Dean Dillon's Music Is Broadway-Bound With 'Tennessee Whiskey: The Musical'

John Shearer/Getty Images for BMI
Dean Dillon onstage at the 64th Annual BMI Country Awards at BMI on Nov. 1, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.  

Nashville, Tennessee has changed drastically since March of 1979 – that’s a given. Still, Dean Dillon surmises that he remembers the exact location he was at when he heard one of his songs on the local airwaves for the first time -- as well as his reaction -- almost four decades later.

“Tears. Pure and simple,” he says of hearing Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius’ “Lying In Love With You” on the radio. “I pulled onto the side of the road at the Fesslers Lane overpass over Interstate 40, and I just started crying. To think that a song I had written would be good enough for somebody to play on the radio was an amazing thought. I came from East Tennessee, and it had always been a dream of mine. I won my first talent contest when I was fourteen. I hitchhiked to Nashville in 1973, and got lucky with that song. It was overwhelming, and a great memory.”

That song made it all the way to No. 2 on the Hot Country Songs chart, and paved the way for a songwriting career that stands with anyone in Nashville – save Bill Anderson – for longevity. Dillon has tallied hits from Keith Whitley, Kenny Chesney, Vern Gosdin, and an incredible 63 (yes, you read that right) cuts from George Strait. In 2015, one of Dillon’s classic compositions – once recorded by another George – put the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee’s career in the fast lane once again.

“I was kind of in rest mode, kicking back and enjoying my ranch,” Dillon tells Billboard. “Then, all of a sudden ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ (a 1983 hit for George Jones) blew up, and Chris Stapleton takes it to a whole other level. By virtue of that, I run into this producer from Colorado who wanted to do a biography on me. I thought he had lost his mind. Then, because of that, I met a gentleman named Dewey Moss from New York City. He took an interest in doing a Broadway play. I’m just overwhelmed with all of it. It’s been an amazing journey.”

Now, Moss is making plans to bring the story of Dean Dillon and his music to the stage in the new jukebox musical, Tennessee Whiskey: The Musical. A longtime fan and admirer of Dillon’s compositions, Moss feels he can bring something special to the songwriter’s story that will touch audiences of all ages.

“I, like so many people, feel like Dean Dillon’s music is entrenched into the fabric of an entire generation. He’s a master storyteller, first and foremost. As a writer who is looking to put together a book and a musical, you hope you can get music that tells a story – that furthers the plotline,” he says, confessing that it’s not a question of quality or quantity when it comes to Dean Dillon.

“I have to tell you that it wasn’t a matter of what songs we could get from Dean Dillon, it was a matter of trimming all this material down. Every one of his songs is just a stunning piece of craftsmanship. It was such a pleasure to work on and have all this material to draw from – songs that I know that people are just going to love hearing within the context of the show. You’re going to come because you love the music, and you’re going to leave with a whole new appreciation for a man who is genuine, loving, and really beat the odds.”

Casting for Tennessee Whiskey will soon take place, as well as an announcement of venue, but Moss promises that the production will be first-rate. “We’re lining up some immense talent. We’ve got a Broadway staff, set designers, costume designers, who have all looked at the script, and all love Dean’s music. We’re going to do a casting call for people to play Dean, and of course, George Strait. Hopefully, we will get exactly the right talent to play these icons of country music. We’re close to inking some deals with venues – information we can’t divulge just yet, but soon. I think we are going to have a real solid show on our hands that people are just going to love. That all comes from Dean, his incredible spirit – and of course, his talent.”

What qualities would the tunesmith himself like to see in whoever portrays him on-stage? “Hopefully, they’ll find somebody that will come across the way that I really am. I’m a pretty easy-going guy. I will tell you this – I live, sleep, eat, and breathe songs. It would be nice to have somebody who is a songwriter, someone who knows what it takes to write great songs and what you have to go through to write them. There’s a whole lot more to it than just putting a pen to paper. That’s who I’d prefer, but I’m not the casting director. I’ll leave it to Dewey,” he says with confidence. When reminded of the fact that George Clooney did very well combining matinee-idol looks while playing a musician in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Dillon didn’t miss a beat. 

“Well,” he said sheepishly, “Is he a great songwriter?”