GUNNISON • The man who wrote “Tennessee Whiskey” doesn’t drink anymore, so he keeps a glass of Coca Cola nearby while he takes congratulatory calls from the biggest names in country music.
His cellphone has been ringing nonstop since 6 a.m., so much so that Dean Dillon couldn’t keep up with the buzzing. He did find time to talk to George Strait.
And Dillon picks up quickly for another call, because he knows people struggle to find his place on the first try. The GPS sometimes points visitors to the blue house right off this lonesome county road.
“No,” Dillon drawls from the other end of the line about the blue house. “That ain’t it, baby.”
He says to go to the red house at the end of the skinny gravel road. That’s where Dillon’s wife, Susie, emerges with a bounce in her step and a phone, which also is blowing up, in her hand. As Dillon’s manager, she’s watched as messages and interview requests have piled in this morning.
Of the many moments she’s celebrated with her husband of 16 years, this is indeed a big one.
Hours earlier, the Country Music Association announced the legendary songwriter would be entering Country Music Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 alongside Hank Williams Jr. and Marty Stuart.
“Have y’all heard the big news today?” asks Dillon, who sports a hard-to-see smile under his long gray mustache.
When Dillon found out about the honor back in March, Susie came home to find him crying.
“He’s so tender,” Susie said. “That’s what I love about him.”
This wasn’t a day for tears, at least as far as anyone could tell under Dillon’s dark sunglasses and cowboy hat.
Sitting down for an interview with The Gazette on the back porch of his ranch, overlooking hundreds of acres of hay fields and mountain views, Dillon seemed relieved that the news he’d kept secret for months was out in the world. He tossed out the word “humbled” more than once while he pet his poodle, Virgil, and sipped his soda and ignored his phone.
Or tried to ignore it.
“Oh, Vince Gill is calling,” Susie said at one point. “You probably want to get this one.”
She handed the phone over so Dillon could talk to another friend.
Dillon is now in the company of Hall of Fame inductees such as Gill, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.
“Just to be in that unbroken circle of country music legends, it makes you ponder, it makes you think,” Dillon, 65, said.
“You do a lot of looking back on your life and what all transpired and the songs you wrote. And obviously they’ve had some sort of impact on somebody or I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Living his dream
Today, he’s one of the most revered songwriters in the genre, thanks in part to a long and loyal relationship with Strait, who has recorded more than 60 of Dillon’s songs.
Dillon co-wrote Strait’s first single, “Unwound,” in the 1980s, kicking off illustrious careers for both men. Dillon has also penned songs for Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn and Alabama.
A day like this makes Dillon think about the 7-year-old kid from East Tennessee who picked up a guitar and started writing little tunes about love.
There, Dillon had “not the worst upbringing, but not the best.” There, he escaped from it all by dreaming about music.
When Dillon finished high school, it was time to go. So he hitchhiked to Nashville.
He soon landed the role of Hank Williams in Opryland’s Country Music Show, USA. Another singer in the show heard Dillon’s original songs and got him a meeting with a publisher.
He got signed on the spot.
“I was making 50 bucks a week, and I thought I hit the big time,” Dillon said.
He poured everything into his music, which was “like an addiction to me,” he said. He studied great songwriters, determined to blend James Taylor-type melodies with storytelling lyrics, and he found a mentor in Hank Cochran, who was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as a songwriter in 2014.
“Hank always told me to never settle for second best,” Dillon said. “Every line in the song had to be the best it could be.”
Being surrounded by “that genius” set a standard for Dillon.
“You’re constantly striving to get to that bar,” he said. “And the only way you can get to that bar is write, write, write, write. You write thousands of songs.”
To write, though, he needed inspiration.
“For the longest time, in my 20s and early 30s, I thought, ‘How are you going to write about something if you’ve never lived it?” Dillon said. “So what would I do? I’d go out and live it. When it came to getting your heart broken, getting in fistfights, getting thrown in jail … I’d go live it so I knew what I was talking about.”
‘Raw and real’ songs
He also spent a lot of time drinking whiskey, which sparked an idea for a chorus.
One night, he met up with Linda Hargrove and they wrote “Tennessee Whiskey” together in under an hour. David Allan Coe and George Jones would go on to record versions of the song.
When asked if the story — which includes the words “Liquor was the only love I’ve known” — is based on his life, Dillon says, “Oh my god, yeah.”
“Back in my 20s, Jack Daniel’s was a real good friend of mine,” Dillon said. “And it’s part of my history. I don’t care. It’s who I was at the time. Life was a party to me and I partied hard.”
That changed in 1984, when Dillon had a baby on the way. He got sober.
The song’s reach has only gotten stronger, after Chris Stapleton made it famous again in recent years.
“It’s become my ‘Five O’clock Somewhere’,” Dillon says, referring to the Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffet hit. “You don’t get a lot of those.”
When you’re a wordsmith like Dillon, you do get a lot of songs that mean something to people.
As Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said, Dillon has written “words and melodies that have enriched us all.”
And his gift might’ve helped him get the girl. In the early 2000s, Dillon met Susie while he was in Crested Butte to play the old Country on the Rockies music festival.
He played her a song, which Strait would later record, called “She Let Herself Go.” The story, about a woman finding freedom after her husband left, felt bizarrely and specifically like Susie’s story.
“For other women, like myself, it was their divorce song,” she said. “You attach yourself to the song. It feels like yours.”
Their Colorado friends still call it “Susie’s Song.”
“That’s the impact of Dean Dillon’s music versus the new generation,” Susie said. “You will remember the lyrics because they are prophetic and they have a meaning, whether it’s a heartbreaking song or makes you happy.”
For Dillon, that’s what draws people to country music. And what draws famous singers to his words.
“It’s raw and real,” he said. “It’s about life and love and living and dying and hurting and anger and pain and joy and Jesus and everything in between.”
The quiet life
After marrying Susie, the couple bought this ranch in Colorado where they can ride horses and ski and breathe in the four seasons. Dillon likes the solitude of it; he feels like he lives in the middle of nowhere.
In previous summers, their ranch welcomed songwriters every week for writing sessions. The couple also organized the Mountain High Music Festival in Crested Butte, raising money for Tough Enough To Wear Pink.
Recently, life in Colorado has been quieter.
Dillon hasn’t written a song or picked up the guitar in months. He says he doesn’t feel that burn in his chest to write the best lyrics possible. He says he doesn’t care for most of what’s on country radio right now, anyway. He says he’s done all he’s set out to do.
“There just comes a day when you look back on what you’ve done and realize that’s probably a damn good book,” he said. “That’s probably a great story if you want to end it.”
There are always new chapters, though. These days, he’s living vicariously through his songwriter-daughter, Jessie Jo Dillon. She’s penned songs for Justin Bieber and Maren Morris.
“I’m enjoying it just as much as I ever did watching her,” he said.
But on this day, when it became official that Dillon’s name would be remembered among the best in the business, he picked up a guitar. Its dark wood came with turquoise details that matched his belt buckle.
He softly strummed and sang the first verses of “Tennessee Whiskey,” a song that multiple country stars have recorded and millions of people have sang along to, but only one man can say he wrote.
“I feel so fortunate,” Dillon said. “My whole life I got to do something I loved.”