“I ain’t here for a long time, I’m here for a good time…”
— Here for a Good Time,
by Dean Dillon, G. Strait, and B. Strait
If Dean Dillon’s life reads like the lyrics of a country song, it’s probably because it is. But not this particular day. Today, there are warm bluebird skies and fresh powder on the mountain and Dean and his wife, Susie, are geared up and ready to hit the slopes.
With long silvery hair and distinguished lined features carved by life’s turns, the wizard of country music songwriting is between bites of the quintessential ski day breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes dripping in luscious syrup. Dean started skiing in Steamboat Springs in 1982 while playing a music festival in that champagne-snow town. His first instructor was Olympian medal winner and legend Billy Kidd.
While Dean is far more than a just a decent skier, he jokes about Crested Butte’s notorious terrain. “I can ski blacks all day but I don’t think my publishers would like me to ski the extremes.”
Dean’s musical success started with hard beginnings as the son of a waitress mom and a truck driver dad in Lake City, Tenn. “We were poor,” he says of his family, with two sisters named Faith and Hope. “We didn’t know it. I grew up with my grandparents until I was five because my mother went north to find work,” he explains in a soothingly calm drawl that inspires you to slow down and breathe.
“Mom remarried and moved to Detroit. Back in those days everybody in the east went to Detroit for the auto factory work. The good money was in the north,” Dean says.
From Detroit, the family moved back to Tennessee and the young ten-year-old boy was again dropped off, this time in Virginia with his stepfather’s mom for a year, “because there wasn’t enough room for me to go back [to Tennessee] with them. I was odd man out. When you’re ten years old and you don’t feel you belong to anything, it’s hard.”
The young composer turned to his guitar for solace. “I got my first guitar when I was seven years old. I loved it. I slept with it.” He smiles and it’s easy to understand the camaraderie between a boy and his best-friend-guitar being much like that of a child and his teddy bear. Dean still has that first tiger-striped Stella guitar.
February 9, 1964 was the day The Beatles changed America and pop music culture exploded with screaming girls and launched a whole generation of dreaming boys. “I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan as a child and I knew I wanted to do that,” Dean says of the Fab Four’s influence on him.
“In the beginning, I had a few lessons to show me the basics of it but I’m pretty much self-taught. When I was 14 years old I entered a talent show in Knoxville; it was between me and a flaming baton twirler and she dropped the baton…” he chuckles. The talent show winner got to appear on a local TV variety show. “I went in to do the show and they asked me to come back every week.”
Dean was on a roll, his talent evident. He also had a band, called The Kountry Kings, who would set up on a big flatbed truck to play grand openings of mobile home lots, which were associated with the weekly TV shows he was performing on. “I made great money back then—$150 a week all through high school,” he recalls. “We’d still do the TV show on Fridays. With weekends off I’d go to the civic auditorium in Knoxville and see everybody who was anybody—The Eagles, Carol King and James Taylor, Allman Brothers. Here I was, playing all this country music, drawn to the country for the lyrics but influenced melodically by rock. I’d go to school in the mornings with an eight-track listening to Merle Haggard singing Okie from Muskogee while smoking a joint,” Dean laughs about the contrasting aesthetics of his ’70s world.
Fresh out of high school in 1973, Dean remembers his first ride as he hitchhiked to Nashville to continue on his musical path. “I caught a ride with a hippie in a ‘66 Chevy station wagon. In those days those station wagons had a compartment in the back, and he had it stuffed full of pot.”
Although he had no idea where Nashville’s famed Music Row was when he first arrived on the scene, he started banging on doors, and that landed him a gig at Opryland USA. “That’s where I was discovered as a songwriter. I was backstage writing and John Schweers came backstage and asked me if I was a songwriter,” he recalls. “I played him some songs and he took me to his publisher, Tom Collins, and they signed me as a songwriter.” He was thrilled with the chance to make $50 a week doing what he loved. “We didn’t have quotas but you had to be there nine to five, five days a week. It was a job, that’s what we did, we were songwriters writing songs.” A few years later in 1979, Dean had his first number one record on the country charts as a songwriter with Lying in Love with You, recorded by Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius. It was to be the first of many hit songs.
When he first arrived in Nashville, Dean met up with fellow songwriter Frank Dycus, and the duo wrote Unwound, which became a top ten song for the then-unknown country singer George Strait. “We were sitting outside at the house on Music Row popping Budweisers when George Strait’s manager pulled up. They were looking for songs for him,” he says.
Dean explains that most songwriters pitch their tunes to known artists with track records and stats, “Nobody wants to pitch a song to an unknown. But we didn’t care about that philosophy. Strait cut six of our songs on his album and he never forgot that we gave songs to a nobody. Every time he went to record an album he’d call us.” Dean’s long-time writing partner, Frank Dycus, passed away in November 2012.
Dean proudly notes that 40 years and 54 songs later, Strait, now known as the King of Country, is still recording songs they often co-write with Strait’s son, Bubba. “We just had another number one hit recently, called Here for a Good Time,” he says of the up-tempo tune that is easily recognizable to even those who aren’t familiar with country music. Along the way, Dean has had his songs recorded by everybody from Wayne Newton to the Marshall Tucker Band.
Dean discovered Crested Butte back when BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc., the agency who collects license fees on behalf of its songwriters) used to sponsor Country in the Rockies, a week-long concert and events benefit for breast cancer research.
“BMI brought me out here 20 years ago to do a show and I kept coming back year after year.” He also met his wife Susie Sellers [now Dillon], a local Buttian, out here nine years ago, which also contributed to his yearly return. When the late Jimmy Clark asked him to play the Cattlemen’s Days Tough Enough to Wear Pink (the local breast cancer fundraiser) show, Dean initially said no. “I just wanted to hide away and enjoy my time off,” he explains his understandable reluctance.
After Jimmy died, his son CJ Clark and Jim Swaim then asked Dean to help out. When he discovered that all the funds raised were staying in Gunnison County, Dean decided he wanted to be part of it. “I threw myself headlong into it, as did Susie. And every volunteer we could get to put this together. The easy part for me was that I had to provide the entertainment. All I did was call up some of my songwriting friends.”
Dean was instrumental (no pun intended) in getting the BMI sponsored Songwriters Festival to Crested Butte (see next page) with all the proceeds also going to fund local breast cancer awareness, education, free mammograms, and equipment. Last year’s event raised $40,000.
Music has been Dean’s whole life for his entire life. “I live, eat, breathe songs. It’s all I’ve ever done, it’s all I’ve ever loved to do,” says the 2002 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee. Just last November at the 2013 BMI 61st Country Music Awards, he received the prestigious lifetime achievement Icon Award, the highest recognition for composers.
Despite his fame and rags to riches life, Dean has remained genuine, with a warm sparkle and smile for everyone and he’s still humbled by the world around him.
“I love it here,” he says of his Gunnison Valley life that he connects to in every aspect, “and I really love the ranchers, hard working, quiet, salt of the earth people. These people are living a way of life that not many will live in the future.” He’s as enamored of his surroundings as all who choose to be part of the fabric in this valley and for the same reasons.
“I just love the beauty of this area. I love the climate. I love winter. You can’t beat the summers here but I love snow. The more the merrier and there’s nothing more enjoyable to me than to sit at my ranch in the winter and watch it snow.”