Home means Nevada
Over Spanish guitars, a well-worn grumble croons, “In Virginia City, lived a woman, legend shows/Who reigned supreme of working girls on D Street’s sporting row.” This is the opening of “The Ballad of Julia Bulette,” a standout track from High Ground, the debut album by singer-songwriter Dennis Gunn. The song is a murder ballad set in 1860s Virginia City and based on a real incident. Gunn says that the song was the result of five months of archival research on Nevada.
“You find an impression,” he says. “You sift through the material and find what’s credible.”
The album is a collection of Western folk songs, colored with lots of tasteful acoustic guitar leads. Gunn’s voice reaches up with a crisp tenor with hints of Pete Seeger, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Willie Nelson.
Gunn, now in his mid-60s, says that one of his aims as a songwriter is to bridge generational divides.
“I don’t look at people in terms of age,” he says. “But are you real? Are you in there?”
Gunn has spent the majority of his life in Northern Nevada, though he’s now based in Portland, Ore., a town he says is a better venue for a singer-songwriter. Still, many of his songs are Nevada-centric, like “Zephyr,” a song that references the Burning Man festival.
As major influences, Gunn cites writers rather than musicians. He admires Kurt Vonnegut and Sylvia Plath and, most especially, that most revered of Reno writers, Walter Van Tilburg Clark.
“I was fortunate enough to know [Clark],” says Gunn. “I even audited some of his classes. … Every Northern Nevadan needs to read his short story, ‘The Portable Phonograph.'”
Though High Ground is his debut album, Gunn has been writing and playing music since the Vietnam War era. He played in a psychedelic band, Orion, that performed in Reno and Virginia City as well as San Francisco. He says the band broke up on the verge of a major label deal.
Gunn credits the full sound of High Ground to David Rea, a guitarist who has worked with Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. Rea also wrote one of the best songs on the album, “White Hat.”
“I had to resurrect him, dust him off,” says Gunn of Rea. But Gunn was able to capitalize on Rea’s connections and has performed with Cohen, Lightfoot and joined Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary onstage for a rendition of “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Though he’s now based in Portland, Gunn says Oregon audiences are incredibly receptive to songs about Nevada.
“Nevada has attributes no other state has,” he says.
He points to the natural beauty of the state and the Wild West outlaw legacy that lives on in legalized prostitution, round-the-clock bars and gambling. It really is quite a state to have grown up in.
“Some of my best friends early on are still in the penitentiary,” he says.
The presence of Nevada is palpable on High Ground, an album of easygoing Western hippie folk, steeped in regional history.