Strait From the King: An Inside Look at the Songwriting Legacy of 2020 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee Dean Dillon

By Storme Warren

There is no easy path to get into the Country Music Hall of Fame and songwriter Dean Dillon wouldn’t have it any other way. A lifetime of bumps and bruises — most self-induced — created the inspiration behind his endless tales of heartbreak. Take loss, redemption, the pursuit of love and the gift of finding it, sprinkle in a few dozen drinking songs and you’ve got a colorful career built on an equally colorful life.

As an artist, he recorded albums filled with many of those tales for a decade and a half, from 1979 to 1993. It was the tunes he shared with other artists, though, that would send him into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Dean Dillon, 2020 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee in the songwriter category.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dean Dillon

Dean has earned hits with dozens of stars, from Keith Whitley to Kenny Chesney, but it’s the nearly four-decade run of close to 70 songs recorded by George Strait that solidified his induction into the hallowed Hall.

I’ve known Dean and George for almost a quarter of a century, and I have covered both their careers for radio and television. I’m in awe of the mutual admiration, trust, friendship and loyalty these two icons share, not to mention their unparalleled success as artists and writers. You can dig up the stats and Dean’s bio any time you’d like, but I wanted to hear “Strait” from the King of Country about what created the magic between them.

“Dean and I first started working together in 1981 when I got ‘Unwound,’” George explains. “My producer, Blake Mevis, who knew Dean, brought the song to me. After I cut it, Dean sent over a few more that I ended up putting on the Strait Country LP.” In true Texas Cowboy style, George left out a few interesting facts about that story. More on that in a bit. The undeniable result from that first exposure was George wanting more Dean Dillon songs to record.

(L-R) Dean Dillon and George Strait perform some of the many Dillon songs Strait has recorded over the years.
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“I’ve always said that Dean’s melodies were what grabbed me,” says George, noting that nothing about that has changed in 40 years. “It’s still true today. He’s just one of the premier songwriters to come out of Nashville, which is why he is so deservedly being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His lyrics are great, too. Great lyrics, great melodies, great songs.”

George went on to record some of his biggest hits thanks to those melodies and lyrics, including “The Chair,” “Ocean Front Property” and “Easy Come, Easy Go,” just to name three big drops in a bucket of hits.

He is quick to point out that even with their string of chart successes, he didn’t record everything Dean sent his way. “I’ve passed on quite a few songs that Dean says he wrote specifically for me. For whatever reason, I didn’t think they quite fit. One in particular, and he reminds me of it quite often, was ‘Tennessee Whiskey.’ I was the first person he pitched it to. When I passed on it, I don’t think he could believe it. I think he was going, ‘What the hell does this guy want?’ Well, a number of people liked it enough to cut it, including the great George Jones. That being said, when Stapleton cut it, he broke the mold and I don’t think anyone will ever match that version. Huge hit, for a great artist and a great songwriter. The way it should be. I could’ve never had the hit with it that Chris has had. No regrets.”

(L-R) Kenny Chesney, Dean Dillon, George Strait, Robert Earl Keen and Cole Claassen, director of “Tennessee Whiskey: The Dean Dillon Story,” a documentary on Dillon’s life and career as a songwriter.
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George admits there are still some lost treasures floating around Music Row.

“In the early days, we would see each other when I would come to Nashville to record. [Dean] always had some jewels he would save for me and would pitch them personally instead of sending them on tape. He would sit in front of me and play and sing them right there in my office. It was great. If I passed on one he might sometimes say, ‘You sure about that, boss?’ I always thought that every one of the songs he pitched me was great, just some were not for me. I remember some of those songs still today.”

George says he has long regretted not writing with Dean sooner in their careers, because he would have learned a lot more about the craft — a skill Dean is constantly happy to share not just with George, but with a brand new crop of young songwriters and artists as well. What can they learn from the new Hall of Famer? “Everything,” says George. “He’s had some great collaborators over the years, like the great Hank Cochran. He’ll tell you that he learned a lot from Hank. I bet Hank would say he learned a few things from old Dean too, though. Dean was and is always learning. I don’t think that ever changes for such a creative person like Dean. It’s not like he needs to learn something, I’m just saying that he’s got an open mind when it comes to songwriting. He’ll work with young and upcoming kids when they ask him to write. He invites my son Bubba to come write with him. He’s always open to new ideas.”

Now back to the details George efficiently left out of the story behind their first hit together, “Unwound.” I had to go back for a second helping of the tale.

“Well, I wasn’t in the car with Blake, but the story goes that Blake pulled by Dean and Frank Dycus sitting outside their office and asked if they had any songs for a new guy from Texas he was about to cut. They told him they had written this song for [Johnny] Paycheck but he was in jail, so I could have it,” George recalls. “That song, of course, was ‘Unwound.’ That was in 1981, and that started a relationship and career for both of us that neither could have imagined. I cut a lot of songs from other writers over the years, but Dean was always my go-to guy, and I feel like I was that for him. We’ve had a great run together. I’m so proud that we’re now both in the Country Music Hall of Fame together. Who’d a thought it?”

Only every Country fan in the world, George.

“He’s done so much for the Country Music world. He’s influenced so many writers and artists and literally changed their lives — like mine,” George declares. “It’s going to be quite a celebration on induction night.”

The long-haired cowboy from Tennessee and the Texas Troubadour, together forever.