For all the supporting players who’ve worked to construct the George Strait empire—Tony Brown, who has produced every album since 1992’s Pure Country soundtrack; Erv Woolsey, who has managed Strait on the same handshake deal since the early eighties; the Ace in the Hole Band, two of whose members played that first Strait gig, in San Marcos in October 1975—some of the most important contributions to Strait’s success came from the person toiling furthest from the spotlight. Songwriter Dean Dillon has composed or co-written 55 songs for Strait, including 19 singles, 11 of which went to number one. Even in a career like Strait’s, the Dillon titles stand out: “Marina del Rey,” “The Chair,” “I’ve Come to Expect It From You,” “Easy Come, Easy Go,” “She Let Herself Go,” and “The Best Day.” His songs all pair instantly catchy melodies with gutbucket country lyrics, signature qualities of a Dillon composition that would also become hallmarks of Strait’s own style and sound. As Brown explained, they are the elements that allow Strait to sound traditional without sounding old-timey.

Dillon, age 59, first arrived in Nashville in 1973, when he was just 17. Six years later, he was working a gig portraying Hank Williams onstage at Opryland USA when he finally got a publishing and recording deal. Through the eighties and early nineties he released six decently received albums, including two duet records with fellow singer-songwriter Gary Stewart that, in retrospect, look like hard-living prototypes to Brooks & Dunn. He also wrote huge hits for artists other than Strait, like George Jones (“Tennessee Whiskey”) and Keith Whitley (“Homecoming ’63”), and more recently he has gotten a slew of cuts by Kenny Chesney (“A Lot of Things Different”) and Toby Keith (“A Little Too Late”).

But it’s the relationship with Strait that has, to a large extent, defined both of their careers. And even in a genre built on great songwriters writing for great singers, there’s never been another team like it. Jimmy Webb wrote some great songs for Glen Campbell, and Bob McDill wrote even more for Don Williams. These days Hillary Lindsey seems to be co-writing Carrie Underwood’s whole career. But none of them come close to matching Dillon and Strait. Below is Dillon’s take on how it happened. 

It starts with a guy named Frank Dycus. He was the first songwriter I met when I came to Nashville, in 1973. One day, maybe six years later, I’m over at this place on 20th Avenue called the Third Coast. It was a bar and hotel where all the traveling musicians stayed—the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Dr. Hook. I’d go hang out with them sometimes. It’d be me and Dickey Betts throwing TVs out of third-floor windows. I was 24 years old, doing crazy shit.

I’d gone there that morning to meet with Shel Silverstein, because I’d conned him into writing with me. We wrote this shitty song. I can’t even remember it, it was so bad. So we finish, and I’m really depressed because the song’s horrible. And as I’m leaving through this garden spot right in front of the hotel, I look up and here comes Dycus through the gate. I hadn’t seen him in four years. I said, “Dycus, it’s me, Dean.” And he goes, “What are you doing, Kid?” They all called me Kid, because I was so much younger than the other writers. And I said, “Man, I’ve got a great song idea. Let’s write it.” He said, “What is it?” I said, “She’s got me wrapped around her finger, but tonight I’m gonna unwind.” And he looked at me and thought for a minute, and he said, “What about this: that woman that I had wrapped around my finger just came unwound?” And I said, “Well, hell, I like that better.” So we sat down at a table on that patio and wrote a song called “Unwound.” In about 45 minutes. And got good and drunk doing it.

So we start hanging out together. Next thing you know, I’m on the front porch of his house on Music Row every day, writing songs. After a while, we started noticing that at about four each afternoon this Budweiser truck would go by, and it would stop at the stop sign right there in front of the house. One day I saw the truck coming and told Dycus, “I bet that old boy would sell some beer if I could stop him.” Dycus said, “That ain’t going to happen.” And I said, “Bullshit. You watch.” Sure enough, I met him at the stop sign, and he sold me a case of beer. I threw it down in on the porch with Dycus, and we both started laughing, popping them tops on them Budweisers, and all of a sudden here came this damn car down the street, just flying. It slid into the curve there in front of the house, and it was Blake Mevis. He rolled his window down and said, “Hey, man, I got to cut this new kid from Texas. Y’all got any songs?” And I said, “Who in the hell is he?” He said, “His name is George Strait.” I said, “Who does he sound like?” He said, “Well, he doesn’t really sound like anybody. He’s kinda got his own Texas thing going on. Y’all got any songs?” I said. “We’ve always got songs. As a matter of fact, we’ve got a song we were gonna pitch to Johnny Paycheck, but he’s in jail, so we’ll give it to you. It’s called ‘Unwound.’” So he came up there on the porch and we played him about four or five things, and he took them back to [George’s manager] Erv Woolsey. And the next day Dycus called and said, “Man, Erv really liked that ‘Unwound’ song.”

Now, back in those days, man, you didn’t pitch songs to an unknown artist. You just didn’t. If you had great songs, you pitched them to Haggard or Jones or Dolly. Nobody that was a songwriter in their right mind would give some twenty-something-year-old kid from Texas, completely unknown, their top-drawer stuff. But I told Dycus, “You know what? This kid sings pretty good. We ought to pitch him everything and the kitchen sink, just to see. He might be a damn good act.” George ended up cutting six of them on his first album.

So “Unwound” was the first single, and it goes top ten. And the next single was another thing me and Dycus wrote, “Down and Out,” and it goes to sixteen. And then his fourth single, “Fool Hearted Memory,” which Mevis wrote, went to number one, and suddenly this kid is selling hundreds of thousands of records. And when he goes to cut a second album, he calls me and says he wants to hear more of my songs. Man. Little did I know when we started popping them Budweiser tops that Blake Mevis was going to pull up and change my life forever.

I’m from a little old town in East Tennessee, about thirty miles north of Knoxville, called Lake City. I was a child of an eighteen-year-old waitress and a forty-year-old truck driver. Two weeks after I was born, that truck driver came to see me for the first time. We lived with my grandparents, and you gotta remember, these are hard people where I’m from. We lived in a shack that my grandfather built, with the ceiling just six feet tall so he could heat it cheaper, with coal. He was a coal miner himself, and my grandmother was a house-cleaner thirty miles down the road, in Oak Ridge. I’m told it cost my grandparents a lot to have me at the hospital, and my dad hadn’t helped pay for it, so when he came to see me for the first time, pulling up in the driveway in a new Cadillac convertible, my grandfather stepped out on the front porch with a double-barrel shotgun and pulled the trigger. He hit him in the arm with the first shot, and then my grandmother knocked the gun up in the air, and he missed him with the second. And my dad pulled out of that driveway, understandably so, and never came back.

That set the stage basically for a pretty good upbringing of upheaval. When I was five, my mom married and moved me to Detroit, taking me away from the only parents I ever really knew, my grandmother and grandfather. Then when I was ten, she moved back from Michigan, but dropped me off in Virginia at my stepdad’s mom’s house. This all had a profound effect on me. Because I got the feeling that I really didn’t belong to anybody.

I got my first guitar when I was seven years old, and I learned to play that sucker. I slept with it. He was my buddy, my friend, my compadre, and any time I got the blues, I could sit down, pick that guitar up, and sing them away or write them away. And by the time I was twelve, thirteen years old, I was writing songs. When I was fourteen, I entered a talent contest in Knoxville. It came down to me and a flaming-baton twirler. She dropped her baton, so I won. True story.

First prize was a guest appearance on a TV show called Star Time hosted by Jim Clayton. I taped it that Friday, and the next week they asked me to come be a regular on that show. So from the time I was fourteen until I graduated at eighteen, I did a show on Friday nights for half of each year. I joined the show’s band, the Kountry Kings, and we played every weekend. And then I just started playing any bar I could get into, and I was writing songs. When I was seventeen, an uncle of mine’s girlfriend knew Merle Haggard’s wife, Bonnie Owens, so when Merle came to Knoxville, she got him to agree to hear my songs. I went over to the Holiday Inn and walked in and, in a room, there sat Bonnie Owens, Merle Haggard, and all the Strangers. Norm Hamlet, Roy Nichols, all of them in Merle’s bedroom. Merle said, “Play me something,” and I played him three or four songs. He looked at me and said, “You’ve got about seven years.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’ve got about seven years before you’re ready.” The funny thing about all that is, seven years later I had my first number-one record.

I tell you that because to understand where my music comes from, you gotta understand who my idols were. My stepdad played a lot of country music on the radio when he’d get in the car with me. He’d have Cash and Jones and all them cranked up. The lyrical content in Merle Haggard’s songs has everything in the world to do with why I’m the lyricist that I am. Because when I listened to those story songs, man, I could see “my mama’s hungry eyes” and the “shade tree fix-it-man.” It sounded like my world.

But when I was going to high school and going to shows at the Civic Auditorium in Knoxville, we didn’t get any country acts coming through, at least not during the school year. Conway and Haggard might come through in the summertime, but I was always playing shows myself in those months. In the wintertime, all these rock acts would come and play. The Who, Carlos Santana, the Allman Brothers, the Winter Brothers Band, anybody that was anybody.

One weekend I went to see Carole King and James Taylor. I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and I thought, “My God, listen to those melodies.” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Fire and Rain,” all that stuff. And it just shook me up. I went out and bought all their records because I had to learn those melodies. When I did, all of a sudden I had this wonderful new form for expressing myself melodically. And I just started writing. This crazy well opened up inside me, this stuff just started pouring out. I knew I could take these country lyrics that I was feeling in my bones and put these pop melodies to them and it would be—it just fit me. It’s just who I was. I loved all the rock-and-roll I saw, but I’d has such a tumultuous upbringing, and these melodies Carole King and James Taylor wrote really lent themselves to tears. When I found those, when I learned I could write those chords in a song, along came songs like “The Chair,” “Marina del Rey,” and “Homecoming ’63,” all those haunting melodies.

When George hit, Erv put him on the road, had him booked in every damn beer joint between here and Washington state. So when George called to say he was ready to cut the second album, I hadn’t even met him yet. But he was in town, and Erv hooked us up. So I go over there and he’s this good-looking Texas cowboy with his cowboy hat on, and here I am, maybe three years younger, but just an absolutely wild, young long-haired song-slinger who does not give a shit about anything or anybody but writing songs. I sit down and look at him, and I’m smoking a cigarette and blowing cigarette smoke everywhere. He looks at me and goes, “Man, do you mind putting that cigarette out? Smoke really bothers me.” And I looked at him, took a big drag on that cigarette and blew it out. I said, “Oh, you mean that smoke?”

He looked at Erv and then they both looked at me, and finally, I said, “Alright, I’ll put it out. I was just fucking with you.” Then we sized each other up and down, and it was kinda strange. ’Cause he’s thinking “Who’s this crazy son of a gun?” and I’m actually a little intimidated. It wasn’t anything he did or said but just that he was having huge hits, which is what I wanted for myself. So I think, “I’m gonna roll with this, ’cause I love this guy’s singing.” And I told him so. And from that point on, we always had a mutual respect for each other, but for the longest time, I always kept my distance from George. I’d go to his shows, but I’d stand over in the corner and I wouldn’t say much. But the respect was there, and every album he cut, he’d call me up and say, “Hey, I’m cutting next week. Can you meet me in my office at ten Monday morning? I want to hear your songs.” And we’ve been doing that for 33 years. Every Monday, at ten in the morning, on the week he records, I’m sitting across the table from him, playing him songs. Up until the last few years, which now I Skype with him and phone him or just write with him. But we did that forever.

First thing George listens to is the melody. And if he likes the melody, he’ll play it again and listen to the lyrics. And it was those off-the-wall melodies that I was writing that first grabbed him. Listen to “Marina del Rey,” which epitomizes my songwriting more than any other song, except maybe “The Chair.” “Marina del Rey” was new and fresh and different. It had this pop, Carol King melody, but it also told a great story. That’s because after I learned all those chord progressions and made them my own, one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived entered my life, Hank Cochran. And then the picture gets a whole lot bigger.

I was in a club one night, maybe the Fiddler’s Inn, and Jeannie Sealy walks in. Somebody introduces me to her, and I wind up at a table with her and a bunch of people, and she says, “What do you do?” I say, “I’m a singer-songwriter.” She says, “You gotta meet my ex-husband then.” And I say, “Who’s that?” And she says, “Hank Cochran.” Well, shit, I about just fell out of my chair. She says, “You want to go meet him?” I say, “Hank Cochran? Hell, yeah.”

So I follow her to Hendersonville, Tennessee, to Hank Cochran’s house. We walk in, and I’d guess he was about, I don’t know, one sheet to the wind—not three sheets, just one. I sit down and Jeannie does a spiel on me, and he asks me to play some songs. So I play one, and then he asks for another. And then asks for another again. For four hours I played everything I’d ever written that I could remember, until four in the morning. Finally, he goes, “Okay, I think I’ve heard enough.” And then he looks at me and says, “You ever been to the Bahamas?” I say, “No.” He says, “Do you wanna go?” I say, “Well, yeah.” He says, “The plane leaves at ten in the morning. Be on it.” So I get up the next morning, run to my house and throw some clothes in a little bag, grab my guitar, and then we flew out. We wound up in a place called Green Turtle Cay on his boat, The Legend. And from that point, the game was on. For the next four or five years, when you saw Dean Dillon, you saw Hank Cochran. And vice versa. We went everywhere together, sailed all over the Caribbean on that boat, had some incredible fun and wrote some incredible songs.

On one of those trips, we had Royce Porter fly down for a couple days to write with us. We spent one day working on a couple ideas of mine. I told them, “I wanna write a song called ‘Miami, My Amy,’ and I got another idea called ‘Homecoming ’63.’” So we wrote those two songs, and then Royce went back to Nashville, and Hank and I started celebrating, because we knew those songs were some of the best stuff we’d ever written.

By about four in the morning, I had drunk so much whiskey that I had actually drunk myself sober; I didn’t know you could do that, but I did it. I was tired though, and it was four in the morning again, like it always seemed to be for me and Hank. And I don’t know what happened, but then Hank sat down in a chair across from me, and I looked at him, picked up the guitar, struck a G chord, and started singing, “Well, excuse me, but I think you’ve got my chair.” And he said, “Have you written that song?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, we’re about to.” And 45 minutes later, we’d written “The Chair.”

We didn’t really know where we were going when we started with it. We just decided it would be a conversation song. I think one of the great things that happened was we got stuck. We wrote the first half of that first verse in no time. And then we got stuck. Hank, as he often did, got up and walked around the boat. He’d go outside, pull on a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and think. He was out there for fifteen minutes, man, until finally, he comes back in, looks at me, and goes, “What do you think about this? ‘Well, thank you, can I drink you a buy? Aw, listen to me, what I mean is, can I buy you a drink? Anything you please.’” When he said that, I thought to myself—and I never will forget this—I thought, man, that is either the craziest damn thing I ever heard of in my life, or this guy’s brilliant. The more I thought about it, the more it sunk in what Hank was doing in that lyric: here this guy is, so nervous about meeting this girl that he trips over his words and he gets them bass-ackwards. And I thought, man, that’s freaking brilliant for him to think that way. And so when I tell you that Hank showed me more about the craft of writing than anyone did, it’s the truth. Because every single time my ears would always be opened.

But we didn’t stop there. We were on a roll. So Royce, Hank, and me are back in Nashville, in a studio, cutting demos on “Homecoming ’63,” “Miami, My Amy,” and “The Chair.” I’m in the vocal booth singing, and I look around, and Hank and Royce are missing. So I ask the engineer, and he says he thinks they’re in this other room, writing a song. I jerk those headphones off and say, “Not on my damn session they’re not, not without me.” So I go find them, and I open the door to this room, and Hank looks like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. Then he kinda laughs and says, “Well, we got this idea—what do you think?” And they play what they had of  “Ocean Front Property,” which was just a verse. I say, “It sucks. I think it’s horrible, I hate it.” He says, “Do you want in on it?” and I say, “Sure, I’ll help you finish it.”

So we’re writing, and every time we get to the last line of the chorus, Royce would go, “If you’ll buy that, I’ll throw the Golden Gate Bridge in free.” And I’m like, “Royce, you’ve got to quit singing the word ‘bridge.’ First of all, it doesn’t meter out right. Second of all, if a listener doesn’t know what the damn Golden Gate is without the word “bridge,” they ain’t gonna get this song anyway. But for the next thirty minutes, every time he’d sing it down, he’d put that “bridge” in there, until finally, Hank goes, “Royce, don’t do that anymore.” So we got that straightened out and finished the song. I still didn’t like it though. I thought it was funny, but I didn’t want to be known as a guy who wrote funny songs. Because life was not funny to me; I wanted to write serious stuff.

I got that from Hank. My God, the man wrote “Make the World Go Away.” As in, “Get it off my shoulders, say the thing you used to say, and make the world go away.” It doesn’t get any better than that. “You make my eyes run over all the time, you’re happy when I’m out of my mind.” I’d listen to that shit and just go, what?

I remember one time, me and him wrote this song. And Jeannie Sealy came over, and we played it for her. I sang it on the guitar. And when I finished, she looked at us and she went, “You two are pathetic.” We just looked at her. She said, “You all languish in sorrow.” And we kinda smiled and said, “I guess we kinda do, don’t we?” She said, “You’re a perfect match for each other.”

I tried for years to make it as a performer. I recorded for RCA, then I went to Capitol, and then I went to Atlantic. And by the time I got to Atlantic Records, I’d started a family, and I had been juggling that with touring. I’d cut a first album that didn’t do much on Atlantic, and then I’d just finished a second when I get a call from George. He says, “Hey man, meet me Monday morning at ten. I’m cutting another album.” So I go over there, and it’s me and him and Tony Brown. And I start playing songs, and they ain’t liking nothing. For thirty minutes, man, I played him twenty songs, and he ain’t bit on nothing. So I say, “I appreciate the time, but that’s about all I got. Sorry you didn’t like anything.” It really spooked me, because he’d always liked something when I went in there.

So I got up to leave, and George says, “Hey, I’ve heard this song you’ve got called ‘Easy Come, Easy Go.’ I like it.” I say, “Well, George, that’s gonna be my next single. I just finished my new album.” And he says, “Oh.” About that time, Tony says, “Dean, if you let us have that song, I promise you a number-one record.” I say, “You promise?” and George says, “Hell, yeah, a number one.” I think about that for a minute, and I look at George and say, “Okay, you can have it.” And I walked out of the office, got in my car and drove four blocks down to Atlantic Records, walked in the door, went upstairs to Rick Blackburn’s office, and said, “Rick, I got some good news and some bad news. ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ is gonna be a single, but it ain’t gonna be on me. George Strait’s cutting it. By the way, I quit.”

I’d been thinking about it for a year. I’d had twin baby boys, and my little girl, Peanut, was five years old. And I didn’t like that radio game. Now, I loved going out on the road, I loved it on that bus. Man, I slept like a baby on that bus. And I loved walking out on stage, I loved playing my songs. But I wasn’t good at it. I knew I could never be a superstar. But I was a great songwriter. And I loved writing songs more than anything in the world. So I made a choice that day. I thought to myself, ‘Man, you make a damn good living writing songs, and you can walk into Walmart and nobody knows who the hell you are’—the last time I’d taken Ronnie Dunn fishing, at eleven at night, we’d gone into the shop and fans had just about mobbed him. So I made a conscious decision to concentrate all my interest in writing songs. Some people have said I was only a record or two away from making it, and that could be so. Personally, I don’t give a shit.

And now I actually write with George. He first called me, I guess, four or five years ago to talk about it. That was the first time he’d reached out to me about writing. Over the years, he and I had threatened to do it on several occasions but just never did. But Bubba had been writing some and asked George, “What if we call Dean?” So George asked me to come down to the ranch and write, and I did. And I kinda knew that George would be a good songwriter, because he was such a great song picker. You know, that’s one of the things that has kept his career alive for 33 years, is being the great song picker that he is.

So we’re sitting there, tossing these ideas back and forth, and he told me about this idea. He said, “That’s a hell of a lot to ask of a drinking man,” and we fired it up. Now, he knew I’d had my issues with drinking, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to write something like that. But the song got a lot darker than I expected. He wanted to explore it. But if you stop and think about it, he’s this guy who can drink with no repercussions—George is. He’s not an alcoholic—I am. So maybe he just wanted to try to understand it through that song. I don’t really know.

But I do know this: when we finished the song, he was stoked. He loved it. As a matter of fact, we went back over to the house, and he had me play it for Norma. It’s funny, when we write, he’ll make me sing the damn thing. I’m sitting there, writing this song with George Strait, and he’s making me sing the son of a bitch.