(Photo: Billy Dean performing. Courtesy Blue Tone Music)
FRANKLIN, Ky. — Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and storyteller Billy Dean brings his wide-ranging country-music repertoire to the Mint Gaming Hall at Kentucky Downs on Friday, Feb. 16.
Dean grew up in the small town of Quincy, Fla., starting his music career by singing in his dad’s band, The Country Rocks. His first big break came in 1988 when he appeared on the Ed McMahon-hosted Star Search, winning Best Male Vocalist. His first album, Young Man, in 1990 became Dean’s first certified Gold record, with the single Somewhere in My Broken Heart honored as the American Country Music Awards’ 1992 Song of the Year and Dean earning Top New Male Vocalist of the Year. Some of his other Billboard-charting singles include You Don’t Count the Cost, Only the Wind, I Miss Billy the Kid, If There Hadn’t Been You, Tryin’ to Hide a Fire in the Dark, I Wanna Take Care of You and I’m Not Built That Way. Dean has performed and toured with country-music icons such as Kenny Rogers, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Dolly Parton, the Judds, Wynonna Judd and others. Last year he released a “Trop Rock” album titled The Rest of It’s Mine, which includes the single Saltwater Cowboy.
After decades in Nashville and a couple of years in Branson, Mo., Dean returned to his Florida panhandle roots several years ago, moving with wife Stephanie to St. George Island on the Gulf Coast.
Jennie Rees, publicity director for Kentucky Downs and the Mint Gaming Hall properties, spoke with Dean recently, with the following Q & A edited for length and clarity as needed.
“You grow up in Florida in flip-flops and shorts and you dream about being a cowboy. You always want snow every Christmas. I grew up watching all the cowboy TV shows, so that’s what I wanted to be, sort of a saltwater cowboy. It’s a little different than, say, a Colorado cowboy. Because you might be in a cowboy hat and flip-flops down here. But when you’re a teenager in the Panhandle, you’re pretty much in the farming world because agriculture is so prominent. Most of us were driving tractors and working on other people’s farms for our summer jobs. I thought it was time to move the cowboy back to the beach.”
Was music always your first passion? You did play basketball in high school and went to East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss., for one year on a hoops scholarship.
“I really didn’t want to go. I wanted to go to Nashville. But I knew my ticket out of North Florida was going to be doing something myself. So basketball (he’s 6-foot-4). I had a great coach, and I probably learned more from my coach than I did academics and school — mainly not giving up and what you’re really capable of. My dad, being a World War II veteran, installed that in me, too. I think it gave me the perseverance to stick it out in Nashville. It was the farming and local community in my hometown that put together a little scholarship of money so that I could go pursue music in Nashville. Music was always the top of the list for me.
“… I was fortunate to be there at a time when people like Conway Twitty were still on the charts, the Bellamy Brothers. A new generation of country singers were just emerging in Nashville. My generation — my classmates you might say — were Trisha Yearwood and Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Joe Diffie. We all started getting record deals about the same time.”
Did you go to Nashville as a singer or a songwriter?
“I went there to be a singer. Didn’t have much confidence in my songwriting. When I got to Nashville, the people who helped me and reached out to me the most were the songwriters. I got a publishing deal at EMI Music, which was a big deal. A friend of mine had a contract to write there as a staff songwriter. I had a song I’d written myself and felt strong enough about it to put my last $600 behind it for a recording. My buddy played it for the publisher, and they signed me as an artist and songwriter, meaning my future was going to be a singer and a songwriter. I was writing there with some giants like Guy Clark, Richard Leigh, Wayland Holyfield. Richard Leigh had written Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue. And here I was on the same staff. I felt like I’d made it, and I was pretty comfortable just being a songwriter at that point.
“They came around with a Star Search audience for that TV show in Nashville. I did a little tape, and the next thing you know I’m on the Star Search show. I won one of the episodes. Kind of like American Idol and The Voice today, the TV exposure really helped facilitate the record deal in Nashville, I think.”
Describe the coincidence that happened that you wrote Somewhere in My Broken Heart with Richard Leigh.
“I was like the new kid in the office. First thing everybody would do is get their coffee in the morning. We were standing around the coffee pot introducing ourselves. I was talking to Richard. He said, ‘I had a cancelation today. You want to write something? … Come upstairs and let me play for you a melody that probably nobody will want to write (lyrics) because it sounds like one of these old movie themes.’ I love melodies. He played me that melody and as he played the last refrain, I was just humming along and just for some reason said ‘Somewhere in my broken heart’ when it came to the last line. He said, ‘What did you say?’ I said, ‘Aw, don’t know. I was just mumbling. Somewhere in my broken heart, I don’t even know what that means. It just sings good.’
“We started thinking, ‘What would you find in a broken heart? You’d find little pieces of this, pieces of that.’ He got all excited and when he got excited, I got excited. He goes, ‘This is going to put an extra car in your garage right here.’ And sure enough, that song gave me the credibility I needed to stand out in the company.”
You went by your middle name, Harold, growing up.
“My name is William Harold and I grew up Harold Dean. My dad had two brothers killed in World War II. My dad named me Harold after his brother, and my dad’s name was Billy, and he didn’t have a middle name. When I got to Nashville, they didn’t think Harold was really a country-music name, and I agreed. They asked if I’d changed it, and I said, ‘Yeah, but I’d change it to Billy in honor of my dad.’ So several times I’ve gotten to see my dad’s name on billboards in Vegas and things like that. He was really good at music. But he had three kids, and there was no way he could move everybody to Nashville and pursue it.”
How might your career have been different had you stayed Harold? I don’t see there being an I Miss Harold the Kid.
“Exactly right. ‘I Miss Billy the Kid’ would have never come about.”
It seems like most of your songs are at least partially biographical, have a piece of you in them.
“Absolutely. Shelfer Street, we literally did walk, ride our bikes to school. And we spent a lot of time outside playing, riding bicycles, playing ball, being barefoot — a pair of blue jean shorts was about it. That’s where we used our imagination. We learned to build forts and entertained ourselves. When we wanted a basketball goal, we put up a tire rim on a plywood backboard and nailed it to a tree. We stayed outside and when we got in trouble, the neighbors told on us and we were grounded, got reeled in.”
If you were writing your Wikipedia page, how would you describe Billy Dean’s music?
“Kind of cosmopolitan country, maybe.”
You have been termed “an American troubadour, tapping into the space between Merle Haggard and James Taylor.” The Grand Ole Opry describes you as “post modern Kenny Rogers.” And now you’re “trop rock.” So, all of the above, depending on what day it is? What song it is?
“I always say my No. 1 job is storytelling. My music probably was more like Kenny Rogers, what I would consider the ultimate cosmopolitan country. What I mean by that is you have your Texas country, and it has a certain sense of humor and dance element, the two-stepping stuff that was really popular in the 1990s. I was more kind of the ’70s soft rock as far as playing guitar. I was a big James Taylor fan; I played ‘finger’ style like him. And I like melody; I like pretty music. I didn’t just want to make music people could dance to. In fact, after Somewhere in My Broken Heart came out, they crossed it over into the adult contemporary charts. They were going to pull me out of country music and lean me more toward the pop side of things. I offered to try to find my own little lane in country music: I had the influences of the James Taylor stuff, but I was a baritone singer like Merle Haggard.
“Ultimately it’s about just writing and telling good stories. I learned a lot of that from Kenny Rogers. He was a great humorist. He said, ‘Man, they throw around the artist word really too much. I want to be an entertainer. That’s where the longevity is.’ Which means you want to cast a broad net. I can sing Merle Haggard; I can sing Willie Nelson. I can sing the traditional country, because that’s what my dad did. But when I became a teenager, it was more about the Eagles, the soft rock of the ’70s.
“When I moved back to Florida, there was a genre of music they called Trop Rock. It was a lot of local musicians writing about Florida and the beaches and what it was like being on vacation, kind of Jimmy Buffett style. I said, ‘Man, I’ve got a bunch of songs like that. Maybe I’ll just record them on an album and see if we can get any traction and help the Trop Rock brand grow.’ … That was kind of the music I was doing before I got to Nashville. The whole thing is to keep reinventing yourself, they always tell me.”
What inspires and motivates you today?
“The older you get, the better you get at storytelling. Some of the newer songs of my catalog that I’ve just written are getting a lot of attention. I have this song called Handkerchief, which Shenandoah just recorded. I have a song called Raise the Bar that I wrote with Craig Morgan, and he and Luke Combs recorded it on Craig’s new album. These country-music artists are looking back for ’90s-style music. I found out, ‘Man, I think I’m better at creating it today than I was in the ’90s.’”
What should The Mint concert-goers expect Feb. 16?
“We’ll just be coming off of Valentine’s Day, so it would be natural to do some couples songs, some ‘I’m in love with you’ songs. I always say I give them 90 minutes of ’90s country and the stories behind the hits. A lot of laughs. I tell a lot of stories about working with Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and some of the greats. It will be a little bit of romance, a little bit of faith, family and the flag, and a lot of songs like I Miss Billy The Kid — a lot of songs about innocence, Let Them Be Little. Why those titles? Why that subject? I go into that in my show, being raised by one of the Greatest Generation.
“… If I haven’t made you belly-laugh or snot-cry, I didn’t do my job.”
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