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Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Perfect Day’

51OoCtrTu4L._SS280Unlike it predecessor Dylyn, which featured Dean Dillon’s interpretations of songs that were hit for other artists, Perfect Day features a track listing that is largely new to most listeners, with the exceptions of the title track, which had been previously cut by Billy Currington and “West Texas Town”, which Dillon had previously recorded as a duet with George Strait for the latter’s 2008 collection Troubadour. A western swing number, “West Texas Town” is by far the best track on the album, which is, unfortunately, mostly a lackluster effort. I suspect the songs are whatever were left over after bigger names laid claim to Dillon’s better efforts. They are mostly mid tempo numbers that by themselves aren’t bad, but put together do not result in an album that is greater than the sum of its parts. That along with Dillon’s limitations as a vocalist make for a rather tedious listening experience.

Whenever I’m listening to recordings by an artist who is primarily known as a songwriter, I can’t help but imagine how the songs might sound if sung by someone else. Not surprisingly, it isn’t too hard to imagine George Strait singing most of them. The opening track, “She Ain’t Right” is in the vein in some of Garth Brooks’ rowdier efforts. It’s one of the few uptempo numbers but the lyrics are unfortunately rather cliche-ridden.

Perfect Day is far from a perfect album, but it does have its enjoyable moments: the aforementioned “West Texas Sound”, “Out Here Livin’ Life”, the upbeat “Colorado” and “I Ain’t Her Cowboy”, which is reminiscent of Strait’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” (which Dillon did not write).

As far as I can tell, Perfect Day is a digital-only release, which means that inexpensive used CD copies are not available. There isn’t enough I like about it to recommend paying full price to download the entire album, but fans might consider downloading a few individual tracks. Spotify users can also listen to it there.

Grade: B-

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Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘Spilled Perfume’

Pam Tillis enjoyed a big hit with this Dean Dillon song.

Single Review: George Strait – ‘Let It Go’

Let-It-GoFor the vast majority of his long major-label career, George Strait has relied on outside songwriters for his material. In fact, the 1982 album cut “I Can’t See Texas From Here” held the distinction of being his only self-penned recording until 2009 when he co-wrote “Living For The Night” with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. He has been making up for lost time ever since; the trio has collaborated on a number of songs, including “Here For a Good Time” (2011), “Drinkin’ Man” (2012), and “I Believe” (2013). Strait’s newest single “Let It Go” finds him and Bubba teaming up with Keith Gattis.

“Let It Go” is also noteworthy because it finds Strait teaming up with a new co-producer Chuck Ainlay, marking the first time since 1992 that he has shared production duties with anyone other than Tony Brown. While the song’s commercial impact remains to be seen, the change in co-producers has paid off from a creative standpoint. “Let It Go” is my favorite George Strait single in quite some time. It is a light-hearted, carefree tune that should be peaking on the charts by early summer. It is contemporary enough to be radio-friendly, without making any embarrassing attempts to chase current commercial attempts, like a few of the tracks on the new Reba McEntire album. The inclusion of steel drums towards the end of the song give it a breezy, summertime Caribbean feel without beating the listener over the head (Kenny Chesney, please take note).

Strait, who will be 63 next month, hasn’t had a single on the charts since 2013’s “I Got a Car”, which was one of the lowest charting singles of his career, peaking at #37. Only its predecessor “I Believe”, which did not chart at all, has performed worse. Changes in Billboard’s charting methodolgies and the fact that he isn’t touring anymore don’t help. His reign on the charts may be winding down, but I’m hoping that this deserving late-career entry will buck the trend and enjoy some success.

Listen to it here.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Dean Dillon – ‘The New Never Wore Off My Sweet Baby’

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Dylyn’

cover100x100Dean Dillon released his fifth solo album, Dylyn in 2011. Recorded for Tenorado Records, the album gained little attention upon its release despite featuring his versions of songs he wrote or co-wrote for other artists.

The album kicks of with “A Lot of Things Different,” which he co-wrote with Bill Anderson. A stunning ballad about regret, Kenny Chesney took the song to #6 in 2002 (a time when radio still played these kinds of songs). Dillon’s version nicely strips away the commercial sheen in favor of delicate acoustic guitar laced with ribbons of dobro.

Dillon co-wrote “She Let Herself Go” with Kerry Kurt Phillips and presents it almost identically to George Strait’s chart topping recording from 2005. While very good, Dillon’s version feels almost overproduced and a bit busy.

“Everything But Quits” was co-written by Dillon, Lee Ann Womack, and Dale Dodson. Womack released the tune as a duet with Strait in 2008, although it was never issued as a single. Dillon’s version is a reversed duet with Womack that works well between the pair. I would’ve stripped it more bare myself, taking out the heavy and unnecessary string section. The production choice causes Womack to give a more traditional pop vocal that isn’t in service to the song at all.

“Cest La Vie” is an island themed balled that isn’t any different from the typical Chesney fare, although it does put a steel guitar in the space usually occupied by steel drums. “I Love What I Had” sounds like it was ripped from the late 1980s, with a Spanish-infused lead guitar and steel aplenty.

The pleasant sounding ballad “If He Could Do That” is a generic country song, one that would gain radio attention but would be forgotten once it fell off the charts. In contrast, “I’m Just Me” is an excellent moment of positive reflection, in which Dillon embraces his flaws and vows to live as himself, not who others want him to be. “No Big I’s” is a similar sounding ballad, although the clunky lyric isn’t my cup of tea.

What I enjoyed about Dylyn was hearing his versions of songs he wrote for other people, which were a bit more faithful than I would’ve expected. Overall this is a very good although somewhat quiet album. Nothing truly stands out as spectacular, but there are some fine moments throughout.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Vern Gosdin – ‘Is It Raining At Your House’

A Dean Dillon song:

Classic Rewind: Gary Stewart – ‘An Empty Glass’

Dean Dillon wrote this for his old duet partner’s comeback attempt in 1988.

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Heart On The Line’

hot country and singleIn 1990 a documentary on country music songwriters entitled Heart On The Line was filmed in Nashville for British TV’s Channel Four, directed by Northern Irish documentary maker John T Davis. One of the sequences followed Dean Dillon and co-writer Frank Dycus working on writing the title song, which was about songwriting. I remember seeing it and finding it fascinating, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available to watch nowadays. The song stayed on the shelf for a while before Dillon revisited it for his fourth solo album in 1993. It sees writers dreaming of touching listeners’ hearts with his words and music, but finding raw honesty does not always bring acceptance:

When you lay your heart on the line
You bare your soul till they can read your mind
And they don’t always love what they find, oh no
When you lay your heart on the line

A gentle melody and vulnerable vocal are exactly right for the song.

The album’s title track was its only single, and peaked at #62. Written with John Northrup, the title was a play on the country singles chart title, and depicts a female country fan heading out for a good time. It was the last time Dillon sent a single to country radio, as the planned follow up, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ (a co-write with Aaron Barker) was picked up by George Strait. It’s actually not one of my favourite songs, but its valedictory message is oddly appropriate given that the decision to let it go meant the end of Dillon as a wannabe artist.

The delicately melancholy ‘Old News’, written with Pam Belford, sees the protagonist wistfully reflecting on a former lover moving on. ‘Some Days It Takes All Night’, written with Donny Keys, is a slowish honky tonker about getting over someone with the help of alcohol. The steel-drenched ‘Everybody Knows’, which he wrote with Steve Oliver, is positively self-pitying about the protagonist’s broken heart:

I just can’t hold my head up in this old town any more
Everybody knows I’m not the man I was when I was yours
But sometimes things don’t work out quite the way you plan
Everybody knows – but no one understands

Everybody knows I’m drinkin’ again
I’m back on the bottom, on the outside lookin’ in
They all know I’ve lost you and I’m back out of hand
Seems like everybody knows
But no one understands

Ain’t it funny how people want to kick you when you’re down
Be your friend until you need one
Then no one’s around
They watch you go to pieces and never offer a hand
Everybody knows – but no one understands

Less mournfully, he defies a woman about to dump him by saying he’ll be ‘Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk’ is a rhythmic number written with Dycus and Blake Mevis, which was a #40 single for Joe Sun in 1982. The vivacious ‘I Just Came In Here To Have A Good Time’ is much more positive about a Friday night out on the town:

I didn’t come in here drunk to lose my mind
I just came in here to have a good time
It’s my night out and I wanna unwind

The plaintively ironic ‘When Hell Freezes Over’ has a clueless protagonist hoping his wrathful ex didn’t really mean what she said:

If she cares enough to abuse me this much
I guess she must love me deep down
She said when hell freezes over she’s gonna be mine
But she didn’t say never so that’s a good sign
The more hell I go through the colder she gets
But it’s not really over ‘cause hell might freeze over yet

Dillon sings it quite straight.

‘What’ll I Do With It Now’ is a rather charming little song of a boy growing up feeling the lack of a role model due to the breakup of his parents’ marriage. Presents are no use without daddy’s presence to help him make the most of them. There is a bitter little twist in the last verse when, as a teenager, he is lost as to how to treat his first love interest, and a still bitter mother points out that dad was no good at relationships anyway.

i really like this album, mainly for the song quality. While Dillon was a better writer than singer, the songs here are so good his more limited vocals don’t matter much, plus several of them are in a conversational style in any case.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Vern Gosdin – ‘Set Em Up Joe’

Dean Dillon was one of the writers of this classic:

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind’

31zL+wHAa1LIt isn’t terribly difficult to understand why Dean Dillon never became a major recording star; as it has been noted by others several times already, at times he sounds like George Strait and, at other times, Keith Whitley, but he is a decidedly less distinctive vocalist than either of them. He’d also discovered that it was more lucrative to pitch his best material to country music’s heavy hitters, rather than saving them for himself. The combination of a lesser vocalist and less than first-rate material is hardly a formula for success.

Nevertheless, none of this means that Dillon’s recordings are not worthwhile; on the contrary, most his albums contain at least a handful of enjoyable tracks. 1991’s Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is a prime example. Co-produced with Blake Mevis, it was Dillon’s first release for Atlantic Records and his highest-charting solo album, peaking at #58. Because of his close ties with George Strait, Dean Dillon’s name is associated with traditional country music. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to hear the pop influences that permeate many of the album’s tracks. Synthesized keyboards – which I thought were pretty much out of vogue by 1991 – are quite prominent on many songs, including the opening track “Friday Night’s Woman”, a somewhat dull number that was the collection’s only single to crack the Top 40 (landing at #39), as well as the schmaltzy “Best Love Friends”, which is a Dillon co-write with Buddy Cannon and Vern Gosdin. The saxophone-laced “She Knows What She Wants” sounds like something Dan Seals might have recorded during his “Bop” era. The more traditional “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, which preceded “Friday Night’s Woman” as the album’s first single, draws more comparisons to Keith Whitley but unfortunately every time I listen to it I can’t help thinking that Whitley would have done a much better job with the song.

Fortunately, despite getting off to a rocky start, the album does pick up by the fifth track. “Holding My Own”, arguably the album’s best track, preceded the better-known George Strait version by a year. It’s a decent effort, but again, the keyboards make the track sound instantly dated. “Don’t You Even (Think About Leaving’)” is a pleasant, though not terribly memorable song that at least doesn’t cause the listener to think about other singers. It was the album’s third and final single, peaking at #62. “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doing Her Wrong (Ain’t Doing Me Right)” is another Keith Whitley type number but unlike “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, it is a great song and it’s a bit surprising that someone else didn’t come along and have a hit with it.

“A Country Boy (Who Rolled The Rock Away)” is a surprisingly effective Buddy Holly tribute; “You Must Be Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind” is superior to any of the album’s singles.

Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is not a great album, but it is an above-average effort that recovers nicely after the first three tracks, with a few moments (“Holding My Own”, “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” and the title track) that approach greatness. There is nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering here, but it’s worth picking up a cheap copy.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Dean Dillon – ‘The Chair’

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘I’ve Learned To Live’

i've learned to liveMost fans will know Dean Dillon as a fine songwriter, who cranks out hits for other artists. Unfortunately, this album will do nothing to dispel that notion. By the time this album came along in 1989, Dillon had already largely figured out his fate in life (although he still harbored some delusions of grandeur as a singer) and mostly had quit trying to save his best material for himself. I’ve Learned To Live consists largely of material he had not been able to pitch elsewhere. That is not to say that there aren’t some good songs here, just that the material with real hit potential had already been channeled to George Strait, Vern Gosdin and other top-shelf artists. That said, I really enjoyed this album, which I regard as his best solo effort.

The album opens up with “Just In Time” an up-tempo song co-written with Frank Dycus. There is some nice mandolin playing on the track by Randy Scruggs.

“Changes Comin’ On” is a slow ballad that probably is the best song on the album. Co-written with Jimmy Darrell and Buddy Cannon. Alabama and Gene Watson recorded this song on albums.

Well, I’m still hooked on Haggard
But the Beatles can’t come back like we hoped they would
In Memphis, Tennessee, King is gone
As I put my kids to bed, oh, I wonder what lies ahead for them to see
‘Cause I can feel the change comin’ on

I can feel changes comin’ on
People still are singin’ different songs
They’re searchin’ for the place where they belong
I can feel changes comin’ on

“Who Do You Think You Are”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that would have made a good single for someone.

“Don’t You Even Think About Leaving” features the great Tanya Tucker duetting with Dean. The song is quick, sassy and well suited for a duet. Johnny Gimble plays fiddle as only he can.

“I’ve Learned To Live”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that Shelby Lynne also recorded. Dean does a nice job with the song

Like a child lost in the wilderness I knew not where to go
Surrounded by the emptiness of a love that left me cold
I stumbled through the darkness of nights that have no stars
And days that have no sunshine to warm my naked heart

Like a bird in flight brought down by stones from an unknown assailant’s sling
A stranger took you from my arms and I lost everything
In days to come I nearly ran out of ways to stay alive
But through it all I never lost the will to survive

But I’m not over you and I doubt that I’ll ever be
So I’ve learned to live and you won’t be the death of me oh no
Yes I’ve learned to live and I’m doing well but I’m not over you

“It’s Love That Makes You Sexy” was one of two singles issued from the album. It’s not a bad song (actually the Dean Dillon / Frank Dycus pairing didn’t write any bad songs) but Dean just wasn’t a marketable singer. Despite Sonny Garrish’s nice steel guitar work, this one died at #61 in 1989.

The next single “Back In The Swing of Things” fared even worse, dying at #89 (it reached #70 on the Canadian Country charts). Dean’s version of the song really does swing – with Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Sonny Garrish on steel, how can it not swing? Co-writer Vern Gosdin also recorded the song on an album. The song really should have been a hit – I would rate it as the second best song on the album.

Hank Cochran collaborated with Dean on “Summer Was A Bummer”. It’s a nice song but nothing special.

“Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” sounds like a country song from the 1965-1975 period with the steel guitar serving as the lead instrument with Johnny Gimble lending a few flourishes with his fiddle. Glenn Martin co-wrote this song and also wrote a bunch of hits for people like Charley Pride and Merle Haggard, either of whom would have had a hit on this song during their heydays.

Her thinkin’ I’m a doin’ her wrong
Ain’t a doin’ me right

The album closes with “Holdin’ Pattern, a nice ballad that Dean sings well.

Dean’s prior album Slick Nickel reeked of 1980s production values. In contrast, this album has more authentically country production with but slight traces of the sound that characterized the early 1980s. He has an ace fiddle player in Johnny Gimble, a superb steel player in Sonny Garrish, a multi-instrumental wizard in Randy Scruggs, and a solid second fiddler in Paul Anastasio. Unfortunately, if this album couldn’t produce any hits for Dean, it would seem unlikely that he could ever break through as an artist. I’d give this album a B+.

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘Miami, My Amy’

Album Review – Dean Dillon – ‘Slick Nickel’

51noFXwA3hLFive years after his second duets album with Gary Stewart, Dean Dillon struck out on his own. His first solo album, Slick Nickel, was released via Capitol Records in 1988. Although it contained some minor radio hits, the album itself failed to chart.

“The New Never Wore off My Sweet Baby” hit #51, “I Go To Pieces” peaked at #39, and “Hey Heart” stalled at #58. All three are excellent neo-traditional numbers, although “Hey Heart” has a bit of synth added into the mix. They richly deserved the heavy rotation status they never received.

The majority of Slick Nickel perfectly encapsulates the contemporary side of late 1980s mainstream country – slightly watered down and synth-drenched. This production choice gives the album a glossy feel that’s actually quite enjoyable, even if considerably ages the record almost thirty years later.

“When The Feeling’s Right” is a perfect example of the late 1980s sheen, while “Hard Time for Lovers” illustrates the limitations of the sound. A slow-paced ballad, the track bares no resemblance to actual country music and sounds like a wasted album cut from an Eddie Rabbitt recording. From a tempo standpoint, “Still Got A Crush on You” is a marked improvement. But the track, marred by a weak lyric and uninteresting production, fails to leave an impression. “Station to Station” does leave an impression, although it’s not memorable enough to stand out.

“Appalachia Got to Have You Feelin’ In My Bones” returns Dillon to actual country music with a brisk paced honky-tonker led by twangy lead guitars. The production still makes concessions to album’s slick sound, and could’ve used ample banjo, but it’s good in comparison to the majority of the album.

The longest track on Slick Nickel gives the album a stunning conclusion. “Father Son and Holy Ghost” is a sparse ballad about a family coming together for their loved one’s funeral, told though the eyes of the deceased man’s son. Dillon’s vocal is a masterclass of hurt and longing that conveys the drunken ways of the father and son. The ballad could’ve used flourishes of steel guitar, but it works well despite it, too.

I’d never listened to a Dean Dillon album before writing this review, and I expected more from the man who practically built George Strait’s legendary career from the ground up. Dillon, who wrote or co-wrote three tracks for Keith Whitley’s L.A. To Miami three years earlier, seems to be borrowing too heavily stylistically from Whitley’s record. Slick Nickel is little more than a mainstream country album, a collection of songs that pander to a fraction of the country radio pie. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the tracks were artistically strong, but they’re not. Slick Nickel isn’t a terrible album, just horribly middle of the road.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Rodney Hayden covers Dean Dillon’s ‘You Sure Got This Ol’ Redneck Feeling Blue’

The song was a hit for George Strait in 1985.

Album Review: Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon – ‘Those Were The Days’

those were the daysRCA gave the duo of Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon another chance to break through, although they were relegated for their second release to a six-track EP known as a mini-LP, which the label was using in the mid 1980s as a marketing manoeuvre for new acts. Stewart and Dillon were actually one of the first acts to release one, and the series later launched the careers of the Judds, Vince Gill and Keith Whitley. Dillon wrote or co-wrote all six songs, many of them with Stewart.

The reflective title track was the album’s lead single, and it got some radio play but did not crack the top 40. It is a pair of hellraisers’ wistful look back at teenage memories of a time when “dreams could still come true”. It is a pretty decent song (written by the duo alongside Rex Huston), although the vocals are a bit messy. It seems oddly appropriate, given the pair’s reputation as heavy drinkers, that one of the fondest memories is of getting drunk for the first time.

The second single (the duo’s last), ‘Smokin’ In The Rockies’, is a fast paced celebration of the pair’s life as touring musicians. A live cut, it namechecks a number of the top country stars of the period. It is quite entertaining, although the lyrics are hard to make out at times. It was written by the duo with Frank Dycus and Buddy Cannon, and was later covered by Sawyer Brown.

The rebellious ‘Misfits’ is dominated by wailing (and not always comprehensible) vocals and equally wailing fiddle. The mid-tempo ‘Living On The Ragged Edge’ is a solo Dean Dillon composition about those straying from the strait and narrow path at risk to themselves. He takes the lead vocal.

The best song on the album, ‘Hard Time For Lovers’ is an excellent if very downbeat song (which Dean revived for his solo album debut at the end of the decade). A string arrangement is a little too sweet, but Dean Dillon’s delicate vocal is his best on the album as he compares the stories of various friends and family members whose love lives are in crisis, with his own happy relationship.

Gary Stewart leads on ‘Lovers And Losers’, which the pair wrote with Mack Vickery and Rex Huston. This is another depressed ballad with strings and a vulnerable vocal.

There were some good songs on this mini-album, but it wasn’t a very commercial one.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: George Strait – ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’

Album Review: Dean Dillon & Gary Stewart – ‘Brotherly Love’

0124albums018The pairing of Dean Dillon with Gary Stewart seems an odd one; often these types of collaborations are meant to garner some attention for a newcomer or revive the flagging career of a veteran. But in 1981, neither artist had the commercial pull to carry the other; Dillon was still a newcomer hoping for a breakthrough and Stewart’s career was on a downward spiral. 1982’s Brotherly Love did nothing to change the commercial fortunes of either artist, but nevertheless it is a good — though not great — collection of songs.

Brotherly Love features duets as well as solo efforts by both artists. The title track was co-written by both artists and released as a single in advance of the album in 1981. The duet is not the Keith Whitley and Earl Thomas Conley hit that appeared a decade later. Rather it is about two brothers planning for a night out on the town with two sisters from the local honky tonk. Although pleasant, it lacks subtlety and is ultimately not very memorable. It was the album’s highest ranking single, peaking at #41. The uptempo “Play This Working Day Away” finds the pair trying to remedy their situations of all work and no play. It reached #74. It was followed by a pair of solo efforts from each: Dillon’s rather dull “You To Come Home To” which climbed to #65 and Stewart’s “She Sings Amazing Grace”, which is by far the best song on the album, despite petering out at #83.

“Honky Tonk Crazy”, a Dillon co-write with Frank Dycus, will be familiar to George Strait fans; his cut was included on his sophomore disc Strait From The Heart which was also released in 1982. “Suburban Life”, about a pair of newly divorced men about to embark on a night on the town — trading “the suburban life for the bourbon life” is less rowdy than the lyrics suggest and for that reason it doesn’t quite work.

What is perhaps the most surprising about this album is its reliance on outside songwriters. Dillon had a hand in writing only four of the album’s tracks, and Stewart co-wote two. I was expecting more original material, and perhaps some versions of Dillon’s songs that later went on to be hits for other artists, but in all likelihood he was still cutting his teeth as a songwriter and many, if not most, of his most memorable songs were still to be written. Overall, the material on Brotherly Love isn’t quite as strong as it ought to be, but the production — though a bit dated — isn’t as heavy-handed as most of Nashville’s output during that era. Brotherly Love wasn’t a huge commercial success, but Dillon and Stewart paired up for another collaborative effort Those Were The Days the following year. Both albums are available on a 2-for-1 disc, but the $20.99 price tag seems a little high considering that neither album produced any major hits.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: George Jones – ‘Tennessee Whiskey’

Classic Rewind: Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius – ‘Lying In Love With You’

This was one of Dean Dillon’s early cuts.