For Dean Dillon, it happened under the Fesslers Lane overpass.
When he told me about the first time he’d ever heard one of the songs he’d written on the radio, his memory of it was so clear, you’d think it happened yesterday. Not 38 years ago.
“It was in 1979, I was under the Fesslers Lane overpass in Nashville–driving under it–and a song I wrote called ’Lying In Love With You,’ came on. Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius had recorded it. I remember that first time, and that I pulled over and cried to think that one of my songs was good enough for somebody to want to play,” Dillon told me on the red carpet at the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas.
Since then, he’s written hits for Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith and many others, but he’s probably best known for having written or co-written more than 55 songs for George Strait, including classics such as “The Chair,” “Ocean Front Property,” “Marina del Rey,” “I’ve Come to Expect It From You,” “Easy Come, Easy Go,” “She Let Herself Go” and “The Best Day.”
“Now when I hear one of the songs I wrote,” the veteran hit maker laughed, “I wonder how long it’s gonna take the check to get to me. But it still feels good to hear it and to know you’re still in the game even after all these years.”
“Tennessee Whiskey,” a George Jones hit he co-wrote with the late Linda Hargrove, was nominated for the latest ACM’s song of the year, thanks to an updated version by Chris Stapleton.
“That’s all I do, man,” Dillon said. “I’m a songwriter who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes it.”
I asked other artists about their first big memory, and they all seemed to remember it well.
Scotty McCreery: “America Idol had finished night before, and I had to take a red-eye flight back home to go take an AP English test for college credit. When I got in the car after my flight landed, ’I Love You This Big’ came on immediately. I was freaking out and was all over the road. I’ll never, ever forget that.”
Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild: “Our first ACM Awards performance was about 11 years ago. We did ’Boondocks.’ It was just the four of us on a little stage all by ourselves, with acoustic guitars, maybe for about a minute. I bought brand new green and black cowboys boots for that show, and I spent more on those than my rent was.”
Charles Esten: “The first time I played the Opry, I knew too much. I knew what an honor it was to stand in that circle and sing. It meant so much. But that meant I was nervous, you know? And I learned an important lesson that night: Never open with a quiet slow song, because the audience will hear your voice quiver.”
William Michael Morgan: “The first time ’I Met a Girl’ came on the radio, I cried like a little baby. Then I called my mama, and we just bawled together. I was in Nashville, and the station had told us the song was gonna play sometime within the hour. So I listened the whole entire hour. You dream about that moment, but you still can’t really fathom it.”
Luke Combs: “I remember that I was in Phoenix, in the car, and I didn’t even know ’Hurricane’ was going to be on. It was just so many dreams realized for me in that moment. I didn’t cry, but it was rush hour, so being stuck in traffic was good for me to just listen. Now when I hear it, I turn it up. How could you ever turn it down? Every time it spins, I know that people believe in me.”