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An Interview with Dean Dillon

This fall, we had the pleasure of interviewing local songwriting legend Dean Dillon, who was recently inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Bluebird recently expanded our services and opened a new office in Gunnison, so this story has even deeper meaning for us as we feature this local legend who calls Gunnison home for part of the year. Although Dean Dillon is likely the most famous person to reside in the Gunnison Valley, he brings an approachability and humility to every interaction. His dedication to fundraising locally for the Adaptive Sports Center and Tough Enough to Wear Pink is unparalleled. Take a moment to learn more about our favorite local country music star. It’s a story you won’t want to miss.

Dean Dillon: Backyard Hitmaker

By Bud Bush

The closest thing to ocean front property in the Gunnison valley might be on the Blue Mesa Reservoir, but you have probably heard about the “ocean front property in Arizona” if you have ever tuned in to country music radio. Gunnison is home to one of the greatest country music songwriters of all-time who wrote that song and who was recently inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year – and that would be the one and only Dean Dillon.

There is a gentle humility that precedes this legend, part from his upbringing and part from his preference to craft melodies rather than to perform. Dean grew up in humble surroundings in rural Tennessee and bounced around among family members before deciding to hitchhike to Nashville at the age of 17 to find his way in the music business. His tall and slim stature is accented by long, silver blond hair and a prominent parallel mustache, like bull horns pointing down, with a matching goatee.

He marches to his own beat and sings from his heart. In one of his first meetings with a record executive, he was told to cut his hair, which abruptly ended the meeting for Dean. “Guys like me were taught that every time we sit down you try to write the greatest song you ever put a pen to pad with. I had just refused to do it (regarding writing with a formula for radio). I had guys come into my office and want to do it, and I’m like I’m sorry, you’re walking through the wrong door if you’re wanting me to enter that scope… and I promise you this, if my hearts not in it, it’s not going to be worth a **** and I ain’t doing it. My mentor was a guy named Hank Cochran who wrote Make the World Go Away – beat that.”

Music was in his blood at an early age. His family listened to country music records and at age 7 he got his first steel string Stella guitar. “It would rip your fingers off (referring to the course steel strings). I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and went to my room and wrote my first song. My first electric guitar was a blond Telecaster which got stolen. I landed on classical guitars with gut strings for the ease in which they play. The guitar I wrote The Chair and Ocean Front Property on, I gave to George [Strait] for a birthday present. I still have the Washburn that I used on the road when I started making records. I have one of Kent Viles’ Dobratos (a Gunnison local manufacturer), and a lot of my songwriter and artist friends have taken them back to Nashville. They’re all over the studios now. My favorite guitar for the last 8 to 10 years – she’s custom built by Tom Bedell from Bend Oregon. It’s the best custom gut string guitar in the world. His father started Shakespeare fishing lures in 1940.“

Dillon won a talent contest when he was 16, which earned him a guest appearance on Jim Clayton’s Star Time. It turned into a regular gig throughout high school. “I would go to school in a ’55 Chevy, pulling in the parking lot with Merle Haggard cranked wide open. Everyone else was listening to rock ’n roll. This regular appearance did afford me the luxury of going to Knoxville every weekend, where I got to see everybody who was anybody in rock music including The Who, Edgar and Johnny Winter and Jethro Tull.”

“Then I saw James Taylor and Carole King. Those melodies set off a light bulb in my head. If I put those melodies together with great country lyrics, I’d have something. Songs like Nobody in Their Right Mind, Marina Del Rey and The Chair – that’s where all those melodies came from. This actually formed a style of my own, that George [Strait] recognized and fell in love with. This played a huge roll in getting me in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”

Dean released several albums as a solo artist and charted with several songs in the ‘80’s. At the same time, he was becoming a father, which truly became a sobering experience for him. “The first time I saw my daughter, I was 30 days sober. I just got out of rehab, and she was two weeks old. I knew if I hadn’t gotten sober I was not going to be any kind of father. With the upbringing I had, I sure as hell wasn’t gonna let that happen again. I did 5 albums. I was a road warrior with twin boys and Jessie. Family was a good excuse to quit the road. It wasn’t what I was in love with. I WAS in love with writing songs. The day I quit the road, man and came home and realized that I could do this 9 to 5 and be with my babies was awesome. I also went through two failed marriages. Then I met Susie.”

Crested Butte once hosted a music festival called Country in the Rockies in which Dean helped promote and perform. “I was playing with Robert Earl Keen and this woman walks up and has me autograph her trench coat. Three or four years later, I’m out there playing and this woman walks up to me and asks what kind of a woman I am looking for. I said I want a cowgirl. She pulls out her camera and shows me a picture of a woman on a mechanical bull. I said, ‘Yeah, one like that.’ She said, ‘Well she lives here in Crested Butte.’ She calls her friend and says, ‘the man of your dreams is waiting for you at the Princess Wine Bar.’ The mechanical bull riding woman had a house full of relatives who pushed her out the door and told her to go meet the man of her dreams. Susie walked through the front door of the Princess and that was it! She had been there 18 years and we have been together for 17 years since then.”

Dean found his stride writing timeless country songs and delivering them to successful performing country artists. “All of us [songwriters] keep little black books with hook lines. Most songs come with a story in mind. Then we build a melody around it.” He has collaborated with writing greats from Hank Cochran to Scotty Emerick and Tom Douglas and he has written dozens of hits for George Strait, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. He and George Strait are kindred brothers and he feels like George portrays his original song ideas the truest. “George and I actually sing a lot alike. He’s never cut a song of mine that I was not happy with the outcome, and that’s rare. Early on, the first couple of albums, he took my demos and cut them verbatim. Gradually he put his own stamp on them, which is great too.” Their first song together was the top ten hit Unwound in 1981.

Dean has many influences and he conjures their sounds when writing and recording. “When I was growing up and I sang a song, I wanted it to sound like the person who sang it. I had Merle Haggard down to a T. When I cut a demo for [George] Jones, I’d try to sound as much like Jones as I could. As a singer songwriter you want to do that so they can feel that energy pointed in their direction. It makes it easier for them to latch on to something.”

And it is down to business when songwriting and songwriter collaborations are underway. “I just finished 10 songs in 3 days with Scotty Emerick and Billy Currington. I also spent a few days with Bubba Strait and Bryce Long. We recorded 9 songs in about 3 days. When we get together it’s nose to the grindstone. I have an office in Key West, Florida. We hole up and write songs. There are no distractions. It still flows and feels natural, but after writing thousands of songs, good hooks are hard to come by. We will all throw out hooks and still rely on our little black books.”

Dean offers some advice for aspiring songwriters, only when prompted. “Write about things you know about in the beginning. Create some mischief so you know what that feels like. Dream about things, expand your boundaries and write what you don’t know but you think you do.”

His writing process wasn’t always quite so businesslike. “Up until 1980 I sat in a gray small room all day and wrote songs around a table. I met [Hank] Cochran in 1980, and I would go to his house playing songs till 4 in the morning. He looked at me once and said, ‘You want to go to the Bahamas with me this morning?’ Well, hell yeah! I walked on a boat called The Legend and that’s where we spent the better part of four years writing great music. I like to move around; I’ve always been a road warrior. I get inspired by different places, like beaches and beach songs. A change of scenery will do a songwriter good.”

Dean has a few favorites of his own, including The Chair recorded by George Strait, Lunatic, Liar, Lord that he cowrote with Tom Douglas and A Lot of Things Different that he co-wrote with Bill Anderson and which was made famous by Kenny Chesney.

In summarizing the trends in the business of music writing and publishing, Dean shares the ever-evolving scenery. “Streaming is about 90% of what we make. Until recently, we had been operating on a 1909 copyright law formula for royalties. Music has changed drastically since that time. With the advent of the computer and piracy, my income dropped by three quarters, and the same for every other songwriter. Without a songwriter, you have no songs. For the longest time, we were treated like dirt. But the music associations got together, worked with Congress and got new rules passed. As writers gain more notoriety, they are able to capture royalties from writing as well as publishing. Over time, writers can recapture their creations. I just sold part of my catalog a few years ago. It makes for good retirement.”

As Dean finds time for things outside of songwriting, he shares that he enjoys living out in the country, riding four wheelers, seeing his grandkids and supporting his community in the Gunnison valley. He has been instrumental in building breast cancer support and state of the art screening technologies through Tough Enough to Wear Pink. The campaign, which raised $125,000 in its first year, has since raised nearly $4.5 million. Since partnering with the Gunnison Valley Hospital, they have expanded their reach to support and invest in many forms of cancer research. “It’s rewarding to see the women’s lives changed because of what we’ve done, especially with the dense tissue machine. We envisioned having the best small town breast cancer center in the country – and we’ve achieved it. And it all started with robes and robe warmers for the patients.”

In 2017, Cole Classen produced a documentary on Dean Dillon titled Tennessee Whiskey. The film has inspired a full-length feature film which is in the making of Dean’s life story. Dean Dillon became a Country Music Hall of Fame member-elect in 2020 and his induction occurred in November 2021 at the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville.