Not much has changed at Hope Dunbar’s house out on the Nebraska plain.
If you look out her window, you see the same thing you saw three years ago: the same infinite prairie and tantalizing horizon. Her husband still pastors at a nearby church; their teenage sons still live at home.
But all of that is just one dimension in this singular artist’s world. Another one lives in her imagination, where, through song, she transforms the mundane into the magical.
We witnessed this alchemy four years ago, when Dunbar released Three Black Crows.
She conceived its music during the hours when her husband and kids were at work and school, without any nearby singer/songwriter rounds or club dates or supportive community. When released in 2017, Three Black Crows inspired positive comparisons to Springsteen’s Nebraska. One critic cited her references to “dusty roads, endless fields and massive starry skies,” to which she adds layers of meaning through her “visceral authenticity and raw honesty.” American Roots host Craig Havighurst extolled her “incredible language and truth-telling.”
Dunbar’s emergence led to what she remembers now as “a frenzy of activity.” Her homebound days gave way to touring, interviews, and radio appearances. Yet as this door opened, another one closed, much to her alarm.
“I didn’t skyrocket to fame,” she says. “But I did rocket right into hitting a wall. Things got so overwhelming because the hustle became more important than the artistry. By the summer of 2018, I was thinking, ‘I’m not in love with music the way I was prior to my last record.’ I wasn’t expecting that, and it was a little jarring.”
So, Dunbar began to compose again. New songs poured forth, which she brought to Nashville for her second album, Sweetheartland, which is due out April 2nd (PRE-SAVE). With Zack Smith (one-half of the celebrated duo Smooth Hound Smith) and Jesse Thompson sharing production with her, she led a carefully selected group of Nashville musicians on a journey through stories lifted from everyday routine and secret dreams.
In its hope and resignation, its candor, craft, and vast Midwestern Americana resonance, and certainly in its insight and poetry, Sweetheartland echoes its predecessor. Yet Dunbar sees two crucial differences between the two albums. “On this record, I wanted to bring all the raw material, the songs I’d written on my own, to Zack and Jesse, and then riff on what they could be. Also, as a small-town preacher’s wife, I had been kind of tentative with my identity. It just felt unbecoming for me to express feminine, sexual power on a record. But I’ve always had a sense of rebellion, so this time I just decided to put that out there along with everything else.”
Today Glide is excited to premiere Dunbar’s aptly homage, “John Prine,” a loving tribute that illuminates both his genius and her restless introspection: “I’m flipping through the pages of a waiting room magazine while the clock keeps on ticking like a pickaxe steadily chipping away at the vision of who I thought I could be.” Singing with a heartfelt, confessional vocal, Dunbar lays out her own interpretation of Prine’s songs as she makes thoughtful references to his lyrics. Backed by a big alt-country sound and plenty of harmonica, the song properly taps into that heartland twang. With Prine leaving us unexpectedly last year, the song feels especially poignant since there is no way we will ever have too many tributes. As the song builds, Dunbar unleashes soulful vocals that are backed by gospel-like background singers, making for a song that captures a beautiful mood.
Listen to the song and read our chat with Hope Dunbar below…
What is the story behind this song? Was there one particular thing that made you write it?
John Prine’s body of work is pretty darn outstanding, and I wanted to express my esteem for it, and also my wish to steal his magic in a song. I don’t always have a clear plan as to what I wish to say in a song as I start writing it, but I recall very clearly that writing this song gave me a feeling of delight with a shot of hard truth on the side – like apple pie and screw top wine. I think those things are naturally part of the John Prine songwriting universe.
John Prine is such a beloved songwriter and performer. What is it about his music that speaks to you? Do you have a favorite song of his? Why is it your favorite?
I think of myself as someone who came late to the party we call, “Songwriting.” Growing up on pop radio and cassette tapes from my parents, I think I just thought songs were songs and maybe they just fell out of the sky. I think of “Angel from Montgomery” as the first song I knew was sung by Bonnie Raitt, but not written by her. Not only wasn’t it written by Bonnie Raitt, I discovered it was written by a man. A guy named John Prine. That had my brain spinning. Who was this man who had written such a song? Who was this person who embodied something so universal that he could write like that, give it to Bonnie Raitt to sing, and she’d give it a life lived through her voice? Amazing. It was the songwriter, Todd Snider, whom I love so much, who kept mentioning John Prine, and that finally had me looking for him myself. That’s when I found “Long Monday,” “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” and so many more. I think “Long Monday” is my favorite song of his. Sweet and bitter, love and longing side by side, easy and uneasy side by side. Wow. Two words: “Long” and “Monday” – enough to tell you so much right off the bat – and then he loads those words up with thoughts on togetherness that leave the listener right there “all alone on a mountain by a river that has no end.” I love it so much.
Did you ever meet, or share a stage with John Prine, or did you ever see him in concert?
I did not. I am thankful for recorded music – especially the live albums – that give me space to imagine a connection between us in my mind. He did what his heart and mind and soul compelled him to do, and then he let it free out into the world so that someone like me could find it and listen to his words and live better because of it. As much as I love the notion of having met him or shared the stage with him, really, he gave me so much. I couldn’t possibly ask for more.
This was recorded before the pandemic started. Do you have any favorite memories of recording this particular song?
I just remember having the best time making this record and how much I loved working with my producers, Zack Smith and Jesse Thompson. Those guys rule. I think the vocal you hear on the record is one of the first takes we recorded. Like any recording process, you get to watch the evolution of a song from its original incarnation to the ways in which it slowly takes on its rightful identity in its final form. Pretty cool. That’s pretty cool.
What do you hope listeners take away from hearing this song? How about the whole album?
I hope you hear my admiration for John Prine in this song. I hope it inspires you to go listen to his songs. As far as what you hear on the whole album? I hope you get to see how the “Sweetheartland” is not a one-dimensional place. It’s big enough and strong enough to give space to all of it – love and longing, the easy and the uneasy, togetherness and separation, and that the hard parts do not diminish the sweet parts. The hard parts make the sweeter parts that much more lovely.
Photo credit: Karyn Rae Photography