Dean Dillion on Today’s Country Songs: “Radio Candy, I Call It.”

If you want to have your mind blown, think about this: Chris Stapleton’s version of the song “Tennessee Whiskey” written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove—and previously recorded by David Allan Coe and George Jones—was originally released in 2015. This week, it was the #2 streaming song in all of country music, and regularly appears in the Top 5, seven years after its release, and 41 years after it was originally released as a country song.

That is what you call longevity, ladies and gentlemen. And that is one of the many reasons songwriter Dean Dillon is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. There are many other reasons in the form of some of the biggest songs ever released by George Strait, including iconic tracks such as “The Chair” and “Ocean Front Property.” But Dean Dillon wasn’t trying to write hits. He was just trying to write songs that would withstand the test of time. They just happened to become hits.

Earlier this month, the annual Key West Songwriters Festival transpired down in Florida where Dean Dillon is commonly a fixture. Saving Country Music saw him there in 2021 while attending the fest. It’s an opportunity for fans of country songwriting to get to see many of the writers of the biggest hits in often intimate settings.

While talking to Taste of Country, Dean Dillon had some interesting things to say about the writing of country songs today.

“It’s more radio-oriented,” Dillon says. “I hate to say it, but more one-hit wonder-ish kind of thing now, as opposed to back then when we strived to write great every time. I don’t think that holds true now. I think what holds true is radio candy, I call it. You can call it whatever you want to. I don’t begrudge that one darn bit. A lot of these young kids are having great success with it, and that’s wonderful. Like I said, I don’t begrudge it one bit, but for this old cowboy, I’m not going to do anything different than I’ve always done: sit down and try to write the best damn thing I can write that day.”

These are more than just the grumpy words of an old songwriter. There is a lot of wisdom contained in what Dean Dillon is saying. And being a gentlemen, he also makes sure to say he “doesn’t begrudge it” even though his approach is quite different.

Dean Dillon is right that radio finds favor with many of the “country” songs today and makes them mega hits (that Applebee’s song from Walker Hayes, anybody?). But how many of these songs are here today, and gone tomorrow, like a piece of sugary candy melting in your mouth? Meanwhile, Dean Dillon songs never leave. “Tennessee Whiskey” is the perfect example.

“It’s a different game, but my advice to the young ones is, be true to yourself, man,” Dean Dillon continues. “And if you want to write great songs and nothing but great songs, write great songs and nothing but great songs. Don’t settle for second best. No second-best lines, none of that. Go for it. Find your voice. Find yourself.”

Sure, you can write a big radio single and have success in the short term. But where does that leave you when country music moves on to the next trend? Meanwhile, Dean Dillon is still receiving royalty money every week for a song he wrote over 40 years ago. That is the mark of great songwriting.

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