For all the supporting players who’ve worked to construct the George Strait team—Tony Brown, who has produced every album since 1992’s Pure Country soundtrack; Erv Woolsey, who has managed Strait on the same handshake deal since the early eighties; the Ace in the Hole Band, two of whose members played that first Strait gig, in San Marcos in October 1975—some of the most important contributions to Strait’s success came from the person furthest from the spotlight. Songwriter Dean Dillon has composed or co-written 55 songs for Strait, including 19 singles, 11 of which went to number one. Even in a career like Strait’s, the Dillon titles stand out: “Marina del Rey,” “The Chair,” “I’ve Come to Expect It From You,” “Easy Come, Easy Go,” “She Let Herself Go,” and “The Best Day.” His songs all pair instantly catchy melodies with gutbucket country lyrics, signature qualities of a Dillon composition that would also become hallmarks of Strait’s own style and sound. As Brown explained, “they are the elements that allow Strait to sound traditional without sounding old-timey”.
Dillon, age 61, first arrived in Nashville in 1973, when he was just 17. Six years later, he was working a gig portraying Hank Williams onstage at Opryland USA when he finally got a publishing and recording deal. Through the eighties and early nineties he released six decently received albums, including two duet records with fellow singer-songwriter Gary. He also wrote huge hits for artists other than Strait, like George Jones (“Tennessee Whiskey”) and Keith Whitley (“Homecoming ’63”), and more recently he has gotten a slew of cuts by Kenny Chesney (“A Lot of Things Different”) and Toby Keith (“A Little Too Late”).
But it’s the relationship with Strait that has, to a large extent, defined both of their careers. And even in a genre built on great songwriters writing for great singers, there’s never been another team like it.
Most country songwriters swear their allegiance forever to traditional country singers. Dean Dillon doesn’t have to. His most notable cuts have enhanced, among others, the careers of George Jones, Vern Gosdin, Keith Whitley but most of all George Strait, whose list of great country recordings include 18 written or co-written by Dean Dillon.
Dillon compiled a solid reputation as a country songwriter, as well as a man who speaks his mind regardless of 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.”
So they left me there for a year and I kinda felt like a 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.”
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 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.’”
This guy was a sa hit-songwirter 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.
“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, 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.
“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.