Billy Dean: From “Young Man” to HOF Artist
Billy Dean; Past, Present & Future
When it comes to musical talent, its source can usually be traced in a person’s genes. Sometimes where they grow up has something to do with the makings of an artist.
Country music artist Billy Dean believes that in addition to his genetics (his father, also named Billy Dean, played in a band), the fact that he was born and raised in northern Florida helped mold his musical talents.
“I have Florida to thank for all of the influences in my music,” Dean commented during a recent phone conversation. “To me, where I’m from in northern Florida, it was a crossroads. Just up the road a couple of hours we had the Allman Brothers Band in Macon, Georgia. And we had Lynyrd Skynyrd over in Jacksonville.
“It’s where southern gospel, traditional country music and southern rock, all blended together, like a stew of all kinds of music. If you played gigs in Florida, you had to learn all these types of music.”
Dean remembers that when he arrived in Nashville, he wasn’t the only musician in town influenced by the music back home.
“When I got to Nashville, I found that most of the musicians in the bars and clubs, we all knew the same music. So when you would sit down to write a song, you couldn’t help but have all these different kinds of influences play a part in your country music.”
On February 23rd, Dean is being recognized for his contributions to music with his induction into the Florida Artists’ Hall of Fame, alongside Don Felder, Jim Stafford and author Lee Bennett Hopkins. It’s an honor that means a lot to the Quincy, Florida native.
“I’ve been lucky enough to win several awards over the years,” Dean said. “It’s something about being recognized by my peers at home makes it really special.”
Shortly after Dean’s arrival in Music City he was advised to come back when he was a little bit older.
“I remember being told, shortly after I arrived in Nashville, that I was too young to sing country music,” Dean recalled with a laugh. “I was told ‘come back when you’re 30. You don’t have the scars on you to sing country music.’”
But Dean stayed put, and became part of a “youth movement” that had started to take hold in Nashville in the early 90’s.
“At that time, Nashville was ready for a change,” Dean said. “It was starting to be receptive to more of that folk, rock music, like the Eagles and James Taylor.”
The 90’s did see a changing of the guard in Nashville and country music. Artists like Dean, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart came to Music City and brought with them a younger audience that helped keep the genre alive and kicking.
Billy Dean learned several things about being a songwriter while living and working in Nashville. One of those lessons was how to write radio-friendly music.
“I’ll have to say that Nashville taught me how to write ‘commercial music’,” Dean admitted. “And it took about 10 years of when I was living in Nashville before that city began to come around to accepting that kind of music.”
When he was signed to Capitol Records, Dean said that the label had plans to label him as the “James Taylor of country music.” It was further proof that musical influences from outside country music were becoming big part of the genre’s image. Even so, country radio still wanted to keep country music to itself and did its best to discourage their artists from “crossing over”.
“When my song ‘Somewhere in My Broken Heart’ crossed over to the adult contemporary charts,” Dean said, “country radio kind of gave the record label an ultimatum: they, meaning me, had to choose either country or adult contemporary music.
“I was more interested in getting those listeners to cross over to country music. When our version of’ ‘We Just Disagree’, the old Dave Mason song came out (in 1993), it helped me target that audience, getting them to pay attention to country music. I was always hoping that younger people would get into country music. And it really began to happen in the 90’s.”
Struggling Young Man
In 1990 Capitol Records released Dean’s debut album, “Young Man”. Even as an artist on a major record label, Dean was still working hard to make ends meet.
“There’s so much of that time in my life that I remember,” Dean said. “Playing music, just trying to survive. I was in a top 40 band singing songs that were way out of my key, to where I was struggling so hard, vocally, on that album.
“So I went in to record ‘Somewhere In My Broken Heart’ and, at the end, my voice cracked on the word ‘heart’. I wanted to go back and correct it, but my producer said it was an emotional touch to the song, so we left it in. And I’m so glad that we did!”
When it was pointed out that it has been 27 years since that album’s release, Dean’s response was part amazement and part retrospective.
“It’s funny that you brought that album up because I was just going over the lyrics to the title track. ‘When I’m just an old man on a front porch, in a chair, rocking with the memories from my past. The lines you see on my face should tell a tale of no regrets. I want to look forward to looking back on the race I ran when I was a young man.’
Dean said that he was faced with a “you have nothing to lose” situation when he recorded the “Young Man” album, highlighted by the fact that he didn’t have much of a budget to work with on that project.
“I was fortunate to have Tom Shapiro and Chuck Howard produce the album,” Dean pointed out. “They were a couple of great songwriters and producers.
“It was also while I was working on ‘Young Man’ that I learned that the best song wins. I don’t have to be the writer of the best song on my album. I am not going to out-write every other songwriter in Nashville. So I had to take a step back. I ended up recording three or four songs of mine, and filled out the album with songs that Tom and some other songwriters had written.”
“Young Man” produced two hit singles for Dean: “Only Here for a Little While” and “Somewhere in My Broken Heart”. The album and artist won several awards along the way. It was after Dean and his debut release started getting noticed that the musician heard from the head of Capitol Records.
“After ‘Somewhere in My Broken Heart’ had gotten me some recognition, had been nominated for a Grammy and had won the Song of the Year Award at the ACMs (Academy of Country Music),” Dean recalled, “Jimmy Bowen, the head of my label, stepped in and said ‘We’re going to do another album. That first album was a good start. Now it’s time to do the real album!’”
Now, ten albums and yes, twenty-seven years later, Dean has found himself a “home”. Nine months out of the year you can find this talented singer/songwriter onstage in a venue named for another Florida native who is a member of this year’s class of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
“Ironically, I’m sitting in the Jim Stafford Theatre in Branson, Missouri,” Dean pointed out. “I am getting ready to kick off my season in Branson, which runs April through December. I get to pick up on some of the entertainment secrets and tricks about being an entertainer from Jim. I’m going to suck some more of that knowledge out Jim’s brain before he retires!
“I love it here! Everything (about performing here) is consistent. You’ve got more tools to do a show in a theater, like the lights and the video screens. And it’s the same every night. It’s so easy, it’s like being semi-retired. Everybody is here on vacation.”
While Dean admits that it was great to play the arenas, the big festivals and a few stadium shows during his career, he loves performing in the smaller venues.
“I prefer the intimacy of playing in a theater. I’m all about the lyric, the song and the message.”
The town of Branson, Missouri has gained a reputation of being a vacation spot for old folks. But Dean pointed out that’s not quite the case anymore, both on the stages and on the streets of Branson.
“I am young, by Branson standards,” Dean said. “But this town has changed over the years. There is a lot of competition for business in Branson these days. They have family-friendly attractions, in addition to the music theaters.
“A few years ago I came here and decided to stake my claim! And I believe that performing here makes me a better entertainer.”
Dean commented that the age range of his audiences in Branson is 45-65 years of age. And he recalled one fan at one of his shows last year who didn’t fall into that demographic.
“At one of my shows last year, there was a lady who was 106 years old! Unbelievable! And she gave me a standing ovation! That was awesome!”
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