Legendary Country Songwriter Dean Dillon Talks About Writing Classic Hit Songs For George Strait, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney

Dean Dillon
Dean Dillon

Legendary songwriter Dean Dillon sits in an enviable position as the right-hand man in Country Music Hall of Famer George Strait’s camp. Dillon has had more than 50 songs recorded by King George, who reigns with more than 69 million records sold. Among the tunes Dillon has helped pen are “The Chair,” “Easy Come, Easy Go,””If I Know Me,” “Lead On,” “Unwound,” “Marina del Rey” and “Ocean Front Property.” During his 40-year career, Dillon’s illustrious resume includes tunes he has written for Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Lee Ann Womack, George Jones and Vern Gosdin. In 2002, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame along with Bob Dylan and Shel Silverstein. Living on the flip side of the music business as an artist, Dillon has charted eight times including the Top 30 hit, “I’m Into The Bottle (To Get You Out of My Mind.)”

For the past three years, Dillon has been signed to a music publishing agreement with HoriPro Entertainment Group in Nashville, where he’s continued to have a string of hits for George Strait (“Here For A Good Time,” “The Breath You Take,” “Living For The Night”) and Kenny Chesney (“I’m Alive”).

In this new interview, Dillon reveals the reason Strait always turns to him for songs, explains how songwriting hurt his singing career, and doesn’t soft-pedal his advice to aspiring songwriters.

BC: How would a songwriter get started today?

Dillon: I wouldn’t recommend it this day and age (laughs). The music business has just changed so much. The internet has basically stolen us blind in the last five years. Every day it’s a battle with Pandora, Napster or somebody. They don’t want to pay the songwriters for their work. It’s not like it was when I hitchhiked here in ’73. It was a wide open world back then. If you had a great song, you’d take it to a great artist and get it cut. It’s not so much that way anymore.

BC: Is there any hope there at all?

Dillon: Yeah, the cream’s going to always rise to the top. I just think the days of an average songwriter coming to Nashville and trying to make it ain’t gonna happen anymore.

BC: So, they should just stay home?

Dillon: There’s a lot of people come and go in that town and especially, now, there’s a lot more of them going than there are coming.

BC: Should they be a part-time songwriter and keep their day job?

Dillon: Man, I don’t think you can be a part-time anything. You’re either in it or you’re out. I’ve always been in. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s all I’ve ever done. Like I say, if you’re 18-years-old and got the dream that I had in 1973 and willing to come down here and pay the price, I guess the price is just a lot higher these days than when I came to town, and the price was high then. Now it’s almost unbearable. We’re always looking for that next great songwriter, the one that walks through the door and blows you away. Those kind of guys and girls’jobs are there for them. Just the Average Joe songwriter whose kind of okay, kind of likes it, kind of wants to try it, that opportunity’s not there anymore, I don’t believe.

Dean Dillon performing live.
Dean Dillon performing live.

BC: They need to be fully committed or not at all?

Dillon: Oh yeah. It’s going to take a lot more commitment than when I even had when I came here in 1973.

BC: How did you get your first songs heard?

Dillon: I worked at Opryland and somebody found out that I was writing songs backstage. They told [hit songwriter] John Schweers about me, and he actually came to the show one day. After the show was over, he came backstage and listened to some of my songs. He said I want you to meet my publisher, who was Tom Collins. I went the next week and met Tom Collins, and he offered me a publishing deal that day. Three weeks later I had three songs on Barbara Mandrell’s Friends, Lovers, and Strangers album.

BC: When did you start writing songs?

Dillon: I started writing songs when I was seven-years-old. I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and said that’s what I want to be. I want to be a singer. It was really crazy. I saw them on that show. Then, I got this little tiger-striped guitar when I was seven. I think I wanted to write before I wanted to learn to play the damn thing. It just always seemed like there were words inside of me trying to get out. I think I actually started writing words before I learned how to play that guitar.

BC: When did you realize you had a special knack for songwriting?

Dillon: I wrote a song when I was about 12, and it went something like, “Stars, stars that shine in the sky, how many times did you see someone cry/Stars, stars, up there all alone, would you keep on shining if your world was gone? Even at that age I realized that’s pretty technical for a 12-year-old. I thought that’s pretty cool.

I knew the day I got out of high school I was going to Nashville. When I was 15/16, I played on a little TV show in Knoxville called Jim Clayton Startime. I met Merle Haggard when I was 16. He heard my song and told me when you get to Nashville, when you’re 18, look me up, and I’ll give you a publishing deal. I always had the talent. I just needed to mold it.

BC: I’ve read that you get your inspiration from listening to people’s stories.

Dillon: I listened to Haggard, man. Between “Mama Tried” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” … James Taylor and his beautiful melodies. I fell in love with a great lyric and a great melody. That’s where [I developed] my penchant to combine those two, a little left of center melody instead of somewhat straight-ahead like you heard on the radio back then. Once I got past “Unwound,” I wrote “The Chair,” “Easy Come, Easy Go” and “Marina del Rey.” Really, “Marina del Rey” was the turning point, because that melody was left field for country music at the time, and the lyric content in it was pretty good. George Strait’he was always into crazy lyrics and crazy melodies. He was always looking for something just a little bit different, and “Marina del Rey” was it.

BC: George Strait has recorded a lot of your songs. Do you write any of your songs with him in mind?

Dillon: If I’m writing with a songwriter, we just write. If I’m writing with an artist, I’ll pick their brain and see what they want to say, because it’s not about me and what I want to say. It’s about what they want to say. To say, I don’t necessarily direct something I’m writing at anybody only applies when I’m not writing with an artist. When I’m with an artist, like the stuff I write for George, obviously it’s pretty handy to have him sitting right there bouncing sh** off of him. We write a couple of times a year when it’s time to go do the record. We’ll hook up’me and him and (his son) Bubba’and write some stuff. I like what we write.

The cover of Dean Dillon's album, Feather Of A Different Bird.
The cover of Dean Dillon’s album, Feather Of A
Different Bird.

BC: You’ve been quite fortunate as a songwriter to get to pen so many songs for George.

Dillon: It has a lot to do with loyalty, man. When he decided to give Nashville one more try, (many years ago) Erv Woolsey (Strait’s manager) chose (producer) Blake Mevis to go find him some songs. Blake came over to my office because Blake always loved my writing, and asked me if I had anything for this unknown artist (George Strait) in Texas. Back in those days you didn’t give your top drawer stuff to an unknown artist. You just didn’t do that. You pitched them to Jones or Haggard or Cash, Dolly or Loretta. I pitched him everything I had but the kitchen sink. I was always of a mind to not necessarily go with the normal way of thinking and for somebody to tell me not to do something, well, hell, I’d be damned. I’d do just the opposite. So, I pitched him everything I had and ended up with six songs on his first album. I think a lot of that had to do with nobody else would give him anything. He never forgot that.

From that point forward, every time he went in to record, I had an open invitation. He’d start to cut on Monday, Monday morning at 10 o’clock, I was sitting at his desk in his office playing him songs. We’ve always done that. He didn’t forget. A lot of people forget. Pitch them a couple of great songs, and then they’re on to the next big thing. He never forgot me, and he never forgot my music. My debt of gratitude is beyond imagination.

BC: You’ve been a songwriter and artist. Can you compare the two worlds?

Dillon: Being a songwriter first and then trying to do the artist thing’I think the trouble with that is if you’re good and you write great songs, and you’re true to yourself, you’re not going to have that hit after hit after hit after hit that it takes to be an artist, because you’re writing stuff about you. You’re writing what you want to do as opposed to writing what you think someone else wants to hear. There’s a big difference. If I wrote for myself all the time, I’d probably never get sh** cut. (laughs) There’s a lot of truth in that really. As a songwriter, you’ve got to know what’s going on on the radio and what’s working at the time and what’s not working. If you don’t change with the music as it changes and evolves, you’re going to wind up broke and going home. A lot of guys get in their 50s, my age, and they either don’t want to or cannot change. The time comes to where their stuff sounds outdated, and they don’t understand why. The reason is that the music has evolved. And if you’re not smart enough to keep up with it, it’s going to leave you behind. That’s the fight for me. I’ve written so much over 40 years . Everybody keeps saying, keep writing that great stuff that you write. The great stuff that I wrote 20 years ago doesn’t apply to today. By the same token, being a singer/songwriter and an artist, that’s a death knell too, if you’re still stuck in 20 years ago.

I had like four albums out. I never really could get that one big record that would launch an artist’s career. Some of it had to do with, I gave the damn songs away. (laughs) George (Strait) would wind up doing them or Vern Gosdin would do them or (George) Jones would do them. By virtue of giving them away, that’s one less shot you had at making something work. Then, there came a day that I figured out man, I really don’t want to do that. I just want to write songs. When I found out I could make a good living and feed my family, that pretty much made up my mind. I had a three-year-old and newborn twins, and one day it hit me. You have a family now. If you’re an artist, you’ve got to stay gone all the time. I just got happy with being just a songwriter, and it was okay.

BC: You’ve obviously done quite well.

Dillon: That was another thing. I thought, “Hell, man, you’ve tried it four times on four different albums, and you haven’t hit it out of the park yet. I had just cut another one when it finally dawned on me. I guessed the stars lined up or whatever. The one song I was going to pull off there (as a single, “Easy Come, Easy Go”) George heard, and he said I want that song. I had to give it to him. This guy’s clothing me, feeding me, putting gas in my truck and making house payments for me. And that was more important than me being an artist, because I had those babies.

BC: Would you rather write solo or with others?

Dillon: I like writing with other great songwriters, man…that know how to do it and at any given moment can open their lives and their mouths and the world will stand still for a minute, because of something they say. I like that. It’s a big old game all of us play. Who can come up with the best line? We laugh about it. You get a couple of guys in the room that know how to play the game, and it can be a hell of a lot of fun. There are a lot of guys like me that are in town who are fricking good. We can sit down in an office and in three hours we can go home and eat pizza.

I haven’t written a song by myself in I can’t tell you how long. It’s funny when I have to write by myself, I won’t do it. I’ll find something else to do. Now I’ll get a lot of ideas, but as far as just sitting down with a guitar and really wanted to tear something up, I haven’t had that inspiration in a long, long time. What I have had is some great ideas and thought, “Man, this would be great to write with so and so.” As far as just writing by myself, I just think that’s boring as hell. Co-writing’s more fun. Writing songs ought to be fun.

BC: Have you ever tried other types of writing?

Dillon: I want to write a book someday when I have the time. I’ve had an interesting life. When I came to town, I was 130 pounds soaking wet and ran around with the likes of Webb Pierce and Faron Young. That was back in THE day. From that point on, it’s been fun. I don’t read a lot of books. When I come home from writing, I just want to turn it off. I never listen to the radio in the car. Don’t ever turn the radio on. Rule #1. When I write, after I write, I want to get as far away from it as I can, because I don’t want to be in a room someday and go “Oh, I love this melody” and then turn the radio on the next day and it was the one you heard that day.

BC: How do you stay current on what’s happening with the music?

Dillon: I just hear what my buddies are writing, where they’re at and what they’re hearing. Somebody will demo something and play it for me. I’ll sit there and go, “Wow…wish the hell I had written that”. Some days it just pisses you off. Somebody will come in and play something. “Why in the hell didn’t I get to write that song?” Because it’s that damn good.

BC: I bet they say the same thing about you. What’s coming up next for you?

Dillon: I just got out of the studio. I’ve been holed up in there about four days, cutting 10 sides. All stuff that I wrote this fall. Then, I’m going back to Colorado in January and taking a couple of songwriters when I go out there. I’ve got a ranch out there and I go out there and write in the winter. Somebody’s flying in every week. We sit there and write songs all winter.

BC: What’s the latest song you’ve had on the charts?

Dillon: Me and George and Bubba (Strait) had a song had a song that went to 30 with an anchor called “Drinking Man.” That song would have been a hit ten years ago. Ten years ago that song would have been a bonafide, certified hit. Like I said, times change. It’s a whole different ballgame now.

BC: How did that song come about?

Dillon: That was George’s idea. It struck me as odd really. When he told me about the idea, I thought, “Really? You want to write a song that dark about drinking?” He was like, “Yeah.” I go, “Well, I’ve got enough of that under my belt. (laughs) I know all about that, so we can go there.” I thought it was interesting that he would want to write something like that. I didn’t think that would be something that he’d want to say.

BC: When you look back over the songs you’ve written, what songs are you most proud? I know it’s hard to choose your babies.

Dillon: I always hear that sh** about “Aw, they’re all my kids”. Well, I tell you what. I’ve got some ugly son-of-a-bitches that I don’t want nothing to do with.

BC: Give them up for adoption.

Dillon: Hell, yeah. I love “The Chair.” I like “Unwound” and “Here For a Good Time.” There are a lot of songs I’ve never had recorded that I love just as much as anything I’ve ever written. I wrote a song (“No Reason To Stay”) with my daughter, Jessie Jo Dillon. It’s just a stellar song. There’s a song on there called “Yours To Take” (written with Billy Montana and Jeremy Ashida). That’s a great song. There’s a funny song on there called “Now I Miss My Baby.”

Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, GACTV.com, Bluegrass Music Profiles and ParentLife. He can be reached at [email protected].He is also on Google+