Life-changing moments are not always obvious at the time they occur.
So it’s easy to understand how songwriter Dean Dillon (“Tennessee Whiskey,” “The Chair”) missed the 40th anniversary of a turning point in his career in February. He and songwriter Frank Dycus (“I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” “Marina Del Rey”) were sitting on the front porch at Dycus’ home/office on Music Row when producer Blake Mevis (Keith Whitley, Vern Gosdin) pulled over at the curb and asked if they had any material. He was about to record a new kid and needed some songs.
The new kid was a then-unknown guy named George Strait, and the song they gave him, “Unwound,” established an iconic traditional voice.
“That pretty much solidified the relationship between George and myself because he never forgot that,” recalls Dillon. “The next album, he’d call me up: ‘I’m cutting at so-and-so. Be in my office at 10 o’clock Monday morning. I want to hear everything you’ve got.’ And we did that for 40 years.”
Strait, in fact, recorded over 70 of Dillon’s songs through the years, with 16 of them — including “I’ve Come To Expect It From You,” “Here for a Good Time” and “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” — becoming hits. They’re a big reason Dillon experienced another life-changing moment, one he recognized as a landmark as it occurred. Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern called roughly a year ago to tell him he was entering the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“Dumbfounded me sat there for about three minutes, four minutes,” says Dillon. “I was in shock. My life is racing through my mind, you know? And finally, I said something stupid, like, ‘Well, I’ve given my life to country music.’ She goes, ‘Well, we know you have, and we’re just proud to tell you that you’re going to be inducted next fall.’”
The pandemic screwed up those plans. Dillon couldn’t even share his good fortune until August — “I was tired of keeping that a secret,” he says — and he’s still waiting, likely until this fall, to enter the hall along with Marty Stuart and Hank Williams Jr.
Joining with Bocephus is apropos: Dillon used to portray Hank Williams Sr. in an Opryland production, and he wrote Junior’s 1982 hit “Leave Them Boys Alone,” a song that references Hank Sr. and Waylon Jennings, whose name matters in Dillon’s story. He was known as Dean Rutherford when he first arrived in town, but when he signed a recording deal with RCA, executive Jerry Bradley decided to change his last name, looking for something with repetitive letters mimicking the double “n” in “Jennings.”
Dillon was cool with the change: He paid over $1,000 to make it legal within a year, turning a page on a poverty-stricken East Tennessee childhood, though he still drew on the hard times in his writing. His grandparents raised him in a shack that his grandfather intentionally built small to save on the heating bill. Most of the rooms were about 6 feet by 8 feet, and the ceilings were only 6 feet high.
“There wasn’t no jumping around in that house,” says Dillon with a laugh. “We had a friend that was 6 feet 6. He didn’t come in the house much. He stayed on the porch.”
Another of those turning-point moments in his youth came during a Carole King/James Taylor concert. Dillon was floored by Taylor’s chord structures — they included a lot of minor triads, different from the major chords that dominated country songs — and those structures shaped Taylor’s trademark melancholy melodies.
“Mind you, I’m huge into country then,” says Dillon. “You know, I’m a Merle Haggard freak, George Jones, all of it. But when I heard those melodies out of James Taylor, I thought, ‘Man, if you could take that type of melody and put it with a great country song lyric, it would be extremely different, but it’d be extremely beautiful.’ And thus came songs like ‘Nobody in His Right Mind’ and ‘Marina Del Ray,’ ‘The Chair.’ All that stuff was in direct relationship to what I’d heard that evening.”
Dillon’s gig at Opryland included a turning-point moment, too. One of his fellow performers, Kathy Hyder, introduced him to songwriter John Schweers (“Daydreams About Night Things,” “I Left Something Turned On at Home”). Schweers introduced him to producer Tom Collins (Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap), who signed Dillon to a publishing deal at Pi-Gem, which Collins co-owned with Charley Pride.
“Tom was great,” remembers Dillon. “I’d hand in the lyrics on a sheet of paper, and he’d hand it back with a ‘B minus’ on it and go, ‘Rewrite it.’ I remember my first ‘A.’ I wrote ‘Nobody in His Right Mind’ by myself, turned it in to him, and he handed me the paper back with an ‘A plus’ on it.”
Dillon made the grade with one of his idols, too. Jeannie Seely spotted him at a Nashville venue alone and asked if he was “the kid” who was getting attention for his writing. She took him that night to the home of Hank Cochran (“I Fall To Pieces,” “Make the World Go Away”), and within 24 hours, Dillon and Cochran were headed to Florida, where they spent a significant chunk of the mid-1980s. Their collaborations would include “Miami, My Amy,” “Set ‘Em Up Joe” and “Ocean Front Property.”
“Hank had kind of pushed writing to the back burner until he met me,” says Dillon. “When he met me, it reenergized him.”
Cochran is one of a handful of full-time songwriters who preceded Dillon into the Country Music Hall of Fame, including Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, Don Schlitz, Cindy Walker, Bobby Braddock and Harlan Howard. And the lineage continues into the next generation, as well. Among the writers Dillon has inspired is his daughter, Jessie Jo Dillon, whose successes include “10,000 Hours” and “Break Up in the End.”
Even after his plaque is placed in the Hall’s Rotunda, it’s likely that Dean Dillon will still be looking for the next song. He recently penned six new ones in a three-day retreat with Billy Currington and Scotty Emerick, and he started a few other titles with Luke Combs that will probably get finished at a later date.
“When it’s time to write, it’s time to write,” says Dillon. “There’s no, ‘Hey, let’s go have a few beers at lunchtime.’ None of that goes on. We just get down to business.”
You never know when one of those appointments will become a turning point in someone’s life.
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