How Dean Dillon Made It From Strumming To Stardom In Nashville When country songwriter Dean Dillon was 7, he got his first guitar: a tiger-striped Stella. He played at the county fair and mobile-home lots before setting out to take his chances in Nashville, Tenn.
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How Dean Dillon Made It From Strumming To Stardom In Nashville

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How Dean Dillon Made It From Strumming To Stardom In Nashville

How Dean Dillon Made It From Strumming To Stardom In Nashville

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Time now for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about triumphs, big and small. Guitarist Dean Dillon is best known for writing hit songs for country artists like George Strait, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. Today, Dean Dillon is in the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame. But he grew up in a little town of Lake City in east Tennessee. That's where he got his first guitar.

DEAN DILLON: At tiger-striped stella, orange and black. Proceeded to sleep with it on a nightly basis. It became my best friend, and it became my voice. I had entered this contest at the TVAI fair in Knoxville. And at the fair, it came down to me and a flaming baton twirler. And she dropped her baton, and I won the contest. Well, first prize on that contest was a guest appearance on a local TV show there in Knoxville on Friday nights called "Jim Clayton's Startime." He used that stage on Friday nights to sell his mobile homes really. And what we would do is we would play and mobile-home lots in venues around East Tennessee. I cut my teeth on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIM CLAYTON'S STARTIME")

JIM CLAYTON: Don't miss this great show, and don't miss shopping for your mobile homes at Clayton Mobile Homes on Clinton Highway.

DILLON: I knew that Nashville was where it was happening. I knew that that was where you could go and do what you wanted to do musically. So right after high school, I went to my uncle's house and grabbed my guitar and a duffle bag full of clothes and the interstate and hitchhiked there in 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DILLON: (Singing) Baby got a mustang ready to go. Zero to 60 in 3.0.

Eighteen years old, 130 pounds soaking wet, scared to death, you know. I didn't know a soul. I didn't know where music row was, but I found out soon enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DILLON: Well, my big break - I was sitting backstage in between shows at Opryland. And I would sit back there at a picnic table with my guitar and write songs. I don't know, maybe a month later, I'm sitting back there one day writing, and this guy walks up. And he goes are you Dean Dillon. And I said yeah. And he goes, my names says my name is John Schweers. Play me something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOT OF THINGS DIFFERENT")

BILL ANDERSON: (Singing) I'd spent a lot more time out in the pouring rain without an umbrella covering my head.

DILLON: Well, I knew that name. And I knew who John Schweers was. He wrote a lot of things for just a lot of different country acts. And I played him a couple of songs. And he said you need to meet my publisher. Walked in his office, shook and howdy, and sat down in front of his desk. And he said play me something. I played him two or three songs. And he opened his desk drawer and pulled out a three-page contract and said I want to sign you to a publishing deal. That's how it all got started, all from just drumming backstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA GO BACK TO WORK")

DILLON: (Singing) I didn't wake up this morning. I just came to. Had one black eye and one navy blue.

RATH: Guitarist Dean Dillon. We want to hear about your big break. Send us an e-mail at mybigbreak@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA GO BACK TO WORK")

DILLON: (Singing) ...'Cause Honky Tonks will be the death of me. I guess I got to go back to work to get a little rest.

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