As 1981 was getting underway, Texas-born singer George Strait was facing rejection in Nashville after powerhouse label MCA Records turned him down, hearing little more in the performer than a penchant for decidedly non-commercial Western swing at a time when slick, Urban Cowboy-inspired country-pop was all the rage.
Strait’s second shot worked, however, thanks in part to Erv Woolsey — who would eventually become the singer’s longtime manager. Woolsey, who was head of promotion for the label, persisted until MCA chief Jim Fogelsong offered Strait a single-song deal. On February 2nd, 1981, Strait stepped into the Waxworks studios in Nashville’s Berry Hill neighborhood and recorded what would be the first of over 100 hit singles throughout his hugely influential career.
“Unwound,” written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus, would even go on inspire a young Garth Brooks to pursue his own dream of country stardom. But things could have gone quite differently for both country icons had Johnny Paycheck not been in jail. In 2014, Dillon, who has to date written or co-written more than 50 Strait cuts, told Texas Monthly that he and Dycus — the first songwriter he met when he moved to Nashville in 1973 — sat at a table at notorious music business hangout Third Coast and got “good and drunk,” writing “Unwound” in about 45 minutes and intending to have Paycheck cut it. When producer Blake Mevis asked Dillon and Dycus if they had any songs for a brand-new artist, they offered it to him.
“Unwound” was released in May, by which time Strait was back in San Marcos, Texas, working on his ranch. That’s where he heard himself on the radio for the first time. A couple of months later, he returned to Nashville to record his debut LP Strait Country. Dillon would go on to have six cuts on the album, five of them with Dycus. “Unwound” reached Number Six on the country chart, with a follow-up single “Down and Out” also penned by the pair, climbing into the Top Twenty. Strait Country would go on to be the first of Strait’s many platinum-selling LPs. Strait has sold in excess of 45 million albums since his debut.
Strait regularly included the song in his set on his Cowboy Rides Away Tour, and its influence has been acknowledged through the years by artists other than Garth. Toby Keith performed it during the 2010 ACM tribute to King George, and fellow country traditionalist Deryl Dodd has also covered it.
Strait began recording his second LP late in 1981 just as the first was catching fire and it’s actually a wonder he continued to cut Dillon’s songs, since, as the writer recalls, during their first face-to-face meeting to discuss material Dillon might have for Strait to cut, the singer asked him to put out his cigarette because the smoke bothered him. Dillon took a drag then proceeded to blow the smoke in Strait’s direction. “I’m just fucking with you,” he recalls telling him. The relationship has certainly withstood that awkward moment, as nearly every George Strait album since his debut has featured a Dillon song. He’s a co-writer on “Everything I See” from the 2015 LP Cold Beer Conversation.