Dickey Lee is one of the greatest living country music songwriters. If you don’t believe me, just start by looking at the list of #1’s he’s written:
“She Thinks I Still Care” (#1-George Jones, #1-Anne Murray, #1 Elvis Presley)
“Let’s Fall To Pieces Together” (#1-George Strait)
“In A Different Light” (#1-Doug Stone)
“The Door Is Always Open” (#1-Dave and Sugar)
“I’ve Been Around Enough To Know” (#1-John Schneider)
“You’re The First Time I’ve Thought about Leaving” (#1-Reba McEntire)
“I’ll Be Leaving Alone” (#1-Charley Pride)
“The Keeper of The Stars” (#1-Tracy Byrd)
This in part is how Dickey Lee landed in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1995, and has amassed 22 BMI awards. But that’s not all. Dickey Lee was also a performer, earning five Top 10 records on the Billboard pop and country charts, including the #1 country song “Rocky” in 1975. He’s also one of the very last surviving original Sun Records recording artists with Jerry Lee Lewis. Dickey Lee has lived a legendary life to say the least.
For the last year or so, songwriter and performer Conrad Fisher has been tugging on my ear to feature Dickey Lee somehow. Fisher’s 2021 album Homemade was given a favorable review here at Saving Country Music, and he’s also been a fairly regular commenter. Conrad had become friends with Dickey Lee through the pair writing songs together, and now knows him better than most. So I suggested perhaps there was nobody better suited to profile Dickey Lee than Conrad himself. Lo and behold, Conrad Fisher was up to the test, putting his passion for the importance of Dickey Lee into an insightful conversation that can be found below.
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“Hey, pal. You wanna write a song?”
I double checked the caller ID. It was Dickey Lee, alright. I had only met him two weeks earlier, thanks to Fred Knobloch, but we had hit it off from hello. I was a no-account songwriter, new to town, new to the business, and working the night shift at Williamson Memorial Funeral Home.
“What do you have in mind?” I stammered. I couldn’t believe he would want to write a song with me. Dickey was one of my favorite songwriters, with credits like “She Thinks I Still Care” (George Jones), “I’ve Been Around Enough to Know” (John Schneider), “Keeper of the Stars” (Tracy Byrd), and “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together” (George Strait.)
He told me about his idea, and we did write a song, becoming close friends in the process. He introduced me to everyone he thought I’d like to know: Buzz Cason, Cousin Bob Clement, Dallas Frazier, Roger Cook, Bob McDill, Allen Reynolds, and more, all of whom helped me along in some way or another.
Four years later, my wife Beth and I are sitting across from Dickey at his supper table. Our eight month old son Jack Royden is playing on the floor. It’s become a family tradition: I buy a flat of New York strip steaks and fresh vegetables from Costco and he opens a bottle of wine. You can’t beat it. Dickey likes his steaks rare. As long as it’s not moving or making a noise, he’s happy. Maybe that’s why he can walk the green without a golf cart and climb two cases of stairs like he’s my age, even though he’s three times as old as I am. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working.
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Conrad: Do you remember how old you were when you started making up songs?
Dickey: I was about thirteen years old when I knew I wanted to be a songwriter. The first song I wrote was called “Anna Lee.” I can’t remember the verses but it had a minor chorus to it. [He picks up his guitar, a left-handed Takamine, and starts to sing] “Ana Lee, Ana Lee, does the memory of her love forever haunt me?” My aunt loved it. The second one I wrote was called “Sundown.” It went something like, “Sundown, sundown, you come around too soon.”
Conrad: What inspired you to start writing?
Dickey: I just loved the music I was hearing on the radio. When I was a kid I was listening to Webb Pierce, Hank Thompson, Carl Smith, and Faron Young. I bought a little Stella acoustic guitar with strings way up off the fretboard. I remember the dreaded F chord I tried to make. I thought, “Golly, I can never do this. I just won’t use that chord.” [Dickey is the only person on earth who can say “golly,” and make it sound right. You have to hear it. Phonetically, you’d spell it gah-LEE.]
Conrad: Tell me about the first song you recorded.
Dickey: I recorded two songs I wrote called “Dream Boy” and “Stay True Baby.” There was this disc jockey named Dewey Phillips who had a show called “Red Hot and Blue” from 9:00 to 12:00, six nights a week in Memphis. Everybody thought he was black, but he was white. His studio was on the mezzanine floor of Hotel Chisca, and all the kids listened to his show. I went up there one night after the show and asked him if I could play him a couple of songs. This was crazy, you know, people weren’t supposed to do that, but he said, “Yeah!” He was kind enough to wait on me while I ran down and got my guitar out of the car. I played him these two songs, and he said, “Those are pretty good songs. Have you got a band?” I said, “No, sir.” He said, “Tell you what: you get a band together, work those things up, and give me a call.”
So I got a band together. They were pretty good. We recorded them right there in the radio studios, and he got some fly-by-night label out of Hollywood, Florida called Tampa Records to put them out. They came out the same week as Elvis’s “All Shook Up.” On the local charts in Memphis I was one slot behind Elvis all the way. I got all the way to number two. Both sides of my record were listed: “Dream Boy” and “Stay True Baby.” Then, Dewey introduces me to Elvis and gets me on Sun Records after that. I wasn’t Sam Phillips’ kind of artist, really, but he took me anyway. It was kinda like “Aw, hell Dewey, okay, I’ll put him on the label.” It was like that, you know. I think I cut about six or eight sides there, but I only had two releases on Sun. They were mediocre regional hits. They didn’t really do anything, but me and Sam got to really be close over the years. One time he said, “Dickey, when I signed you, you were an imitator. You’d try to sound like these G-D Philadelphia teenage idols.” He was a soul, southern guy, you know.
Conrad: Where did you meet Cowboy Jack Clement?
Dickey: We actually went to the same high school, but I didn’t know him then. Jack was the engineer at Sun, so we got to be really good friends there. Sometime after Sam Phillips fired him, Jack and a guy named Bill Hall decided to build a studio in Beaumont, Texas. There wasn’t anything down there, but they did it. That’s where I recorded “Patches,” which became my first national hit in 1962. It was a song Jack found while he was working for Chet Atkins at RCA. We released it in the fall of ‘61, but nobody would play it because it was a suicide song. It was out about four months before it hit any charts. I had given up on it, but Bill Hall persisted in calling this little radio station in Beaumont, Texas, bugging them to play it. When they finally started playing it, it just exploded. Houston is ninety miles away. When they saw what was happening, they got on it, and for a while it went from city to city like that. It went #1 on the Cashbox chart and #6 on the Billboard charts.
Conrad: The name you were given at birth was Royden Dickey Lipscomb, but you ended up legally changing it. Can you tell me that story?
Dickey: When “Patches” became a hit, we got this nuisance suit. There was this guy by the name of Dick Lee. He had a nightclub in Philadelphia, and he sued me for using his name. So my manager said, “Well, we’ll take care of that! We’ll just get your name changed legally.” So we did! I didn’t tell my parents for the longest time.
Conrad: How did George Jones find your song “She Thinks I Still Care” during all this?
Dickey: George lived in this little town called Vidor, Texas, just outside of Beaumont. Bill Hall and Cowboy [Jack Clement] knew him pretty well, so Cowboy pitched him the song. George Jones told me later that his two favorite songs of his career were “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “She Thinks I Still Care,” but that “She Thinks” was his favorite of all of them. That was pretty cool.
Conrad: Why did you call Jack Clement “Cowboy?”
Dickey: He got a tape one time, somebody sent him a song. It was wrapped on a popsicle stick. It looked so horrible, but he would never play it because he didn’t want to take it off the stick. The letter was addressed to Cowboy Carl Clements. I don’t know why. So Allen and I started calling him “Cowboy Carl,” and that kinda evolved into just “Cowboy.”
Conrad: You and Bob McDill are good pals. When did you meet him?
Dickey: Met him in Beaumont. He lived there after he got out of the Navy. Cowboy convinced me to move down there with Allen Reynolds, who was a college buddy of mine and a singer in the band I had called Dickey Lee and the Collegiates. Allen ended up producing all that Garth Brooks stuff, but at the time we were living in a hotel that had a little tap-room in the back. We’d hang out there because there was nowhere else to go. McDill had a little folk band and they’d come in there and sing every once in a while. Allen and me really liked him. We got to know him and thought, “This guy is really talented.” He would say, “Man I can’t write country songs,” and we told him, “Yes you can!” Allen and me gave him a small advance, maybe $50 a week. We eventually got him to move back to Memphis with us, and then we got him to move to Nashville with us, too. He’s had great success here as you know. Everybody has cut his songs.
Conrad: When did you all move to Nashville?
Dickey: I didn’t move here til about ‘70. That’s when I really started recording country music. I signed with RCA and had a bunch of hits: “Rocky,” “9,999,999 Tears,” “Never Ending Song of Love,” and “Ashes of Love.” I was having hits as an artist and as a songwriter at the same time. It was kinda cool. I was with RCA ‘til about ‘80 or ‘81.
Conrad: Was there a point in your career where you thought, “OK, now I’ve really made it,” or did it just kinda sneak up on you?
Dickey: I remember the first time I heard “Dream Boy” broadcasted. A buddy and me went to see some action movie at the drive-in theater, and while we were there it came on the radio. That was probably the biggest thrill I ever had in my life, hearing my own record on the radio for the first time. I wasn’t aware of all the valleys that were to follow.
Conrad: Of all the songs you’ve written, which is your favorite?
Dickey: By far my sentimental favorite is “She Thinks I Still Care” because it was my most successful one. I’m still getting cuts on it. I would venture to say I’ve had about 1,000 cuts on that song. My favorite recording of a song that I’ve written, just as far as the production, was Doug Stone’s “In a Different Light.” That’s a real favorite of mine. I like George Strait’s “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together,” too, but they’re all favorites once they start making money. [He laughs, and takes a sip of coffee. He likes his with cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and a little Irish whiskey .] “She Thinks” is my sentimental favorite because it just keeps going. I just can’t believe it. That’s the only song I’ve ever really written about someone that’s pretty much exactly true. There was this girl I was crazy about in school and she dumped me, you know, but I’ll be forever grateful to her because that’s where I got that song started. I do a little spiel when I play that song live. I tell ‘em I got so many cuts on that song, I finally got enough money to have a contract put out on her and have her killed. [He laughs.]
Conrad: Tell me the story about Elvis and “She Thinks I Still Care.”
Dickey: There was this guy that worked for Elvis who knew Jack Clement. He heard the song one day over at Jack’s office and he said, “Man, I wanna get that to Elvis.” So we made him a copy to get to Elvis, and we didn’t really hear anything back from him. Not too long after that is when Jack got George Jones to do it. So anyway, I kinda forgot about it, and George’s record came out in ‘63. A few years after that, I was with Elvis somewhere and he said, “Man, I’m gonna record that song of yours someday,” and I said, “Which one are you talking about?” He said, “She Thinks I Still Care,” and I said, “Well, you’re the first one it was pitched to.” Elvis was like, “What do you mean?” and I said, “Well, so and so got a copy from me and said he was taking it to you.” And Elvis said, [he pauses, and laughs] well, you can’t print what Elvis said but he wasn’t too happy about it. You know what’s funny, if he had done that song first, probably no one else would have cut it. So really, I think it’s a blessing in disguise. It’s actually on the Jungle Room album three times. I’m probably the only guy that’s ever had the same song in one album three times. You know, they gotta pay you three times, so that was pretty cool. [He laughs again.] Dewey Phillips took me out to Elvis’ house and I got to know him a little bit. We weren’t really big buddies, but he was very good to me. He was very nice. He invited me out to some movies with him. I just really liked the guy.
Conrad: Almost every writer I know has a story about the guitar that got away. Do you have one like that?
Dickey: Yeah. What happened was, in 1957 I bought this Stratocaster made out of white ash. It was really neat. It cost about $400, but at the time I had to pay 15% more to have them make it left-handed. I came to Nashville in ‘69, and you know I never played that much lead, so I sold it to David Malloy, who was a producer in Nashville. There was a little guitar shop on 2nd Avenue North just off Broadway, and he traded it in on something. Stephen Stills came in, and he bought it and gave it to Paul McCartney as a birthday present. So if I ever run into Paul McCartney, I’m gonna ask him if I can have it back. A guitar tech told me it would be worth somewhere between 75 and 80 thousand today, even if Paul had nothing to do with it. That’s the story of my life. I buy high and sell low. [Dickey laughs.]
Conrad: One of the things I love about you is your optimism, energy, and positive perspective on everything. Even if you would have never written a song, you’d be a huge inspiration to me just because of your outlook on life. What keeps you kicking at 85 years old?
Dickey: Well, I thought I’d be dead by now. [He laughs.] I don’t know, I guess I just love life, I love music, and I love to play. And I’ll have to say, you got me back into songwriting. You got me inspired again when we first met. That might be kinda hard to write about yourself when you do this, but it’s true. We were introduced by Fred, and I didn’t want to meet you. Some hot-shot songwriter, I thought, we won’t have anything in common, but we had breakfast together. In the latter stages of my life it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to me because you really got me interested in writing again. I quit writing because I thought, “You know I like to write, but why write? I’m not gonna get any songs cut.” I’ve written some songs that are every bit as good as some of the early songs I’ve written and I’ve taken them over to the publishing company, and they say, “Dickey, these are good songs but we can’t get them cut today.” They just don’t do stuff like that anymore.
When’s the last time you heard a great melody? Every once in a while it’ll happen. There’s no resentment, you know, there’s no bitterness. It’s just the fact that culture’s changed. I don’t think of it so much as a craft anymore. You still got a few guys that are doing well, but for the most part, country music has become watered down rock ‘n’ roll. It’s kinda chanty stuff. It almost sounds like a lot of little nursery rhymes sometimes. Today what amazes me is you’ll have multiple writers on almost every song. There’s an older writer that’s really successful. I won’t mention his name, but he said he got set up to write with some younger guys. There were about five other writers, and they were writing to a looped track. He told me he thought, “Golly, this is a drag. There’s nothing really creative about it. People are just thinking up lines, throwing out lines, and there’s no craft to it anymore.”
Conrad: What are some other things you miss about the music industry as it used to be?
Dickey: The main thing I miss is people getting together. It was so much fun. Fun is the key word. If you knew people, an artist or a producer, you could walk into a recording session and just sit there and watch them. And boy, that used to get me so inspired. I just had so much fun. If you had a song, you could get a hold of the artist and get them to listen to it. You can’t do that today. It’s more Gestapo style today, like, “Hey, what are you doing? You can’t come in here!” It’s really sad, I think. I remember Jack Clement said one time, “It’s sad the songwriter can’t get to the artist anymore, because they’ve got all these barriers and they are missing a bunch of hits.” Maybe today the market has gotten so big, they don’t have time anymore. Things are so helter-skelter and fast. The thing I miss most is the community. We were happy for each other. We lived vicariously through someone else’s hit.
Conrad: Is there something that you love about living here, now? |
Dickey: I think some of the technology is great. One of the old 60s artists, Brian Hyland, was down at Buzz Cason’s studio recording last week. They had all these tracks that needed background vocals but the singer wasn’t there, so they emailed the tracks to the guy’s house. He put the vocals on there and emailed them back, and I thought, “Man, that’s awesome.” You save so much time. Back when I recorded, if somebody made a mistake everyone had to do it again. The adrenaline was really flowing, though. The energy was so high because you thought, “Man, I gotta do this.” It’s good that you can do one part over now without having to do everything, but I think it’s made us lazy. You think, “Aah, I’m not getting it quite right. I’ll come in and do it tomorrow.” If you screw up you don’t really care.
Conrad: Is that why Nashville feels like less of a community to you now?
Dickey: That could be part of it, because you don’t depend on people as much as you used to in a lot of cases. I miss the magic of people cutting like that. It was like having a cheerleading section around you. I certainly don’t condemn this culture today. Things always change, but I do miss some things. I used to be able to call Chet Atkins, and he’d take my phone call. You can’t do much of that anymore, either.
Conrad: Is there something you would like to accomplish that you haven’t achieved yet?
Dickey: No, not really. I had my share of hit records as a writer and an artist. I’m certainly not a superstar, but this world of music has been great to me. I’ve made a very comfortable living out of it. It’s a blessing to be able to get paid for what you love to do. I think the majority of people don’t have that. I remember asking Jack when I first went to Sun Records, “Jack, do you think I could ever write a big hit song for somebody?” and he said, “Sure, you don’t have to be that smart.” [Dickey laughs] Being around Jack was kinda like having your own personal Don Rickles. There’s a magic force about wanting to do something really badly enough. You see yourself there, and you dream about it, and soon you’re there and dreaming about the next thing. I’ll say that you have to have some breaks too, because I look at some people who never made it in the music business that have a lot more talent than I had.
Conrad: Can you talk a little bit about your faith? You’ve never recorded gospel music, but your faith is such a big part of who you are as a person.
Dickey: I just have this child-like faith. In a way, my Christianity kinda grew coming in through the back door. I’m an avid reader. I love to read religious stuff by Christian intellectuals as well as I love to read stuff by atheist intellectuals. I’m not the smartest guy, I’m sure there’s a lot of people who could make me out to be a real idiot, but every other religion in the world that ever existed, whether they’re in conflict with one another or not, they have this one thing in common: they’re all working their way to Heaven. Christians say you can’t work your way to Heaven. We’re sinners. We can’t do it. That’s why God sent his only Son. The way I look at it, you can either let Jesus pay for your sins, or you can pay for them yourself. [He pauses, then laughs.] That’s probably enough of that. You’ll probably edit most of that out, but I could go on forever.
Conrad: What do you have on your plate right now that’s got you excited?
Dickey: You know what I’m excited about right now? Writing with the Malpass Brothers. It’s so much fun because this is kinda taking me back. Thanks to you, we’ve made a connection with them. You used to be able to make that connection in the 60s and part of the 70s, but you can’t do it anymore. You’re always running into someone who’ll say, “Country music: It’s coming back!” I always thought, “I think you’re wrong, but I wish it would,” but I’ve got kind of a new hope. I don’t know, but with groups like the Malpass Brothers doing all that traditional country, I think country music may come back. That would really be a cool thing. Golly, you listen to some of these bluegrass bands, and these musicians are fantastic. I’ve been through the rock ‘n’ roll thing, and my grandmother made me listen to the opera on Sundays. I’ve listened to all of it and can appreciate everything, but I’ve been in joints where I’ve heard this primitive country band: a singer, two guitars, and bass, and that’s just about all it is. They’re not great singers, but there’s just something about that music. And I’m thinking, most of my friends in rock ‘n’ roll or some other type of music would say, “Golly, these people are awful.” All I can say is that they will never understand the beauty and genuineness of primitive country music. I feel sorry for them, because all they can do is put it down, and they’re missing something.
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“Hey pal, you wanna write a song?” This time, I was calling Dickey.
“Sure! What do you have in mind?” he replied.
“I’m gonna get a co-write with an artist I love and I’m wondering if you wanna write with us.”
“You sure they wanna write with me?”
I laughed. “You know you’re Dickey Lee, right?”
“Oh… let me check my name tag. You’re right, I guess I am.” I could hear his impish grin over the phone.
“Yeah, and you might want to check down at the Country Music Songwriters Hall of Fame, too, because I think you’re in there somewhere. Of course they wanna write with you, man.”
“Okay, set it up. I’ll see you in a couple weeks.”
I did see Dickey in a couple weeks, and we did write a killer song. I soak up every second I get to spend with him because while his songs are timeless, I know he isn’t. None of us are, but we act like it sometimes, looking backwards and forwards and forgetting to enjoy all we really have: the present. We still have Dolly Parton, Connie Smith, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and Jesse McReynolds. Bill Anderson’s still whispering and the Oaks are still waving. Bob McDill, Roger Cook, and Allen Reynolds are still out there along with dozens of other living legends the world will suddenly remember when they finally pass away. And we’ve still got Dickey Lee, thank God. I’ve heard it said that everybody lies a little in a eulogy, but I know for a fact that when Dickey goes, it’ll all be true, because the truth about a life like that is interesting enough.