Dean Dillon’s songs hold his heart and soul (by Tom Netherland)

(Source)  Summon the line “you’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey, you’re as sweet as strawberry wine.”

Chris Stapleton sold a million records with those lines nearly two years ago. David Allan Coe sang them in 1981 followed by George Jones in 1983.

Dean Dillon wrote “Tennessee Whiskey” and you can bet your boots and spurs he’ll sing it on July 20. The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member sidles up to the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Ten-nessee, on July 20. Count on a lifetime of songs from the master song-smith. 

“What’s not to love about country music?” said Dillon by phone last week from his home in Gunnison, Colorado. “Man, it’s about as real as one could get. Sadly, about 12 years ago, it lost its heart and soul.”

Dillon never lost his heart, never lost his soul. Into his songs go the essence of the man. Listen close to his song “Feather of a Differ-ent Bird.” That’s him.

“Yep, I’m a feather of a different bird,” he said. “My grandfather shot my dad when I was two weeks old, and he never came back. My grand-parents raised me until I was 5 years old.”

He bounced around from his mother and step-father from Tennessee to Michigan to Southwest Virginia and back to Tennessee.

“When I was 10 years old, I didn’t know who the hell I was,” Dillon said. “It left an indelible scar. When I started writing, all the songs were lonesome songs. Or hurting songs. I channeled what was in my heart and wrote ’em down.”

Just listen to Dillon’s “Is It Raining At Your House” as recorded by Vern Gosdin. Like a darkened page from a William Faulkner novel, pain has nowhere to fall but inside the heart and mind.

“Oh my God,” said country star Lee Ann Womack, “Dean Dillon is coun-try music.”

Among others, Womack co-wrote “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago” with Dillon and Dale Dodson for her “There’s More Where That Came From” album.

“He’s written so many classics,” Womack said. “One of my favorite things to do is to sit in a room and listen to Dean Dillon pour out his heart and soul.”

Chest laid wide open, Dillon wrote or co-wrote nearly 20 of George Strait’s number one country songs. He wrote Strait’s first two charted singles, 1981’s “Unwound” and “Down and Out.” Recall 1982’s “Marina Del Rey,” 1985’s “The Chair,” 1987’s “Ocean Front Property” and so on.

“I had six songs on George’s first album,” Dillon said. “Hell, I didn’t care. I just wanted a cut with someone. He never forgot that we took a chance on him.”

To date, Strait’s recorded more than 60 of Dillon’s songs. He’s far from alone. Kenny Chesney “(A Lot of Things Different”), Toby Keith (“A Little Too Late”), Vern Gosdin (“Set ‘Em Up Joe”) – more than can be listed in full, enjoyed hits written courtesy the mustachioed musi-cian.

Then there’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” which Dillon began and Linda Har-grove helped finish writing.

“I pitched ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ to Strait first, and he turned it down,” Dillon said. “I understand why. That song was stone-ass coun-try. He was by then drifting melodically away from traditional country, albeit keeping it within the parameters of country music.”

David Allan Coe recorded it in 1981. George Jones followed in 1983, and it hit country’s top 10. Billy Sherrill produced both renditions. Thirty-two years later, Chris Stapleton inked an unconventional version, included it on his smash “Traveller” album and sold a million copies.

“It wasn’t intended to be on the album,” said Stapleton two years ago. “We had been doing it in our sound checks, but doing it different-ly.”

Stapleton’s impassioned rendition struck resounding chords across America. After he and Justin Timberlake performed it during the CMA Awards in late 2015, sales immediately multiplied.

“That song shot to number one on iTunes. It knocked off Adele,” Dil-lon said. “Let’s face it , Chris Stapleton is one of the best male singers you’re ever gonna hear.”

Dillon sings, too. He’s recorded solo albums, duet albums with the late Gary Stewart, and enjoyed five top 40 country singles as a singer. Frankly, when he hitch-hiked to Nashville, he wanted to sing.

As documented in the upcoming documentary “Tennessee Whiskey: The Dean Dillon Story,” Dillon’s life in music began at birth 62 years ago near Knoxville in Lake City, Tennessee. At 16, he met his hero, Merle Haggard, in Knoxville.

“I played him three, four songs,” Dillon said. “He took me outside the Holiday Inn where he stayed, and said you have about seven years to go. Funny thing, I started having hits when I was 24. Songs like ‘Mama Tried,’ they were a direct correlation to the way I was living.”

Mr. Hag told Dillon’s story.

“He did,” he said. “He told a lot of people’s story.”

As with Haggard’s best, Dillon’s finest fit like a fine pair of cowboy boots. Appealing when new, with age and wear comfort settles in as time goes by. The older they get, the better they get. In time, you can’t im-agine life without them.

“One of my favorite things to do is to sit in a room and listen to Dean Dillon pour out his heart and soul,” Womack said.

Front and center one week from today, count on Dillon to take hold of his heart and gift the songs from his soul to Bristol. One night only. Listen for the lonesome cry.

“I wrote a thousand songs at four o’clock in the morning,” Dillon said. “I used to do that. But I’ve got a great wife and I’ve got a great life.”