Excerpted from the April 23, 2005, issue magazine and expanded for Billboard.com.
Before it became the year's surprise success story, Billy Dean thought his new album might be his last.
A consistent hitmaker through much of the '90s, Dean had fallen from view after his deal with Capitol ended in 1998. As his career was tanking, Dean also was grappling with personal demons.
Dean had earned four gold albums, won awards, acted on TV shows like "Wings" and "One Life to Live," and —- after a divorce —- dated actress Crystal Bernard. When that life dried up, Dean suffered what his bio refers to as "humbling personal and career breakdowns," as well as financial setbacks and a close call with a nervous breakdown.
"If nobody wants to book you and nobody wants to sign you, what do you do? Go on 'The Surreal Life?'" he wondered.
During this time, things got tight financially. Dean, who had grown up poor, dreaded ending up there again. "I had a lot of property that I kept selling and selling. It brought back fears of living how I had to live as a kid. We had nothing growing up, and my Mom worked three or four jobs just to put food on the table. I was staring at that life again thinking, 'God, how could I have done so well, and now I'm getting ready to possibly lose it all?' I didn't want to feel like a failure. It was very nerve-wracking."
It had been seven years since his last album and nine since his last radio hit. Faced with uncertainly about whether his career was over, but wanting to take another shot, Dean decided to record and produce the album "Let Them Be Little" on his own, emptying his bank account in the effort.
"I literally bet the farm on this album," he says. "It was really scary, but I didn't know any other way to put an exclamation point on my career."
Dean knew this album would either reintroduce him to the country format or be his swan song. But he wanted to show the world "that I still had some good music left in me."
Then a funny thing happened. As Dean and his manager, Doc Gonzales, hit the road in an SUV promoting the album to radio by themselves, a group of stations began playing tracks from the album. Dean's cover of John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" began climbing Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, peaking at No. 27.
That got the attention of Curb Records, which signed him to a new deal and helped him land a top 10 hit with the album's title track. Airplay of the song turboed Dean's album to a No. 8 debut on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart with first-week sales of more than 18,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Meanwhile, Dean has also rebuilt his life, focusing on being a devoted father and finding new love with a schoolteacher, whom he will marry May 7. He has moved from a house he refers to as "the Ponderosa" to a modest Nashville home.
He credits radio for his comeback. Like many people, Dean was under the impression that radio had gotten to the point where all playlist decisions were dictated at the corporate level. He says he'd heard "all these horror stories about how you had to have money to get your record played."
"Then I got out there and found [programmers] still have the power and freedom to play what they want for their market," he says.
The Curb deal, which is for more than one album, surprised him. "I really didn't expect it to get picked up by a record label," he says of the album, for which he had more modest expectations. "I had hoped I might be able to get into some of those dotcom business things that were popping up in Nashville and take a more grassroots approach."
Still, he'd been waiting for his chance to get back into the business. "The whole time I've been on the sideline, raising kids and watching the industry like this merry-go-round, wondering, 'Where and when do I jump in?'"
A tragic national event partly dictated the delay in Dean's return. "I had a lot of this album recorded and finished in 2001, right prior to 9-11," he says. "If I had it out then I never would have had a chance. I had nothing musically that really related to that or was even really real enough to hit home with people. So I had to wait another couple of years and put a facelift on the music I was writing."
During his career downtime, Dean worked hard on his songwriting, devoting himself to writing about more personal topics after years of focusing on writing songs with the primary aim of making them commercially successful.
"It's been about a seven- or eight-year effort to try to get my own house in order and myself in order," he says. "But doing that has changed the quality of my work. A good quality of life results in a good quality of work."
Except for the Denver cover, Dean wrote all of the songs on the album, which includes rerecorded versions of two of his biggest hits, "Billy the Kid" and "Somewhere in My Broken Heart."
He wrote the album's title track with Richie McDonald of Lonestar, which previously recorded it. In fact, it was supposed to have been a Lonestar single, but when that group's label decided to go with something else, McDonald called Dean and encouraged him to record it.
Dean has also contemporized his sound, including songs on the album that he felt had "an energy and an edge" to them. "I've been working really hard to reinvent myself musically," he says.
He describes his new sound as "rock'n'roll bluegrass." For this album, he says, "I hired a rock drummer, a rock bass player and an electric guitar player, and then I went and got the virtuosos of bluegrass on the wood and wire instruments."
Despite the painful times, Dean says the upshot of his recent experiences is that he has grown close with his kids and learned "not to let my career define whether I'm a successful human being."
This piece is an expanded version of what appears in the "Nashville Scene" column in the April 23, 2005, issue of Billboard. The original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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