Billy Dean: Always A Songwriter

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Videos by American Songwriter

It took Billy Dean about six years to get his first major publishing deal, but only three years to enter into a co-publishing agreement which allowed him to keep half of the publishing on his songs. It’s a lesson young writers should take to heart, because keeping as much of your publishing as possible is important to your long-term financial success and your control of the copyrights.It took Billy Dean about six years to get his first major publishing deal, but only three years to enter into a co-publishing agreement which allowed him to keep half of the publishing on his songs. It’s a lesson young writers should take to heart, because keeping as much of your publishing as possible is important to your long-term financial success and your control of the copyrights.

Dean, who moved to Nashville from Florida in the 80’s, came here not to write songs but to be a recording artist. As luck would have it; he fell in with a crowd of people who were musicians and singers by night, songwriters by day.

“When I came to town, the first thing I did was get a hotel room on Murfreesboro Road, and every single night I would go out to every club, every bar, sit in with everybody I could, and met just a whole network of musicians. I got some gigs out of the deal and met some writers.

“I didn’t really consider myself a writer, but it seems like the first people I met were writers. Verlon (Thompson, friend and co-writer) was one of them, and most of the musicians who were gigging at night were writing during the day. That was a pattern the people I met were in, so I fell into that pattern too.”

The people Dean was writing with began to land publishing deals and he started singing demos for them. “All of a sudden I was in the demo business. And at that time people who were also demo singers were Kathy Mattea, T. Graham Brown, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. I watched them all get record deals and started wondering when it would be my turn.”

Friend Verlon Thompson was responsible for making it Dean’s turn to get his first major publishing deal.

“Verlon went in one day and played Jimmy Gilmer (at EMI Music) a song I’d written, and Jimmy liked it because of the song and because of my voice,” Dean explains. “So he had a meeting with me and I got signed. Verlon and I started doing some songwriting together and got a cut. Then I just started coming in (to EMI) and having coffee in the morning. I would show up about 9:30 or 10 a.m., because I learned in the very beginning to pretty much treat it like a job.”

“EMI was really first professional publisher, the first company that ever paid me to write songs. Once I got my record deal we were able to re-structure our deal for the co-publishing. EMI has always been encouraging to me, as a staff writer, and I’ve always wanted a company I could nurture and a couple of writers that I could work with and teach. EMI has encouraged that, and we are in the process right now of setting up a sister company.”

Part of what Dean will teach the writers he signs will be the basics he learned as a rookie writer at EMI.

“In the very beginning I was brand new, no cuts, no track record, and I was cheap, they could afford me.” Dean says, laughing. “I have to say that being around the songwriters – People like Richard Leigh, Guy Clark, Verlon Thompson, Peter McCann, Wayland Holyfield – really taught me about songwriting by hearing their work. I’d come into the office and I’d hear their songs through the walls, and I’d put my pen down and take my guitar and go home to think ‘Gosh, I can’t begin to write that good.’ But it would make me strive harder to be able to write as good as they did.”

Even after writing songs like “Somewhere In My Broken Heart,” “Billy the Kid,” “How Can I Hold On To You,” and “We Just Disagree,” Dean considers himself just beginning to reach the level of those writers and influences at the EMI offices.

“I’ve just really stared learning, I think. This past year I took off to regroup and think, and I sort of changed my way of writing in some ways. I didn’t have the pressure of trying to write a country album, so I gave myself permission to write anything I wanted to write. I wrote spiritual songs, rock and roll songs, country songs, movie type songs. If I wanted it to be six minutes, or if it wanted to go that way, I’d let it. I didn’t put any restrictions on myself or pressure on myself to finish it. I just got the ideas down. I used to just prod myself at getting the song finished. Nowadays I’ll lay it down and come back later and finish it. I heard Rodney Crowell say one time that you need to get out of the way of the song and it will probably finish itself.”

Dean’s first signing to BTK Songs is Kenny Lewis. He offered Lewis some sage advice while the two were first talking about the publishing deal.

“I first of all told him he needed to talk to all the affiliates – BMI, ASCAP, SESAC – and I also sent him to NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Assn. International) to become affiliated and go to meetings, meet some songwriters and try to build some co-writing relationships. I would suggest the same thing for those new writers coming into town. Take you time and try to meet these people who already have publishing deals and find some co-writers. And I would encourage them if they write with someone who has a deal, I think they should sign that song over to that writer’s publisher. You get to know about those companies where you co-write and you start to build a relationship as they get to know about you. I think between those people you write with and meeting other people at those publishing companies, you would end up landing a deal.”

Kenny Lewis was Dean’s bass player. He grew up in the business because his dad, Wayne Lewis, played with Bill Monroe. “He’s been on a tour bus since he was four years old. He’d been around the big bluegrass guys since he was a baby, he knows it and has lived it. The stuff he’s writing is different, but it sounds like authentic country music,” Dean explains.

In reality, Dean understands that he can only work with two or three writers at a time. “I want them to be pretty different,” he says. “I don’t go out and really listen to songwriters. I’ve go this kind of concept with Kenny because he’s an artist too. I’m interested in a writer who either likes to produce or sing; I think it’s important to help create an outlet for your songs. But I don’t want somebody to be so busy that they’re not going to have time to write. I have one other guy I’m interested in down in Florida. He was playing ukulele when he was five years old. He grew up as kind of a musical genius. His mother was one of my school teachers. I had lost touch with him. Then one day I got a tape in the mail and I couldn’t believe how far along he was as a writer. He’s another one I would like to nurture, and again he’s someone who’s done it since birth. If he’s married and has kids and is still this far along, he’s obviously not going to put it down and quit any time soon.”

Dean has one last word of caution for the young writers in town: “Don’t ever give your publishing away unless someone gives you a lot of money for it,” he says somewhat ruefully. Before he signed with EMI, he had signed with another company that turned out to not be the kind of company he wanted to be affiliated with. “When I first came to town I’d write any place I could write. You’re so anxious, if somebody says work or contract you’re so happy about that, you don’t stop to find out exactly what they are offering. I didn’t that with this one deal, but I don’t ever remember getting any cash for it. You try so hard not to be gullible, but you want it so bad.”

Although Dean didn’t come to town with the burning desire to be a songwriter, that has changed in the years that he has been here. “I always will be a songwriter first and foremost – my passion is inventing the music, and that’s what I love the most.”


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