Masters Of Songwriting: Dean Dillon
Dean Dillon is accepting a BMI Icon award on November 5, and for this legendary country music singer and songwriter perhaps best known for his songs for George Strait and Kenny Chesney, it’s well-deserved. Dillon talks confidently about his songwriting career, mentions a few of his favorite lyricists, and gives his honest opinion about the state of country music on the radio today.
Congratulations on this BMI Icon award. How are you feeling about that?
I’m pretty stoked, man.
Do you know who’s going to be performing your songs yet?
Yeah, people like George Strait and Kenny and LeAnn Womack and Luke Bryan.
Strait has done something like fifty-four of your songs in his career. What’s your relationship like?
He’s just a good friend. We’ve been pals for thirty-something years. The first stuff we did together, I guess it was ’79, ’80. When he came to town, nobody knew who he was so nobody wanted to pitch him any songs. Back then, nobody picked to the new acts – they wanted Jones or Haggard or Conway or somebody. Being the little rebel I was back then, I pitched him everything and the kitchen sink. He cut six of my things on his first album and then after that, it was pretty much just a standard tradition that every time he’d record, the Monday of the week that he recorded, at ten o’clock, I’d be sitting across his desk from him playing songs. He never forgot that out of everybody I was the one who pitched him all the stuff. Over the years, I just happen to like the way he sings and he likes the way I write. So it worked out real well.
Have you written any songs this week?
I did yesterday. I wrote with a little 21 year old kid named William Michael and a great friend of mine, Dale Dawdson. The kid’s a good country singer. He ain’t like all that trash-ass bullshit on the radio right now, which is full of nothing but garbage if you ask me. We actually wrote a great song, called “Driving Through the Rain.”
Do you have a specific role when you co-write, like suggesting lyrics or melody? Or does it change every time?
Not really. I’ve always been known as a melody man, it kind of goes with the territory. I just love collaboration. I think writing songs by yourself has gotta be pretty boring. That’s why I don’t do it anymore, I just enjoy the camaraderie and seeing whoever gets the best line is always fun.
You mentioned the “trash” on the radio today, so I guess I know how you feel about the music that’s on the radio right now. But is there a song you could think of that’s on the radio that you do like?
Whatever Adele’s got out.
What about in the country realm?
Not really. But then you’ve got to remember I don’t listen to radio. One of the biggest reasons for that is I don’t want to be writing songs and go, “Oh yeah, that’s the melody of that song I heard on the radio the other day” or “That’s that idea I heard on the radio the other day.” So I do it more out of that than because I’m not crazy about it…I just think we’ve been led down this wrong road for the last two or three years of music and it has hurt us. And it’s been counterproductive, it’s been detrimental. I think everybody’s played a role in it. Hell, everybody from the songwriter to the record label to the radio took a turn at just guttin’ country music.
I’m not saying everything you hear on the radio is bad, by any stretch of the imagination. But a majority of it is just why is this there? Who would sit down and write that? Because it’s mindless stuff. Country music is this wonderful, heartfelt, microcosm of life. And somewhere along the way, the lyrics just became mindless. It doesn’t have any heart or soul to it. It’s just “Let me rhyme this word with that word.”
Who would you say are some of the best country lyricists?
Hank Hoffman was a great. Bobby Braddock. Whitey Shafer. In today’s world, there are some kids – I’m trying to think of their name right now – Brandy Clark is just freaking amazing. An amazing lyricist. My daughter’s not too shabby, Jessie Jo. But there’s a couple of guys out there, I can’t think of their name right now, that I’ve written with that are a chip of somebody’s old block. But there are some great songwriters out there.
It’s just what you hear on the radio I don’t think is a fair barometer of what songwriters in Nashville deliver on a day-to-day basis. I mean how many fucking truck songs can you write? The problem with the truck song is – I don’t hear any truck songs telling me what kind of truck to drive, they just say “truck.” Well that don’t leave a whole lot to the imagination, if you follow my drift. If you’re gonna write about trucks, then what kind of truck are you writing about? I heard someone put it really well the other day. They said – the guys that really love this, songwriting, and try to write songs that really matter, they use all 52 crayons in the box. But a lot of these kids these days use two. And there’s not creativeness to it. It’s just this bland nothing, but I don’t think that the kids don’t have it in them.
I was brought up in the school of every time you sit down to write, not just every other time or one out of ten, you give it your best effort and try to write something that will change the world. Try to write something that moves people. There are some great party songs out there and there’s not a thing wrong with them, but when you’ve got just a genre of mindless garbage, it’s going to turn people off. That’s why XM Satellite Radio is making money hand over fist now. Because that’s what people want to listen to. They don’t want to listen to Top 40 country.
That’s an interesting idea. Have you written about trucks before? Have trucks appeared in your songs?
If I do, it’s by accident. I probably did. But if I did I can almost bet you I probably told you what kind it was.
Having written so many songs in your life, how do you avoid repeating melodies? Or do you even worry about that?
That’s a tough one. It gets harder the older you get, obviously. I remember one time when I was about 25 years old I went up to Whitey Shafer’s house. I was all jacked up about writing with Whitey. I got up to his house, man, he opened the door and I went inside and he looked at me and he goes, “Man, I don’t feel like writing today. Hell, I’ve written everything.” I just looked at him and I thought, “Man, how can you say that?” Well, here we are thirty years later and I know exactly how he felt. It gets tough, it’s a challenge. It’s hard to come in there and come up with something not so much new, but something different, something that feels good and matters. We don’t not write good time, fun songs. Hell, me and Bubba wrote “Here For A Good Time.” Great, fun song. It could have been a cheesy-ass piece of junk but we didn’t want it to be that. We wanted it to be a fun song but we also wanted to have some meat on the thing.
What are some of your favorite renditions of your songs by other artists?
Well, I’ll just say this — I’ve been really blessed to have people like George Strait and Kenny Chesney. Toby Keith. You want to talk about a songwriter? Let’s talk about Toby Keith a minute. First time I ever sat down with that guy I didn’t know what to expect. I knew his sidekick Scotty Emerick was one hellacious songwriter. I had written some with Scotty, so I knew he could do it. But I didn’t know about Toby, and the first time I got on the bus with those boys and I’m sitting there thinking, “Let’s just see what this big dog’s about.” And man, within about ten minutes it became pretty darn obvious to me that he don’t have to carry a damn candle to nobody. That guy can do it. He knows how to write a damn song. I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass, I’m telling you if you want to get in a room with the guy, strap on because he’ll bring it. He has a great groove, a great niche. I love what he does.
Kenny. If you can ever sit Kenny down and really get his attention, which is hard as hell to do because he’s so hands-on with his career, he’s right there in his career’s face. It’s hard to corral him but when you can and when you do – another guy that can bring it. He knows what he wants to say. He’s not one of those guys that you throw a line out and he does “Oh yeah, that’s great.” That’s not him. We’ve written, I don’t know, 30, 40 songs together. He’s just a brilliant songwriter.
As is George. When George called me the first time five or six years ago and said, “Man, why don’t you come down here and let’s write some songs,” we’d threatened to do that since the early 80s, we just never did it. When he called me and told me that he and Bubba had been kicking some stuff around, asking if I’d come be a part of it, I kind of knew that George would probably – because he is such a great song picker, he knows how to pick a song that suits him – I figured he’d be a good song guy and I was pretty dead on with that. I really had no idea where Bubba would be at, what kind of writer he was. But again, Bubba, by virtue of being around it all of his life, he’s a jewel as a songwriter as well.
I’ll tell you who I really like a lot, their writing — I think Paul Overstreet is a good songwriter, man.
When you get into a room with somebody that you think is a great writer, are you always going to bang out the song in a day, or can it go further than that?
Most of the time, three or four hours and it’s hammered and nailed. You get as old as I am and hopefully you know what the heck you’re doing. If you dive into something and it doesn’t feel right, hell, dive into something else. There are days I’ve started something and got 10 minutes into it and go “I don’t like this, let’s do something else.” And we do. When Bill Anderson and I wrote “A Lot of Things Different” that Kenny recorded, that was one of those morning we spent two hours on this idea and at noon I looked to him and said, “Man, this is horrible.” He goes, “Yeah, it ain’t very good, is it?” I said, “No, it sucks.” And he pulled a sheet of paper out of his briefcase and that sheet of paper just described some things about life that people had…if they ever had a chance to go back and do things over, they’d done this and done that. And that’s where that song came from. I looked and read that sheet of paper and two hours later we had this wonderful freaking song called “A Lot of Things Different.”
This has been a lot of fun, hearing you talk about songwriting, and I know our readers are going to really enjoy this interview. Anything else you want to add?
Yeah, for these kids, man. I wish they’d take a good hard look at life. You know, Tom T. Hall says “Write what you know.” And there’s a lot of truth in that. But there’s also a lot of truth in “Write what you dream for.” You can make stuff up for writing songs. You don’t have to live it. You can make stuff up, and it’s a lot of fun doing it if you put a lot of meat on the bone with it.