March 26, 1955
Lake City, Tennessee
One of the most successful and influential songwriters in country music, Dean Dillon served as a primary source of hits for George Strait. Dillon’s hard-edged style and creative melodies suited Strait’s affinity for traditional country. In 1981, Dillon and Frank Dycus wrote Strait’s first hit single, “Unwound.” Since then, Strait has recorded more than sixty Dillon compositions, including “The Chair,” “Ocean Front Property,” “Famous Last Words of a Fool,” “If I Know Me,” “I’ve Come to Expect It from You,” “Easy Come, Easy Go,” “The Best Day,” and “Here for a Good Time.”
Dillon also wrote many honky-tonk hits for Vern Gosdin, Pam Tillis, Kenny Chesney, Keith Whitley, and other singers. “Tennessee Whiskey,” which Dillon co-wrote with Linda Hargrove, has become a modern classic with widely heard versions by George Jones and Chris Stapleton.
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Fulfilling His Destiny
Dillon came up hard. He was born Larry Dean Flynn in Lake City in East Tennessee, on March 26, 1955. His father left the family when he was born, and he was uprooted multiple times to live with different family members in Michigan, Virginia, and again in Tennessee.
In 1962, at age seven, he took his stepfather’s last name, becoming Dean Rutherford. His stepfather bought him a guitar that same year. By his mid-teens, the youngster realized that he wanted to make songwriting and singing his profession. Dillon especially admired the hard-country lyrics of Merle Haggard and the accessible melodies of James Taylor and Carole King.
He studied the lyrics printed in the magazine Country Song Roundup, and as a teenager he precociously pitched songs to established Nashville stars. At age fourteen, Dillon received a letter from Johnny Cash, who thanked him for his interest in supplying songs but said he had more songs already than he could record. At sixteen, Dillon made a custom recording (“The River’s Edge”); around the same time, he gained notice in East Tennessee performing on local television programs (including Jim Clayton’s Startime variety show in Knoxville).
Dillon hitchhiked to Nashville at eighteen. A year later, he released “Las Vegas Girl” on Plantation Records. Shelby Singleton, owner of the independent label, issued the 45-rpm single under the name “Dean Dalton.” During his first years in Music City, Dillon played the role of Hank Williams in a production at Opryland theme park, giving him experience performing for large crowds. Music publisher and producer Tom Collins signed him as a writer and placed three Dillon songs on Barbara Mandrell’s 1977 album Lovers, Friends and Strangers.
What’s in a Name?
Dillon’s career breakthrough happened in 1979: as a writer, he gained his first Top Five country hit with “Lying in Love with You,” a duet by Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius; as an artist, he signed with RCA Records and released a Top Thirty country radio hit, “I’m into the Bottle (To Get You Out of My Mind).”
Preparing for the release of that record, RCA executive Jerry Bradley thought his young artist needed a new last name. “I’ll never forget sitting in Jerry’s office,” Dillon said during his Poets and Prophets interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2008. “He opened up the phone book and said, ‘We’ve got to have something with two letters in the middle of it. Let’s see here. Dillon. Dean Dillon. That sounds good, that’s your name.’”
Dillon plunged wholeheartedly into country music in the 1980s, building his career as an artist—frequently recording and touring—while writing hits for other country artists. His RCA singles “What Good Is a Heart” and “Nobody in His Right Mind (Would’ve Left Her)” also reached the Top Thirty. Dillon recorded two albums with labelmate Gary Stewart, a hard-living honky-tonk singer ten years his senior. “That was like pouring gasoline on gasoline,” Dillon quipped, saying the two were paired as RCA’s answer to the successful duo of Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley.
Strait to the Top
In 1981, however, when Dillon began his association with Strait, songwriting soon became Dillon’s primary path. Producer Blake Mevis asked Dillon and Dycus if they had any songs they wanted to pitch for a young Texas cowboy singer Mevis had started recording. The singer, largely unknown at the time, was Strait. “Well, I have some I was going to pitch to Johnny Paycheck, but he’s in jail,” Dillon told Mevis. Dillon offered some songs, one of which became Strait’s first hit, “Unwound.”
Later, Strait often went directly to the source for new material. “The best way to hear a Dean Dillon song is when he plays it in person,” Strait said. “I love the way he sings. He puts a lot of feeling in these songs and when he sings them for you in person, it really comes across. When he sings them for you in person, it’s kind of hard to turn him down, and I think he knows that.”
Songwriting legend Hank Cochran mentored Dillon, and together they wrote two classics for Strait—“The Chair” and “Ocean Front Property”—as well as Keith Whitley’s breakthrough hit, “Miami, My Amy,” and the Vern Gosdin classic “Is It Raining at Your House?” (with Gosdin). “I grew up without a dad,” Dillon said. “When I came to Nashville, I don’t know, it always seemed like I wound up writing songs with older guys who took on a buddy role. But when I met Hank, and we got together and started writing songs, he was like a father figure in my life. Just sitting down with him and being able to write songs with him, I learned so much.”
After recording for Plantation and RCA, Dillon went on to make albums for Capitol and Atlantic before retiring from recording and concert tours. The turning point came in the early 1990s and involved a song, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” that Dillon had written with Aaron Barker.
Dillon planned to release the song himself as a single on Atlantic. But Strait heard it and lobbied Dillon personally to give him the song. Dillon agreed after producer Tony Brown—then head of MCA Nashville, Strait’s label—guaranteed that MCA would take the song to #1. Dillon recalled weighing the potential income of the song, figuring about $120,000 in earnings if the song went to #1, as opposed to losing money again in his solo recording career. He gave the song to Strait, then marched over to Atlantic Records and said, “I’m done.”
Since then, Dillon has recorded occasionally, but his focus has been on songwriting. When asked in his Poets and Prophets interview if he ever regretted leaving performing to concentrate on writing, he said no. “I’ve been so blessed with country music,” he said. “The songs me and my buddies have been fortunate to write together—what more can I ask for?”