decided that I would concentrate on graduating from A&M where her parents and two sisters also attended, and then I would spend the next years pursuing music full time." Dunn graduated August 14, her 23rd birthday, with a degree in agricultural leadership and a minor in music, and is ready to make her mark on Texas Country.
Her calling card to the male-dominated scene, which some call "red dirt music," is a bittersweet yet feisty song about the healing powers of music called "Randy Rogers." In it, Dunn looks back on a romance gone sour and recalls the music of that once-blissful time. Besides Rogers, others mentioned in the catchy chorus include Eli Young Band, Granger Smith and Stoney LaRue.
"I wrote that song about some of the Texas Country artists I had come to love during a certain time in my life and to be able to meet them and play shows with some of them just blows me away," she says.
Dunn has opened shows for Smith, as well as Kyle Park and Aaron Watson. She also guests with Wichita Falls singer Johnny Cooper on his next single "Movin' On," soon to be released to Texas Country charts.
"When you think about how far Kimberly has come in just a year from her first gig, you realize that, yes, musical talent has a lot to do with it," says Willson. "But it's also because Kimberly is so much fun, such a force of nature. People want to be around her."
But Dunn seeks complete seclusion when she writes songs. "I like to have my time with my songs before I give them to everybody else," she says. Building her material on the melody, she sometimes starts off on harmonica and moves to mandolin. She'll record her ideas on her iPhone but won't play them for anyone until she feels that they're complete. "I've always been that way with songwriting," she says. "I have to develop the songs on my own."
During her earliest performances, she was billed by the name Kimberly Sue, but she dropped the Sue when her songs and performing style started drawing comparisons to fellow Texas Country singer Sunny Sweeney.
She had thought about calling herself Kimberly Sparrow but saw a possible problem. "I'm a huge fan of Sheryl Crow," she says with a laugh at what she's about to say next. "I had a fantasy of one day performing a duet with her, and if Kimberly Sparrow and Sheryl Crow sang together, there'd be some bird jokes for sure."
Dunn is a family name from her mother's side. "One day I saw a sign for Dunn Road." Young, spunky, bold, ready. Kimberly Dunn. Sounds just about right.