Dean Dillon

by Amanda Flinner

No one knew who George Strait was when Dean Dillon and fellow Nashville scribe Frank Dycus wrote "Unwound," the singer's debut hit single back in 1981. Since then, their careers have come up alongside each other's, with Dillon co-writing over 50 songs for Strait, 11 of them #1 hits. Dillon even tried his hand at a recording career with a spate of solo singles landing on the country charts, but it was never his dream.

He tells us: "When you're 18 years old, weighing 135 pounds soaking wet, and you've got enough nerve to step on an interstate in East Tennessee and hitchhike to Nashville and not know a soul, there's some bigger driving force inside you that's taking you where you need to be." For Dillon, that driving force was songwriting.

During the '80s and '90s, a hard-living, hard-loving lifestyle fueled authentic lyrics about love and loss, themes that are deep in the roots of country music. He dropped the hard-living part, but the songs kept coming for the likes of Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Lee Ann Womack, and Brooks & Dunn. Classics like "Tennessee Whiskey," "The Chair," and "Marina del Rey" earned him a spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame and the title of BMI Icon.

These days, Dillon hasn't slowed down too much. When he's not writing songs, he's out on the road performing them. Here, Dillon talks to us from his Colorado ranch about some of his biggest hits and how he stays relevant in an era of bro-country music.
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): I wanted to touch upon a few of the pivotal songs in your career, the first one being "Unwound." Most people know that song connected you with George Strait, but it also connected you with Frank Dycus, too. Did you sense that song would a breakthrough for you?

Dean Dillon: Didn't have a clue. We loved what we wrote. I'd met Dycus in '73. Matter of fact, he's the first songwriter I met when I came, when I hitchhiked to Nashville in '73. As life would have it, we hadn't seen each other in a while when we wrote that. It had been a few years. I was writing a song that morning, actually, with Shel Silverstein, and we wrote probably one of the worst country music songs ever known to man. I was walking out of the garden area there at Third Coast [a hotel bar in Nashville], which was what it was called then, and Dycus walked in and I told him I had an idea for a song, "She's got me wrapped around her finger, but tonight I'm going to unwind." Which I thought was pretty good. He looked at me and he says, "How about that woman that I had wrapped around my finger just come unwound"? I said, "Man, I like that better."

We wrote that song in probably 45 minutes over a couple of beers sitting in the garden spot there at Third Coast.

Songfacts: Did that tend to be how it would work out, the songs that ended up becoming the biggest hits were the ones that were written that quickly?

Dillon: I don't know if time has anything to do with it. Great songs usually tend to write themselves pretty much, you know. But they can take hours or they can take days. I'll say this, most of the big records I ever wrote, I did not write in Nashville.

Songfacts: Were you in Colorado yet at that time?

Dillon: No, no. I lived in Nashville since '73 up until about a year ago. I've had this ranch out here for about 10 years, but it was more of a second home than it was anything. I mean, my wife and I moved here full time about a year ago, maybe two years ago.

Songfacts: So where were you when you weren't writing in Nashville?

Hank Cochran was a prolific country songwriter who wrote the popular crooner standard "Make The World Go Away" and a string of hits for Patsy Cline, including "I Fall To Pieces." With Dillon, he wrote "The Chair" and "Ocean Front Property" for George Strait.
Dillon: When I met Hank Cochran in 1980 or '81 we lived on a boat in Green Turtle Cay, Marsh Harbor, Bahamas. We lived on a boat called The Legend, which was his boat. We did that for about four or five years, lived on a boat. And I was a troubadour. I run the roads a lot. I didn't stay in any one place very long. I mean, obviously, I'd base out in Nashville, but seemed like I was always gone somewhere with Hank or somebody.

Songfacts: How did working with guys like Hank Cochran influence your own songwriting?

Dillon: Well, Hank Cochran was my mentor. He taught me everything he knew and basically made me who I am today. He was a mentor, not only just as a writer, but as a friend and as a father figure and everything else. I mean, he was so good to me. You know, when we wrote songs, Hank would tell me why we wrote those lines. He just wouldn't write the line, he'd tell me why we wrote the line. I've been real blessed to have people like that in my life, so many great songwriters. Him, Larry Butler, Dycus. It's been a great road.

Songfacts: I was reading an old interview with Frank Dycus and he called you a walking song title index. Are you known to compile lists of title ideas?

Dillon: That's funny he said that because Hank said I had more melody in me than anybody he knew. I think I was born with a gift and it's all I ever did. From the time I was seven years old and got my first guitar, it's all I ever wanted to do was to write songs.

You got to understand when you're 18 years old, weighing 135 pounds soaking wet, you've got enough nerve to step on an interstate in East Tennessee and hitchhike to Nashville and not know a soul, there's some bigger driving force inside you that's taking you where you need to be. Nashville was the place for me to go. Once I got there and started hanging out with all these great characters, it was a dream come true.

Songfacts: So when your daughter [Jessie Jo Dillon] said to you, "Dad, I want to be a songwriter," were you supportive right off the bat?

Dillon: Absolutely. It wasn't shocking to me or anything. She called me up one day and said she had what she thought was a great idea for a song and it just happened to be "The Breath You Take." George had a huge record on that. First song a kid writes, she has a #1 record, nominated for a Grammy, and is still asked about it now, and I told her, "Don't get too spoiled, it's not this easy." She'll be the first to tell you that she thought it was. She thought you could just write a great song, get it cut, and it'd go to #1.

But I've got two girls. My baby, the 17 year old, Song Dillon, she's a heck of a songwriter, too. She's pretty scary. But it's great that they have that gene and want to do it. Paul Overstreet's got a couple of kids that are all in the music business, and then George's son Bubba; it's just that next generation.

Songfacts: The industry has changed so much since you started. Has that changed how you approach your songwriting?

Dillon: It can't, no. Hank taught me that if you wrote a great song, eventually somebody would want to cut it. Eventually. I've lived my songwriting life with that belief, and I still believe that today. I don't know how you want to look at this last 10 years, what's transpired with this so called bro country thing. You can't argue with success. But you have to understand that in the last 10 years a whole different generation of listener came on board to country music, and they weren't really about serious life stories as much as they were about having a good time. That's what these kids, this new generation, they wanted to hear. I saw it firsthand. I've been out on the road with Lee Brice, Brad Paisley, you name it. I've been out with Justin Moore. I've been out there and just watched that generation and what they relate to. And what they relate to is having a good time.

So guys like me who make a living writing great songs and this is not saying that some of those bro country songs aren't great, because there's some of them that are really well written. It's just not my cup of tea. But I've always thought that somewhere on that 10 sided CD there's a spot for a Dean Dillon song, and I still believe that today.

I just had seven cuts in the last couple of months with Toby Keith, I've got Toby's new single; Mo Pitney, I've got his single coming out; Darius Rucker just cut a couple of things of mine. So I'm still doing what I've always done. But I'm all about writing great songs.

I think it always comes full circle. I've been there 40 some years and I've seen it time after time after time, it always comes back to a great song. It can go in any direction it wants to go for a while, but in the long term, it always comes back to a great song. For guys like me, what you do in the meantime is sit there and keep writing what you write. Then when it comes back around to your turn, there you sit with a bunch of great songs.

Songfacts: I want to take you back to a few of those great songs. One of them was "Marina del Rey," back in 1982. What's the background for that one?

Dillon: I was in Marina del Rey, California, with Steve Wariner and Sylvia, who were label-mates of mine on RCA, doing a radio tour. We stayed at the Sheraton there in, I think, Marina del Rey. Steve liked magic tricks and he took Sylvia to a magic show. I made my way to the bar, and I met a young lady there and we actually dated for a couple of years after that. But that song was written about her on the airplane coming back from Marina del Rey, most of it was. When I got back, I played what I had for Dycus, and we finished it. Then obviously George cut it.

I guess the back back story to that song is when I was in my teens, I was doing a TV show in Knoxville called Jim Clayton's Star Time. I was making pretty good money doing this TV show and every weekend I'd go to the civic auditorium in Knoxville and watch people like Roger Daltrey and the Who, and Carlos Santana. Anybody and everybody who was a big rock act then, although I listened to country music incessantly.

But then I went one weekend and I saw Carole King and James Taylor. I really didn't know that much about them. But when I heard those melodies that Carole and James were writing, a light bulb went off in my head and I thought, Man, if you could take that kind of melody and pair it with a great country lyric, you'd really have something.

Thus you had songs like "Marina del Rey" and "The Chair." That's who inspired those melodies. "Marina del Rey" at the time was about as far as you could push an envelope in country music. Country music was one, four, five for the most part.

It's funny, Dycus wanted to go meet George, and I couldn't go; I had something else to do. So he took a bunch of songs down there that he and I had written and he played them for George. George didn't really like any of them. Dycus said, "Well, there's one more song on the cassette." He said, "But it's kind of pop sounding. You probably won't like it." Dycus played it for him and it was "Marina del Rey," and George fell in love with it.

Songfacts: Going with a pop-sounding song as a new country artist at that time sounds risky.

Dillon: A lot of people don't know this, but his hero's Frank Sinatra. He actually cut a song with Sinatra a long time ago. So it goes to show you that he would be open to stuff like that. I think the reason he and I have worked so well together is he's so open to what's not necessarily the norm, setting precedents. He's set precedents his whole career with what he's recorded. He's really been a great song picker. When he went to record material, he's always picked great songs.

Songfacts: You were going to record "Easy Come, Easy Go" before George picked it. Having that in mind while you're listening it, it kind of sounds like a goodbye to your recording career.

Dillon: It probably was, but no I was going through a divorce at the time, actually. I had never met Aaron Barker, and Erv Woolsey, George's manager, called me up, and said, "Hey, would you write with Aaron?" I said, "Love to." Aaron had already had a couple of big records with George.

So we met in Brentwood at a little hotel over there and that was the first time we actually met. Sat down on the floor and stared for about two hours and never got anything. Finally I said, "Man, I've got an old Pontiac out here I want to go get tags for." We did, and on the way back I told him I was going through a divorce. I said, "Man, wouldn't it be nice when you were going through a divorce if everything would be amicable, you'd actually get along?" Which was the exact opposite of what was going on with mine.

We kind of laughed and started writing that song and came up with "Easy Come, Easy Go."

Songfacts: Was that hard for you to let go of when George really wanted to do it?

Dillon: No, because you've got to remember all I ever really wanted to do, my first love was writing songs. It wasn't being an artist. Now, don't get me wrong, I love the singing and thought I had a pretty good chance. But I had put out three or four albums without much success at all. It seemed like every time he cut a couple of my songs, he'd ring the bell with one of them. We'd have a #1 record.

My way of thinking was, Why do I go out here and lose $30,000 a year of my songwriting money working dates on the road, feeding a band, when I can sit back and write songs for this guy and everybody else, and make a great living and not have to go out there and be the road warrior.

Songfacts: But you never actually gave up being a performer, though. I mean, you're still performing now.

Dillon: Oh, yeah, I still perform. I probably toured more last year than I have in forever.

Songfacts: What are some of your favorite songs to perform?

Dillon: "The Chair," "Ocean Front Property." I do "Set 'Em Up, Joe," "Empty Glass." I just recorded on a band called Due West, a song called "You Can't" that people have never heard yet, and when I play it, they come up and go, "Where can I get that at?"

Songfacts: Did you have that song in your pocket for a long time?

Dillon: I've had "You Can't" for about four years now, I guess. I've had some people ask about recording it, but for some reason I said no. It's found itself a home with Due West.

Songfacts: I've always loved the little turn of phrase in "She Let Herself Go." How did that come about?

Dillon: One of the hardest songs I've ever written. I say that because the guy I wrote that with is a guy named Kerry Kurt Phillips, and he leaves no stone unturned when it comes to writing songs. I mean, he will absolutely take hours and hours and hours fine tuning something. Whereas I'm the kind of guy, if you ain't got it in three hours, it ain't worth gettin', anyway.

We labored over that song for a good day, I mean, from 10 till 6. I'll never forget that. But he's a great songwriter. He's written some big records. He might have had the idea for that song. Can't remember.

Songfacts: Have you written with him since then?

Dillon: I had written a few times with him. But you had to be prepared to go the long haul with him. You knew going in it was not going to be a two hour deal. So you had to block the whole day, so to speak.

Songfacts: I don't hear a lot of people asking about "Spilled Perfume" that you wrote with Pam Tillis.

Dillon: Honestly, that was all Pam. I was more or less in the room. All my life I always heard growing up, "No use crying over spilled milk." That hook ("There's no use crying over spilled perfume") never really hit me till about two days after we wrote that song. Then I went, Okay, now I get it. I'm a slow learner sometimes. But Pam drug me kicking and screaming through that song, so she gets all the credit.

Songfacts: You've called "A Lot Of Things Different," written for Kenny Chesney, one of your favorite songs. What's special to you about that song?

Dean in 1989Dean in 1989
Dillon: Just the whole song. In my humble opinion, it's one of the best things that I ever had a part of. I know there's songs you write and you walk away that day going, "Well, that's a pretty good job today." Pat yourself on the back. I remember walking away that day after Bill and I wrote that thinking, Man, that's why you sit down and write right there, songs like that.

Although it never had the chart success - I think that was only a Top Ten record, but it was nominated for a Grammy - I thought it was a great record. Just a great song. Kenny did a great job on it. It's a song that when I play it live, I can't tell you the people who come up to me and tell me that they were in tears by the end of that song. When you can get in somebody's head that deep with a song, then you've done your job.

Songfacts: You were there at the point where Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith were coming up as the new generation. What did you expect going into a room to write with these newer guys?

Dillon: With Toby, I found out real fast what a great songwriter he is. Toby's a pretty phenomenal songwriter. He's probably one of the best songwriters I've ever been around, quite honestly. He knows how to get it done, quick witted, easy to write with because he is so quick witted. He's a quick thinker.

Songfacts: So you're not sitting those long, long days working on a song with him.

Dillon: No. When you sit down with Toby, man, in two hours you've probably got a great song. Kenny's pretty much the same way, too. I don't think Kenny gives himself enough credit a lot of times just how good a writer he is. When I wrote with George the first time - about seven or eight years ago was the first time we ever wrote together, believe it or not - I knew he'd probably be a good songwriter, because he was such a great song picker. He'd been doing it so long, I knew he'd probably know how to do it.

I didn't know anything about Bubba, really, and I was just pleasantly surprised, man. The guy, since that time, he and I have written quite a few songs together. He's another one that's got a great mind for it.

Songfacts: Before we wrap up, was there a song that we didn't cover that you wanted to talk about?

Dillon: Probably the one I haven't written yet, whatever that is. No, I'm still doing it.

Songfacts: You can't stop at this point.

Dillon: Well, no. You don't do it as often, because quite honestly after writing thousands and thousands of the songs, it's hard to find a great idea that hasn't been written. That's the struggle for me anymore, you know. But I love it today as much as I did the first time I ever wrote the first one. I'm not writing 180-200 songs a year now, which I used to do. But when I go, I hope I've got a pencil in my hand.

August 12, 2016.
For more on Dean Dillon, visit hisofficial site.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 5

  • Sue Duhon from Crowley LouisianaDean Dillon is awesome!! Thanks for all the great songs!!
  • Bruce Arvizu from MissouriThe story about "Easy Come, Easy Go" is a fabrication. I knew the man who actually wrote it. I played with him in an attic space at a glass company in Anniston, Al. He was working on it in the mid 1980's and I think he sold it in Nashville. The lyrics, chord structure, and melody line are EXACTLY what my friend Mike wrote.
  • Sheila Fattore from Pittsburgh, PaJust met this guy today and he is a stunner. He was picking out a jewelry gift for the wife at Jared. I could tell the gift was something he had to feel. Would love to hear more stories about the relationships he has had with performers.
  • Roland from Hyde Park, NyDean is the man.
  • Camille from OhioThis is a terrific article, love the James Taylor/Carole King light bulb moment for Dean Dillon.
see more comments

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