They came from two very different worlds: Dean Dillon, from east Tennessee, and Jason “Sundance” Head – from Porter, Texas.
Dean hitchhiked to Nashville in the early ‘70s and knocked on every door on Music Row to get people to listen to his songs. He recorded multiple studio albums and established himself as one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters, enjoying a long and prolific relationship with George Strait, and penning hits for David Allen Coe, Toby Keith, and Kenny Chesney, among many others.
Sundance grew up in a musical household – his father is Rockabilly Hall of Fame member Roy Head – and the tragic loss of his older brother inspired him to turn to music for comfort and healing. He spent years playing around Texas, landing three Number One songs on the Texas Music charts, and releasing several independent albums. But he was searching for something more.
Dean has enjoyed a long and fruitful career; he’s had multiple GRAMMY nominations and more than two dozen Number One hits. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002 and was given the esteemed BMI Icon award in 2013. He was ready to retire, and then he heard Sundance Head sing on the eleventh season of The Voice, where Sundance mentored under country superstar Blake Shelton. Dean was so inspired by Sundance’s dynamic, soulful voice that he forgot his retirement plans. Dean created a record label, Wildcatter Records, and established Sundance as the flagship artist.
We caught up with Dean and Sundance just as Dean was coming off the road, and Sundance was getting ready to head out on tour in support of Stained Glass and Neon, recently released on Wildcatter Records. Although they’re in very different phases of their respective careers, these two artists are perfectly in sync.
Sundance, you were a semi-finalist on American Idol back in 2007. What made you decide to compete on The Voice several years later?
Sundance Head: I was just trying to figure out how to navigate the music business, so that’s how I ended up back on [TV]. We played everywhere we could back in Texas, and we’d been on the charts several times. We were trying to figure out how to go national, so of course we took the first available platform, which was network TV.
You were no stranger to the industry, as you’ve had several independent releases, and you’ve played a lot of live shows, especially around Texas. What was it like to be part of Team Blake on The Voice? What did you learn from him?
Sundance Head: Blake’s a great guy. It was awesome to be part of his team. He really taught me a lot; mostly just to relax and have confidence in your ability, and in what got you to the point you’re at. I learned a lot from him, including stage presence, and how to talk and communicate with people in the crowd.
Dean, I read that you signed Sundance to your label, Wildcatter Records, after he won The Voice. What was it about Sundance that inspired you to make him the flagship artist of your label?
Sundance Head: I can respond for Dean and tell you that it was my incredible good looks. That’s what he’ll tell you. [Laughs.]
Dean Dillon: His voice is incredible. I ain’t heard any voices like that in my lifetime, and I’ve been in this business all my life. The first time I heard him sing, I was floored. I was fixing to retire, honestly, and when I heard him sing, that all went to hell in a handbasket. I thought, the world needs to hear this guy, and if there’s any way that I can facilitate that, then I’m going to do it.
And I formed a record label, signed him to the label, and here we are. Had it been anyone else, I don’t think that it would have happened. I didn’t have much interest in doing anything other than writing a song every now and then. But other than that, I wasn’t doing much of anything until I heard him. And then the whole thing changed.
Dean, I read that you put out a call to your songwriter buddies for this record. How did you choose the songs that made it on Stained Glass and Neon?
Dean Dillon: For one, I knew I couldn’t box him into one avenue. There is simply no way to do that, as versatile of a singer as he is. So, I put the word out to all my best buddies, who are great songwriters. And they Googled him, and when they heard him and watched him, I got immediate responses back from them with some great songs.
He and I sat down and decided what stuff to cut, what he liked, what suited his voice — basically, anything suits his voice. But, you know, it was more about what he would love to sing. You’re only going to shine through when you love to sing something.
We got into the studio, and it was absolutely effortless with him. You know, he’s a one-take artist. In other words, he steps up to the mic, does one take, and you’re done. It was that easy. There are not many of those around. He’s got a lot of soul; he feels the song. And that’s hard to teach somebody. You’re either born with that, I think, or you’re not. Lucky for us, man, he’s got it. And like I said, I was fixing to lay her all down. I’ve been doing this business all my life, but when I heard him, it changed things, for sure.
Tell us little more about the recording process. Other than Sundance being a one-take artist, how did the two of you work together in the studio?
Dean Dillon: It was great. We had our stuff together before we went in; we knew what we were going to cut. I hired the best pickers and got the best studio in Nashville — Ocean Way. We had an incredible bunch of musicians. I’m still amazed by how they can hear a song one time and cut it, but they do. But then, that’s their job — but they’re always amazing.
And he steps in front of the microphone and just belts it, and you’re floored. They were really easy sessions — there weren’t any technical glitches, the musicians played their butts off, and he walks up to the microphone and just lays into it. He pours his heart and soul into the songs and that’s where you capture magic. And that album is full of magic — great songs with a great singer. You can’t go wrong.
Stained Glass and Neon sounds like it was inspired by a lot of different influences, blurring the line between country, rock, and blues. I read an interview where Sundance described it as a “really old-school modern country record.” What do you think that means?
Dean Dillon: I grew up on Haggard and Cash. I always loved Merle; I just related to the songs. All that stuff was relatable because I came from a real poor section of east Tennessee, up in the mountains. We were dirt-poor, but we didn’t really know we were poor as kids. To us, not having a car was no big deal, because we didn’t know a lot of people who did have a car.
But when I was in my teens, every weekend I’d go to the Civic Auditorium in Knoxville and see people like Roger Daltrey and The Who, the Allman Brothers … whoever was hot, I’d go see ‘em. I went and saw James Taylor and Carole King, and a light bulb went off in my head. I just fell in love with those melodies, those tight melodies.
So, when we got with Sundance, I knew he had a background in R&B — his dad was an amazing artist in his own right — and buddy, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree on that at all. Sundance can sing anything. The key to it was to find the song that he loved to sing. Whether that would be R&B, or rock and roll, or straight-ahead country, or old-time country, we tried to keep the old sound and add some parts that gave it new life. To cut a modern-day track with the great sound of old. I feel like we pulled it off, and the album speaks for itself. And again, I’ll say it, I had no trouble out of the singer [laughs.]
Dean, you mentioned some of your musical influences. Sundance, who are some of the artists who were influential to you when you were growing up?
Sundance Head: My dad, Roy Head, obviously. I loved Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Patsy Cline. I had a lot of influences, but basically, I related to vocalists and storytellers. If they could do both things at one time, then that was really talent.
Both of you discovered a love for the guitar at a young age and started performing in public as teenagers. How were you both initially drawn to music?
Sundance Head: I was raised in a musical family, so I thought everybody played music until I was in middle school. Then I learned there were other things you could do for a living. My brother died in a tragic car accident when I was eight, and I got a Fisher-Price recorder and a guitar. The first song I wrote was about missing my brother on Christmas that year in 1988. And I just kept writing songs about the way I was feeling. It really helped me with depression, after losing my brother, to keep him alive, and also helped me mentally with the stress and anxiety I was going through.
I was growing up without my role model. My brother would raise me when my folks were on tour. During a time when they were away after he died, I discovered his records in his room. I was never allowed to listen to them when he was alive. I went through every record, one by one, and I really spent the entire summer just trying to learn the music.
What a wonderful tribute to him, to celebrate the music he loved. And then those became your influences as an artist.
Sundance Head: Absolutely. It saved my life, and I’ve really tried to pursue music ever since then.
Dean, you’ve been in the Nashville music scene since the ‘70s, and you’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. What kind of advice would give to an artist starting his or her career right now?
Dean Dillon: That’s a great question. I wish I had an answer for you. You can’t do now what I did when I came here in 1973. You literally can’t do it. You can’t go door-to-door and expect to walk in and get somebody to listen to your songs. It’s just impossible; it doesn’t happen that way now. Usually, what goes on now, I think, is that people are “discovered,” you know? They’re playing somewhere one night, and somebody from a label — or a great songwriter, or another artist —walks in and hears them. As far as beating on doors, it ain’t gonna happen.
If you come into Nashville and make some art, a lot of things are involved. The biggest one is luck, in this day and age — getting in front of the right person at the right time. I’d say that has more to do with it than anything. But it still happens!
Musical talent is something that runs in both of your families. Dean, your daughter Jessie Jo is also a songwriter, and you’ve teamed up professionally before, writing a GRAMMY-nominated song for George Strait. What was it like working with your daughter?
Dean Dillon: When Jessie Jo started songwriting, I left her to her own devices. We wrote a couple of times and she went about her own way. She went to California for a year, and she came back ready to go after it. She fell into a great bunch of people; she started hanging out with a great bunch of young songwriters. And she’s really done super in the past couple of years. She’s a talented writer — and she’s an awesome writer — but she’s done it on her own. Her daddy didn’t facilitate any of that at all. She did it herself.
Now that you’ve put out the album, what’s next for both of you?
Dean Dillon: Well, he’s on tour, and I’m coming off tour, so that’s pretty much what we’ve got going on.
How did each of you first start working with BMI, and how have they fostered your career over the years?
Sundance Head: I joined BMI in 2006 so I could get my original songs protected. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate them guiding me through that process. Later, I met Dean and found out how much he respects them, and it really made me feel good to know that I had made the decision to join BMI. There are a lot of great people there!
Dean Dillon: I came to BMI through a chance meeting with Frances Preston. BMI has been steadfastly by my musical side through the great years, and — more importantly — through the years when not a lot of money was coming my way, but they always found a way to help me out. Just as important are the wonderful relationships I’ve had with the team at BM. They are always ready to listen and fight for the dollars that have raised me and my family. Thanks, BMI — I couldn’t have had this wonderful career without you by my side, every step of the way.