Making Meaning and Memories Through Music | OCRA Heroes

Jesse Dunn’s fondest memories are of sitting in front of the wood stove in his family’s Vermont home, wearing a pair of headphones and listening to his parents’ collection of tapes and records. That’s where he fell in love with music and developed his musical roots.

Jesse, aged 38, now lives in Lake Tahoe and tours nationally with his alt country/bluegrass/rock band Dead Winter Carpenters. He plays guitar and sings, along with his wife Jenni who also sings and plays fiddle. 

Jess Dunn on stage, holding guitar

“There are threads of my family, my upbringing throughout my songs,” Jesse said. “All of my songs that I write have a lot to do with the music that my parents instilled in me. The vernacular and the words they use. It created my foundation.”

And it’s through song that he is fighting back against the disease that took his mother.

Jesse is dedicating his new song, “Cornerstone,” premiering April 3rd, to raise funds and awareness for ovarian cancer in honor of his mother. Make a donation of any amount toward his campaign, and enjoy a free download of the song now!

‘My Cornerstone’

Dead Winter Carpenters is celebrating its 10th anniversary this spring and is releasing a new EP to honor the occasion. But one song in particular, ‘Cornerstone’, has special meaning.

Jesse’s mother, Donna, was diagnosed with ovarian and primary peritoneal cancer in September 2016, two months before Jesse’s daughter was due to be born. Jesse describes this period as “confusing and super emotional.”

“We didn’t know if she’d meet our child,” Jesse said. “We started putting together this song for her and tried to expedite it.”

Jesse and Jenni’s daughter Mabel was born in early December 2016, and his mother was able to make the trip from Vermont to Lake Tahoe just four days after the birth. Jesse and Jenni played the initial sketch of ‘Cornerstone’, even though it wasn’t complete. He wanted to give it to her as a present.

“Of course, everyone was crying,” Jesse recalled. “It symbolized what we had been through and what I felt about her.”

The song, a ballad really, has since evolved and tells the story of how Jesse’s parents met and built their family, then culminates in the bridge when his parents came to Lake Tahoe in August of 2019. That was when Jesse’s mom saw her last Dead Winter Carpenters show and danced with Jesse’s father to their favorite Neil Young song that the band played in her honor.

Jesse Dunn on the beach, posing with family

Shining in the light of a harvest moon

Wrapped up tight in the arms of her groom

Her light will never fade, this I know

When it’s time for her to fly way back home

My cornerstone

“My mom was incredibly weak, but did incredibly well to watch the show,” Jesse said of that August 2019 concert. “My parents had a last dance to [Harvest Moon] and it was all we could do to hold it together.”

Turning art to action

Jesse’s mom passed away less than two months after that concert, after saying her final goodbyes to the community that Jesse and Jenni had cultivated in Lake Tahoe – “she touched so many people,” Jesse said.

It was after the funeral that it really sunk in for Jesse and he was determined to do something to honor his mother. People donated to OCRA in her memory, but he wanted to do something more, and to do something with his band.

‘Cornerstone’ will be released on April 3, which would have been his mom’s 65th birthday. People can download the song by making a donation of any amount to OCRA. All proceeds and donations from the song between her birthday and Mother’s Day will be directed toward funding critical research.

Jesse knows this is what his mother would have wanted. Ironically, even before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer herself, Donna and her cousin Mel, Jesse’s aunt, were heavily involved with Turn the Town Teal in Richmond, VT. While Donna was out hanging ribbons and distributing information about the disease (including warning signs to look for), she realized that she might be a potential candidate for testing given her own symptoms. And after Donna learned of her own illness, she made it her mission to share as much information about ovarian cancer as possible.

“If she could affect even one person’s life, that’s what she was after,” Jesse said.

Healing through song

“Music has always been an outlet for me,” Jesse said, “to communicate things that were going on internally that I couldn’t explain otherwise.”

But Jesse acknowledges that it’s hard for him to sing this particular song without breaking down in tears. His wife got him a special magnet for Christmas after his mom passed that is a heart with a picture of his mother. In the photo, she’s standing on a hiking trail near his house in Vermont, her hands in the air making peace signs.

Jesse Dunn's mother smiling on swing in backyard

“She’s super stoked and strong and happy,” Jesse said. The magnet sits on his pedal board during live shows, where he can look down at it while performing, and serves as a reminder that “I can’t be grouchy or grumpy.”

Jesse acknowledges that there are many different perceptions of where one goes after they pass and admits that he looks for signs of his mother everywhere. She’s even come to him in a dream one time, “with the biggest smile on her face.” Jesse thinks of his mother constantly, and believes she’d like this new version of ‘Cornerstone’ even better than the one he initially wrote. Prior to recording the current version of the song, Jesse collaborated with bandmate Nick Swimley to help put the finishing touches on the new groove.

“Wherever she may be,” Jesse said, “I do think she’s hearing it.”

Jesse, all of us at OCRA can’t wait to hear your song and are grateful for the passion and energy you are putting in to helping others.

Learn more about Dead Winter Carpenters and download ‘Cornerstone’

Jesse Dunn playing guitar on stage as birds fly by

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