DEAN DILLON: Putting Heart on Paper

Most country songwriters swear their allegiance forever to traditional country songs.  Dean Dillon doesn’t have to. His most notable cuts have enhanced, among others, the careers of George Jones, Vern Gosdin, Keith Whitley and most of all the incomparable George Strait, whose list of great country recordings include 18 written or co-written by Dean Dillon.Most country songwriters swear their allegiance forever to traditional country songs.  Dean Dillon doesn’t have to. His most notable cuts have enhanced, among others, the careers of George Jones, Vern Gosdin, Keith Whitley and most of all the incomparable George Strait, whose list of great country recordings include 18 written or co-written by Dean Dillon. Of the second wave of country songwriter greats, Dillon compiled a solid reputation as a country songwriter, as well as a man who speaks his mind-and damn the consequences.

He was born in Lake City, Tenn., a small town north of Knoxville. His father left two weeks thereafter. When he was five, he moved to Detroit with his grandparents, who played a big part in raising him. “I hated it!” he recalled.  “I got my first guitar when I was seven years old, and it became my escape clause.”

“My mom and step-dad along with two new sisters…when I was 10 years old, they moved back to Tennessee, but instead of me gettin’ to go back with ‘em, they drove me over to Virginia on the way back and introduced me to a step-grandmother [who] I’d never met before. And albeit, what a wonderful sweet woman she was, but it was traumatic in the sense that, you know, hell, I didn’t know who I belonged to. So they left me there for a year and I kinda felt like a damn stranger to the world…to everybody, you know, a loner. But as life went on, I guess that became food for my future profession.  Lotta heartache.”

At the age of 10 or 11, he started performing for his family at Christmas and Thanksgiving gatherings-and writing songs. “My big break came I guess when I was 14. I won the TVA Fair Talent Contest-that’s the big fair in Knoxville. The finals were between me and a flaming baton twirler. God love her, she dropped her baton, and I won. The prize was a guest appearance on a little show called Jim Clayton’s Star Time. Jim Clayton was a mobile home manufacturer, and he had all these mobile home lots. He had a television show. On that show he had a band called the Kountry Kings. They would play these grand openings on the weekend and by virtue of this little 30-minute TV show they had every week, people would come to see them. Anyway I did that first show, and they asked me to come back the next weekend…and then the weekend after that they asked me to be a regular on the show.

“So when I was 14, 15, 16…I was taping TV shows on Wednesday nights and Friday nights and Saturday nights, playin’ shows and doing these grand openings in Kentucky or wherever Clayton wanted us to go. What a great way to hone your skills!”

Later he formed his own band. “We played stone country,” he recalls. “Gene Watson, Jones, whoever…and I was writin’ some back then, but I never really started crankin’ it up ‘til I got outta high school and hitchhiked to Nashville-and couldn’t get arrested.”

But he did get a job in 1975 performing at Opryland, in the show Country Music, USA. “I would sit backstage in between songs and write songs. This girl in the show-her name was Kathy Hyder-she came back there and sat down at the picnic table one day and said, ‘Play me something.’ And I played her something I was working on, and she said, ‘I have a friend who’s a songwriter. I’m gonna get him to come out here and listen to your songs.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, right, sure you will.’

“So like a week later this guy shows up and introduces himself.  He says, ‘So I hear you write songs.’ I said ‘yeah’ and he said, ‘play me something.’ So I played him a couple of songs and he said, ‘Well, let me talk to my publisher.'”

The songwriter was a hit-maker named John Schweers and his publisher was Tom Collins, one of the shrewdest independent operators in Nashville. Schweers set up an appointment with Dillon-and Collins signed him that day, with a $50-a-week draw.

“I thought that was the greatest,” Dillon says. “I’d never thought about writing songs and making money. Two weeks later he cut three of my songs on Barbara Mandrell’s Friends, Lovers and Strangers album. For that to happen that quickly…I was really taken aback by it. From that point on, it became a five days a week, nine to five-just like a job-when I wasn’t working at Opryland.

“Tom was a great influence on me,” he continues. “He really pushed me…constantly demanded rewrites. And as much as I despised them, it was the best thing that could have happened because he just wouldn’t settle for less. It had to be right, and it had to be good. And I remember one time, I wrote the lyric to this song on a plane comin’ back from Texarkana, Texas. I’d played a show that weekend. I went home, went to sleep, got up the next morning, picked up the guitar and my hand went to this chord that I had never played in my life. It was an “E,” but with this pinky finger about two frets up [hums a bit of melody]. I went in that morning and played Tom Collins the song. I handed him the sheet of paper that I’d written it on, and he scribbled on it and handed it back…and at the top of the paper it had an A-plus. And I was like, ‘So this is what he wants!'”  The song was “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” and it became a huge hit for George Strait.

By that time, he already had “Unwound” and “Down And Out” recorded by Strait, and to date he cut 18 Dean Dillon songs that have become hits, including classics like “Ocean Front Property,” “The Chair” and “Marina Del Rey,” as well as more recent hits like “Easy Come, Easy Go” and “She Let Herself Go.” Dillon recalled how he wrote Strait’s first hit, “Unwound,” with Frank Dycus, a colorful and talented songwriter with a long Music Row history.

“There used to be a hotel/restaurant called The Third Coast (in Nashville), and everybody in the entertainment business would go to the restaurant and drink and yahoo and party. It was strange ‘cause I got up that morning and went over there and wrote a song with Shel Silverstein. And the song Shel and I wrote sucked…it was horrible. But I loved Shel. What a phenomenal writer he was. And this was after me seeing him over there and getting’ to know him and beggin’ him to let me write with him.

“About noon, here comes this guy named Frank Dycus, walkin’ through the gate at Third Coast, and I remember seein’ him and my heart just leaped because he was one of the first people I met when I hitchhiked here in ‘73.  I said, ‘Hey man, remember me?’  It wasn’t uncommon during those days for people to come in and just sit down in the restaurant at a table and pick up a guitar and write songs. After all, that’s where Shel and I had written that morning…I mean, it was a music hotel, basically.

“Frank and I sat down at a table and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea for a song, and he goes, ‘What is it?’  I said, ‘She’s got me wrapped around her finger but tonight I’m gonna unwind.’ And he thought for a minute and he looked at me and he goes, ‘Well how about, ‘That woman that I had wrapped around my finger just come unwound.’ I said ‘It sounds good to me,’ so we sat there and people would come up as we were writing and sit down and listen and have a beer with us. And about a half hour later, we had a song.  He and I became pretty much inseparable, and we started writin’ every day. He had a little ol’ office on the Row, and I remember one day this Budweiser truck goin’ by the office. We stopped the Budweiser truck and conned him into sellin’ us this case of Budweiser. We were sittin’ on Dycus’s front porch of this old house, drinkin’ Bud, and this car pulls up…this guy goes, ‘Hey I got this new artist from Texas that I’m fixin’ to record and I need some songs.’

“It was Blake Mevis, and I said, ‘Well, who does he sound like?’ And he said, ‘Well, he really doesn’t sound like anybody. He’s kind of got his own sound.’ So, long story short, I pitched him everything but the kitchen sink, and for some odd reason, I don’t think a lot of other writers did. It was back in the days when you didn’t pitch your top drawer stuff to newcomers, and hell, I liked the way the guy sounded. Erv Woolsey, George’s manager, heard one of my songs and it happened to be ‘Unwound.’ He told Blake Mevis, ‘I’ve got you enough money to cut three sides on George.  I don’t care which two of them they are…you guys pick between you two, but one of the songs…you have to cut ‘Unwound.” And so that sorta sealed the deal on that song.”

In the old days, the songwriters of Music Row were a colorful old bunch.  Stories abound about the wild things writers did while under the influence of this fluid or that powder. Dillon was often considered a prime example of a songwriter who would live fast, die young and leave a beautiful memory.

“There’s an old saying here in Nashville: ‘If you don’t have an ego when you get here, they’ll give you one.’ It wasn’t long after all these wonderful things started happening to me, that I accumulated a rather large ego. And along with that came a large amount of partying and ‘Hey, look at me,’ and a lot of drinkin,’ a lot of drugs and a lot of mistakes.’  You’ve gotta understand, in the early 1980s in Nashville, Tennessee, if you weren’t doin’ drugs, you weren’t in the music business. And that was a well-known, documented fact.

“Today, it’s just the opposite, from what I see. Sure, there’s drinking goin’ on, and there are a few of them out there who are still funnellin’ money up their nose…but they’re few and far between-and it’s frowned on by most.

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You’ve said that James Taylor and Merle Haggard were major influences on your writing. What was it about Taylor that made such an impression on you?

James Taylor’s melodies were phenomenal to me-all that early stuff. And then, he had kind of a haunting voice.


What about Haggard?

Haggard was, to me, the epitome of country music back then.  And the stuff that he sang about… “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” “Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Shade Tree Fix-it Man, and in particular, “All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers”…that’s just the way I felt at 10 years old. Everywhere I go, I’m a stranger to everybody.


When did you come to Nashville, and what was it like then?

I came in ‘73. I’d just turned 18. I’d actually come here first when I was 16. An investor in my little hometown-his name was Burt Loupe and he ran the airport in Jacksboro, Tennessee-he put up some money, and we came down here and actually cut a two-sided record. The record came out great. I remember one side was called “The River’s Edge.”  Looking back, the song was mediocre, but the opportunity to come to Nashville and do that and see that first hand at the age of 16…I knew. Hell, I knew from the time I was seven years old that I was gonna be in music.


Did you have a problem deciding if you were going to be an artist or a full-time writer?

George Strait, God love him, I used to be fortunate enough to…when he would come to town to record, that Monday morning before his first session…although he had been pitched pretty much all my stuff prior to that day, I would have a 10 o’clock appointment with him. It was like this standing deal. We’d do this every session. I would go in, and I’d play him songs on my guitar that were brand new. Some of them he would cut, just by virtue of me playin’ them on my guitar, and then I would go run and make a cassette of it and hand it to him. During my deal with Atlantic, I had just cut a new album and I go into his office one morning, and he’s sittin’ at his desk. And it’s me and George and [producer] Tony Brown.  I play some songs, and I’m gettin’ ready to leave…and George says, “You’re forgetting something…I’ve heard this song you have. And I’ve gotta have it.”  And I said, “What is it?”  He told me, and I said, “But that’s on my new album-it’s supposed to be my next single.” About that time Tony Brown chimed in. He said, “I can promise you, if you give us that song, I’ll cut a No. 1 record on it. I promise you a number one record.”  At that time a No. 1 record paid about $150-200,000, and I thought to myself, let’s see, I lost $30,000 on the road last year, lost $30,000. And…he’s promising me a number one record if I give them this song.

And I had just had new babies, twin boys. I looked at him and I said, “OK, you can have it.”  The song was “Easy Come, Easy Go.”  It was then that I gave up on one of my dreams, basically. Do I have any regrets about it?  Not a lot.


You note that alcohol and drugs in the music industry have greatly diminished since the rockin’ ‘80s.  Why?

Because it’s harmful. It became harmful to our very business. Everybody thought, well here’s cocaine, it’s this wonderful drug…no harmful side effects, you know? And three years later, everybody and their brother winds up in a halfway house trying to get their head back together.


As far as the music in the industry today, compared with the music 25 years ago, how do you feel about it?  When you turn on the radio, what do you hear?

I don’t turn on the radio. I write songs for a living and I try to keep it at that. I don’t understand why radio plays what it plays, but I can promise you this: The masses out there listening to country radio aren’t hearing the top drawer stuff. To me, country music radio’s become vanilla, chocolate and strawberry…I don’t begrudge anybody makin’ a living. Hell, I gotta make one myself. But if I thought that I had to write some of the stuff  that I have heard at guitar pulls and stuff…if I thought I had to write that to make a livin’ I can promise you Michael, I’d quit and I’d go do something else. There has to be part of your heart on that piece of paper sometimes.