Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Dean Dillon

November 1, 2008
Dean Dillon vividly remembers the day in 1979 when he stood on a porch on Seventeenth Avenue, on Nashville's famed Music Row, and watched producer Blake Mevis pull up in his car. Mevis approached Dillon and songwriter Frank Dycus to ask if they had any songs they wanted to pitch for a young Texas cowboy singer Mevis had started recording in the studio. the singer, unknown at the time, was George Strait.

“Well, I have some I was going to pitch to Johnny Paycheck, but he’s in jail,” Dillon told Mevis. Dillon offered some songs, one of which became Strait’s first country hit, “Unwound.” Other significant hits Dillon wrote or co-wrote for Strait include “Down and Out,” “Marina Del Rey,” “The Chair,” “Nobody in His Right Mind Would Have Left Her,” It Ain’t Cool to be Crazy about You,” “Ocean Front Property,” “Famous Last Words of a Fool,” “I’ve Come to Expect from You,” “If I Know Me,” “Easy Come, Easy Go,” “Lead On,” and “The Best Day.”

In all, Strait has recorded nearly sixty of Dillon’s songs, making their collaborative relationship unique in country music history. “If I look back over my life, and the relationship I’ve had with George, and obviously the music he’s done of mine, two words come to mind about that day,” Dillon said. “It’s called ‘divine intervention.’ I dare say my life would be vastly different if not for the relationship I’ve had with him.”

Dillon talked about his career, including his years as a performer, as the subject of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s quarterly series Poets and Prophets, which pays tribute to songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. The sold-out program, held in the museum’s intimate Ford Theater, featured a ninety-minute interview with Dillon, augmented by live performances, video and audio clips, and scores of personal and professional photos. Among those in attendance were several of Dillon’s co-writers, including Aaron Barker, Ronnie Bowman, Buddy Cannon, Hank Cochran, Dale Dodson, Scotty Emerick, Con Hunley, Leslie Satcher, Whitey Shafer, and country star Lee Ann Womack. Cochran and Shafer are previous honorees in the Poets and Prophets series.

Besides his lengthy list of Strait hits, Dillon’s famous songs include “By Now” by Steve Wariner, “Tennessee Whiskey” by George Jones and David Allan Coe, “Leave Them Boys Alone” by Hank Williams Jr., “Homecoming ’63” by Keith Whitley, “Set ‘em Up, Joe” by Vern Gosdin, “Spilled Perfume” and “All the Good Ones Are Gone” by Pam Tillis, “A Chance” and  “A Lot of Things Different” by Kenny Chesney, “ and “Good News, Bad News,” a duet by Strait and Womack that won a CMA award for Musical Event of the Year.

Dillon was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002, the same year as Bob Dylan and Shel Silverstein. During the program, he told of the influence of Merle Haggard and James Taylor, two favorites from his youth. At one point early in his songwriting career, he explained, he wanted to “weld James Taylor’s melodies with the honesty of the Haggard stuff, to see what I’d get out of that.”

Michael Gray, the museum staffer who hosts the Poets and Prophets series, opened the program by reading a quote from Strait. “The best way to hear a Dean Dillon song is when he plays it in person. I love the way he sings. He puts a lot of feeling in those songs. When he sings for you in person, it really comes across. When he sings them for you in person, it’s kind of hard to turn them down.

Gray then brought Dillon onstage, where he sang “The Chair,” a 1985 Strait standard that Dillon co-wrote with Hank Cochran, with accompaniment by songwriter and guitarist Scotty Emerick. Dillon later recounted how he and Cochran also wrote a Keith Whitley hit, “Miami, My Amy,” the same day as “The Chair.”

“I grew up without a dad,” Dillon said when discussing Cochran, who also wrote such country classics as “I Fall to Pieces” and “Make the World Go Away.” “When I came to Nashville, I don’t know, it always seemed like I wound up writing songs with older guys who took on a buddy role. But when I met Hank, and we got together and started writing songs, he was like a father figure in my life. Just sitting down with him, and being able to write songs with him, I learned so much.”

Born Larry Dean Flynn in Lake City, Tennessee, Dillon realized by his mid-teens that he wanted to make songwriting and singing his profession. He studied the lyrics in the magazine Country Song Roundup, and he even pitched songs to established Nashville stars. Gray showed a letter Dillon received at age fourteen from Johnny Cash, thanking him for his interest but saying he had more songs already than he could record.

“Cash wasn’t the only one I sent those to,” Dillon said as the crowd laughed. “Haggard, Wagoner, all of them. You know, at the time, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Johnny Cash was just Johnny Cash back then.”

Hitchhiking to Nashville at age eighteen, Dillon joined the cast at the Opryland theme park as a performer. “It afforded me a chance to perform in front of a million people a year,” he said. “That’s not a bad gig.

He first recorded under the name of Dean Rutherford, which was his stepfather’s last name. Veteran record executive Shelby Singleton, after signing Dillon to his Plantation Records label, cast him as Dean Dalton for a single he put out on the label. After signing with RCA Records, record executive Jerry Bradley also thought the young singer-songwriter needed a new last name.

On Bradley giving him his name, Dillon recalled that the executive told him, “Man, I can’t pronounce Rutherford. We need to change your name. I’ll never forget sitting in his office, and he opened up the phone book, and said, ‘We got to have something with two letters in the middle of it. Let’s see here. Dillon. Dean Dillon. That sounds good, that’s your name.”

The crowd laughed. But Dillon made it clear he embraced his new identity. “You know what? I don’t think I really found the real me until I found Dean Dillon,” he said.

Dillon also discussed his early ’80s pairing in a duet with the late honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart. “That was like pouring gasoline on gasoline,” Dillon quipped, saying the two were paired as RCA’s answer to the successful duo of Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley. Of Stewart, he said, “He was a beautiful man. He unequivocally was the best honky-tonk singer I ever heard.”

From the start, though, Dillon always pitched all of his songs to other artists; he didn’t hold any back for his own recordings. He also praised the Music Row system where publishers encourage songwriters to approach their craft as a profession and to work at it on a daily basis, as if going into an office. “A lot of people think that’s crazy, but it’s not,’ says Dillon, who says the schedule forced a disciplined attitude. For a new songwriter, he compared it to going to college.

One of the first artists to score a hit with a Dillon song was country singer Con Hunley, who sat at the piano on the Ford Theater stage and sang a soulful version of“What’s New with You,” a hit single in 1981 co-written by Dillon. As Hunley finished, Dillon walked over to hug his old friend. When he sat back down, he said, “Man that guy can sing.”

As an artist, after recording for Plantation and RCA, Dillon went on to make records for Capitol Records and Atlantic Records before retiring from recording and concert tours. The turning point came over a song, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” that Dillon had written with Aaron Barker. Dillon planned to release it as a single on Atlantic Records. But Strait heard it and lobbied Dillon personally to give him the song. Dillon agreed after producer Tony Brown—then head of MCA Nashville, Strait’s label—guaranteed that MCA would take the song to #1.

Dillon recalled weighing the potential income of the song, figuring about $120,000 in earnings if the song went #1, as opposed to losing money again in his solo recording career. He gave the song to Strait, then marched over to Atlantic Records and said, “I’m done.”

Asked if he ever regretted leaving perfoming to concentrate on songwriting, Dillon said no. “I’ve been so blessed with country music,” he said. “The songs me and my buddies have been fortunate to write together—what more can I ask for?”

—Michael McCall