Billy Dean moved from Florida to Nashville when was 20 years old, encouraged by the judges of a national talent search to give country music a try. Now, at 50, he’s still on the scene. The longtime fan favorite released a new album, A Man of Good Fortune, in October.
In the ’90s, Dean scored 10 Top 10 hits, such as “Only Here For a Little While,” “Somewhere in My Broken Heart” (which he co-wrote with Richard Leigh) and “If There Hadn’t Been You.” In 2005, he rebounded with another Top 10 country hit, “Let Them Be Little,” which he co-wrote with Lonestar‘s Richie McDonald. For A Man of Good Fortune, Dean co-wrote seven of the 10 tracks and closed the project with the lovely “Laura Nadine,” written by Hugh Prestwood.
These days, Dean and his wife live near Smithville, Tenn., on a property he calls Dean Acres. Together they’re exploring a mix of agriculture, entertainment and tourism. For example, they’ve renovated a barn for radio shows, they may open a “shinery” (rather than a winery) and they’re growing herbs for a line of seasonings, with an eye on more grocery store products.
During a trip into Nashville, Dean chatted with CMT.com about his new album, the current country songwriting scene and the early days of playing the city’s honky-tonk bars.
CMT: I think a lot of the songs on the new album convey a sense of happiness and fulfillment. Is that a pretty accurate reflection of your life these days?
Dean: Yeah, I felt like I didn’t want anything to bring anybody down when they listen to this album. I really didn’t. Hey, I’m not going to try to change the world. I’m over that now. I just want to have some fun and let people have fun. I wanted to be energetic, but I didn’t want to aim for today’s country market because that wouldn’t be authentic. And I wanted to challenge myself a little bit and get out of the balladeer thing that a lot of people know me as.
I was pleased to see so many of your own songs on the album. What’s the reward in writing for yourself, rather than going out and finding songs?
I’m still trying to get better. I’m not anywhere near where I should be as a songwriter because I have to make a living touring, too, and working on a brand. I have a great admiration for the guys who do it every day. Now, I did take time off. About three years ago, I started a publishing company, and I was able to go in and write every day and write to get cuts. I couldn’t believe how drastically the trends have changed.
It seems like topics of country songs are different now than in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yeah, absolutely. You would use your country metaphors and imagery, like tailgates and having a beer, as decoration around a story. You’d still have some kind of interesting story, something with a twist, something clever you had dreamed up. And you would decorate it with all of the country imagery to let people know it’s a country song. Now the metaphor is the song! (laughs) It’s sort of becoming a caricature of itself and, in my opinion, it’s being overused right now. Nothing wrong with it — it’s party music — but we’ve got to continue to tell the story and use that imagery in a different way.
Before you got a record deal, you were a staff songwriter, right?
Yeah. When I first got started, there was a whole network, this subculture of musicians who were gigging at night, like on Broadway [in downtown Nashville]. And in that group of musicians, there was a group of songwriters. And out of that, some of them landed deals. Your buddies would land a deal, and they’d give you a hand up. That’s what happened. And after I started writing songs, I started doing vocal sessions and guitar sessions for other songwriters. That got me out of the honky-tonks and started focusing on the studio part of this whole art form. I spent a lot of time doing that until I got a deal.
So you were playing the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway back then?
Oh, yeah, man, and I did this purposely. One of the weirdest places and one of the most run-down places was Merchants. It’s downtown, and I remembered it because my dad and my mom had brought me here when I was about 9 years old. I had pictures of it. I just remembered Broadway and that area with all the homeless people down there. With the musicians, you could tell they were good at one time but maybe alcohol and drugs or psycho … I don’t know, but it got to ’em. So I thought, “Man, I want to start at the bottom so I don’t end up at the bottom. I want to start here so it’s only one way up.” But I learned a lot down there. And now Merchants is a beautiful restaurant, but it was nothing when I got here.
It sounds like you didn’t expect overnight success.
No, actually, I even got quite content not pursuing a record deal because I had a writing deal and had a couple of cuts. Randy Travis had recorded “Somewhere in My Broken Heart.” That was the one song where everybody at the publishing company finally patted me on the back. Every Tuesday at this big writing company, people would have to play their songs. There was Guy Clark, there was Verlon Thompson, there was Richard Leigh and all these amazing songwriters. And I wouldn’t even want to turn in my songs on Tuesday — until “Somewhere in My Broken Heart.” And I turned that damn thing in! I said, “All right, boys, here I go! I get it now!”
How does “Somewhere in My Broken Heart” hold up for you?
You know, I wonder if it would be a hit today because it doesn’t have a chorus. The format of it is verse, verse, bridge, verse. … It doesn’t really have a chorus. Now I think it could be done several different ways. I’d like to hear a female record it. I think it could be a female song. We always hoped it would get multiple recordings and covers, but it didn’t. It won song of the year at the ACMs, and you’d think if it did that, people would cover it, but it didn’t happen. We came really close with some R&B groups who had it on hold, but I never did get that “I Swear” like my buddy did. (laughs)
Still, it must have been a big deal to have Randy Travis cut your song at that time.
Yeah, the No Holdin’ Back album. Kyle Lehning was a big producer and a great producer and became a fan of mine. I talked to him about recording some stuff. Then Larry Butler, the producer for Kenny Rogers who really broke him out with “The Gambler” and “Lady,” cut some sides. They thought I was like a young Kenny Rogers or Glen Campbell kind of guy. We didn’t go anywhere for about a year, but we were getting close.
Then all of my buddies were getting record deals! Alan Jackson got his record deal. Suzy Bogguss had a record deal. Then Garth Brooks got a record deal. T. Graham Brown was already making records. All of these people that we knew who were doing demos. I thought, “Ah, hello?! Did you forget about me?!” Then I finally got it. It finally happened.