My Big Break
4:04 pm
Sat May 31, 2014

How Dean Dillon Made It From Strumming To Stardom In Nashville

Originally published on Thu June 5, 2014 8:27 am

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Guitarist Dean Dillon is best known for writing hit songs for country artists like George Strait, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney.

Before being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Dillon grew up in the little town of Lake City in East Tennessee. That's where he got his first guitar.

"A tiger-striped Stella," Dillon says. "Orange and black. I proceeded to sleep with it on a nightly basis. It became my best friend, and it became my voice."

When he was a teenager, Dillon entered a contest at the Tennessee Valley Fair in Knoxville. He brought his guitar on stage.

"It came down to me and a flaming-baton twirler," he says. "And she dropped her baton, and I won the contest."

First prize was a guest appearance on the local TV show Jim Clayton's Startime. Host and mobile-home salesman Jim Clayton used a stage on his lot to showcase local music and sell his trailer homes.

"We would play in the mobile-home lots in venues around East Tennessee," Dillon says. "I cut my teeth on it."

The young songwriter had his sights set on Nashville. Right after graduating high school in 1973, Dillon grabbed his guitar, stuffed his clothes in a duffel bag and hit the interstate, hitchhiking to the city.

"Eighteen years old, 130 pounds soaking wet, scared to death," Dillon says. "I didn't know a soul. I didn't know where Music Row was, but I found out soon enough."

He made his way to Opryland, where he would sit backstage between shows at a picnic table. Dillon says that's where he wrote his songs.

He was approached by hit songwriter John Schweers who told him on the spot, "Play me something."

After listening to Dillon's songs, Schweers set up a meeting with Nashville producer and publisher Tom Collins.

"Walked in his office, shook and [said] howdy and sat down in front of his desk," Dillon says.

Collins asked him to play a couple of songs. Dillon took out his guitar and began playing.

"He opened his desk drawer and pulled a three-page contract and said, 'I want to sign you to a publishing deal.'

"That's how it all got started," Dillon says. "All from just strumming backstage."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Time now for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about triumphs, big and small. Guitarist Dean Dillon is best known for writing hit songs for country artists like George Strait, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. Today, Dean Dillon is in the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame. But he grew up in a little town of Lake City in east Tennessee. That's where he got his first guitar.

DEAN DILLON: At tiger-striped stella, orange and black. Proceeded to sleep with it on a nightly basis. It became my best friend, and it became my voice. I had entered this contest at the TVAI fair in Knoxville. And at the fair, it came down to me and a flaming baton twirler. And she dropped her baton, and I won the contest. Well, first prize on that contest was a guest appearance on a local TV show there in Knoxville on Friday nights called "Jim Clayton's Startime." He used that stage on Friday nights to sell his mobile homes really. And what we would do is we would play and mobile-home lots in venues around East Tennessee. I cut my teeth on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIM CLAYTON'S STARTIME")

JIM CLAYTON: Don't miss this great show, and don't miss shopping for your mobile homes at Clayton Mobile Homes on Clinton Highway.

DILLON: I knew that Nashville was where it was happening. I knew that that was where you could go and do what you wanted to do musically. So right after high school, I went to my uncle's house and grabbed my guitar and a duffle bag full of clothes and the interstate and hitchhiked there in 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DILLON: (Singing) Baby got a mustang ready to go. Zero to 60 in 3.0.

Eighteen years old, 130 pounds soaking wet, scared to death, you know. I didn't know a soul. I didn't know where music row was, but I found out soon enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DILLON: Well, my big break - I was sitting backstage in between shows at Opryland. And I would sit back there at a picnic table with my guitar and write songs. I don't know, maybe a month later, I'm sitting back there one day writing, and this guy walks up. And he goes are you Dean Dillon. And I said yeah. And he goes, my names says my name is John Schweers. Play me something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOT OF THINGS DIFFERENT")

BILL ANDERSON: (Singing) I'd spent a lot more time out in the pouring rain without an umbrella covering my head.

DILLON: Well, I knew that name. And I knew who John Schweers was. He wrote a lot of things for just a lot of different country acts. And I played him a couple of songs. And he said you need to meet my publisher. Walked in his office, shook and howdy, and sat down in front of his desk. And he said play me something. I played him two or three songs. And he opened his desk drawer and pulled out a three-page contract and said I want to sign you to a publishing deal. That's how it all got started, all from just drumming backstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA GO BACK TO WORK")

DILLON: (Singing) I didn't wake up this morning. I just came to. Had one black eye and one navy blue.

RATH: Guitarist Dean Dillon. We want to hear about your big break. Send us an e-mail at mybigbreak@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA GO BACK TO WORK")

DILLON: (Singing) ...'Cause Honky Tonks will be the death of me. I guess I got to go back to work to get a little rest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.