Dean Dillon’s career is forever blended with George Strait. The Lake City-born singer-songwriter is responsible for writing or co-writing some of Strait’s biggest hits, including the signature songs “The Chair,” “Unwound,” “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” and “Ocean Front Property.”
Dillon says he first heard about Strait in 1979. Producer Blake Mevis visited the Music Row house where Dillon and co-writer Frank Dycus were writing. Mevis was looking for songs for a young artist from Texas.
“Frank and I had just written ‘Unwound,’ but I told him I was going to pitch it to (Johnny) Paycheck,” says Dillon, “but Paycheck was in jail. ... In those days, if it was a new artist, you didn’t pitch them your top drawer stuff. You wanted your great songs to go the Haggards, Cashes, Lorettas, Dollys. But when I heard George sing, I threw that out the window. I pitched him everything I had.”
At the time, Dillon was a hardscrabble young writer from East Tennessee. He’d grown up poor and knew what it was like to accompany his mother to the welfare office to get money so the family could eat. He loved Merle Haggard’s hard-luck songs, including “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” because it told a story he could relate to. He also began writing his own songs. Fred Grantham, an English teacher at Jacksboro High School encouraged Dillon to continue writing.
“He was really instrumental in my becoming a writer,” says Dillon.
Dillon won a talent contest which landed him a spot on Jim Clayton’s Knoxville TV show “Star Time.” And as soon as Dillon graduated high school, he hitchhiked to Nashville to pursue his dreams.
Hardship was nothing new and he was determined to succeed.
“I slept in coal bin underneath a house on Music Row,” says Dillon. “That was modis operandi in the 1970s. Kris Kristoffeson was a janitor and slept in his car. I didn’t have a car to sleep in! It’s what you had to do. All those hard times I had growing up made it into songs.”
Producer and publisher Tom Collins gave Dillon a monthly songwriting contract. The money wasn’t much at first, but Collins helped mentor young writers like Dillon and sometimes contributed to songs without taking credit.
Dillon also fell in with older songwriters, including Dycus and legendary songwriter Hank Cochran, who had written or co-written the songs “Make the World Go Away” and “I Fall To Pieces.”
Dillon says Cochran recognized his raw talent and taught him everything he knew. The two eventually wrote many hits together, including “The Chair” and “Ocean Front Property.”
While Dillon had always wanted to be a recording artist himself, success on that level eluded him. He first partnered with the great honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart, then came a solo deal with RCA, followed by one with Capitol Records and another with Atlantic Records in the 1990s.
After a tour in the early 1990s, he had a meeting with Strait to pitch songs, but the singer passed on all of them. Producer Tony Brown said he’d heard one of Dillon’s songs called “Easy Come, Easy Go” that he’d like Strait to record, but the song was slated to be the first single on Dillon’s own upcoming album.
Dillon remembers the day clearly:
“He said, ‘If you let us have this song I promise you we’ll have a No. 1 with it.’ I thought ‘Well, I lost $30,000 on the road last year — spent my songwriting money. I stand to make maybe $250,000 on this song if they record it.’ I left that meeting and went straight to Atlantic Records and told (company president) Rick Blackburn, ‘Boss, I’m done. I quit. My heart’s not in it anymore. I just want to write songs. I’ve got three babies and I want to spend time with them.”
From that point on, Dillon was a full-time writer and he occasionally performs. He says the changes in the business have made it much harder for songwriters to make a living, but he continues at it.
“I always write ’em and just hope they’re right for somebody,” says Dillon.
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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