I trust you’re enjoying Music Scribe’s conversations feature. We have been attempting to talk with as many of our choices for the best of 2013. Today, our choice for best songwriter of 2013 sits in our interview chair; Dianne Wilkinson.
Dianne has been a Southern Gospel industry songwriter now for 40 years. She gives some insight on those early years, how songwriting has changed over the course of her career and the song in her catalog that she considers the most personal.
Sit back, relax and enjoy our conversation with Dianne Wilkinson, who just so happens to be celebrating a birthday today. So, Dianne, Happy Birthday!
Eaton: What was your first song to get cut in Southern Gospel Music?
Wilkinson: ““Behold the Lamb” by the Song Masters from Milan, TN, in 1976. Debbie Spragues (now Debra Talley) and Dale Shipley…one of our premier lead singers…were in the group at that time. (NOTE: My “Behold the Lamb” predates Dottie’s of the same title).”
Eaton: How did you initially go about pitching songs? Who was the first person in the Southern Gospel industry to really take notice of your writing?
Wilkinson: “I am a shameless song pitcher now…enjoy that almost as much as writing! But when I first started writing back in the early 1970s, I don’t think I would have had the courage to pitch one of my songs. The late Joel Kelsey of the Song Masters came to me and asked about recording “Behold the Lamb”. Our family group had sung a lot with the Song Masters in our area. During the Cathedrals years, I sent Roger Bennett cassette tapes of me singing and playing into my boom box, with instructions for arrangements, etc. That sweet boy managed to get across to Glen and George what the potential was in those songs. Every one of my 16 Cathedrals’ cuts were pitched just that way.”
“The first person after Joe Kelsey to advance my writing career was Kirk Talley. He was singing with the Cathedrals in 1981 when my late husband and I borrowed the money to get a recording done of what we thought were my best songs at the time. Eddie Crook produced it. I took those cassettes to NQC that year and gave one to Kirk. When I told him who I was, he said, “Didn’t you write “Behold the Lamb”, and I told him I did. I believe that’s why he listened to that tape. By the grace of God, “Turn Your Back” was on it (my first Cathedrals cut), and also “Boundless Love”.”
Eaton: Your songwriting career has spanned several decades. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in Southern Gospel music over the course of your songwriting career?
Wilkinson: “The rise and impact of the radio charting system (which led to hardly any artists recording a song which had been recorded and singled before); the growth of mixed groups, soloists, etc. where once quartets dominated the business; probably the biggest change is the technology we have now for recording and performing live, and for those of us who write the songs, we now pitch a songs over e-mail with an MP3. A sad change is the loss of the frequent “all night singings”, and fewer and fewer of the huge venues. Finally, there are more Gospel songwriters than ever…both artists and non-performers. The competition is keen. No one wants a good song…they want an album full of GREAT songs. And that is as it should be.”
Eaton: Has your songwriting changed over the course of your career?
Wilkinson: “The biggest change for me was when the Lord called me into co-writing some years ago. For probably the first 25 years or so of my career, I wrote on my own as God gave the ideas. I always worked full-time and never lived close to Nashville…and we didn’t have the technology for writing long distance that we have now. These days, probably 2/3 of the songs I turn in are co-writes. A great benefit of co-writing is that you are constantly under the influence of the talented folks you write with, and it broadens your writing style. Also, from a business standpoint, there are lots more songs out there with your name on them!”
Eaton: Of all the songs you’ve written/co-written, which one is the most personal? Which one is your favorite?
Wilkinson: “Probably the most personal for me is “When You Look At Me”, recorded by the Kingdom Heirs a few years back, featuring Arthur Rice. It is a personal testimony for me of what God sees…and does not see…when He looks at me, His born again child. I can never name a favorite among my songs. It’s like choosing among your children. I love all the songs of mine that the Cathedrals recorded. There are some I find myself playing over and over because the recorded version came out so great (“He Said”, “Keep Me on the Wheel” by Gold City; “Pray for Me”, both the Kingdom Heirs’ and the Signature Sound versions; “God Did It All” by the Booth Brothers”; “What We Needed”, “Jesus Made a Believer Out of me”, and so many others by the Kingdom Heirs (they have recorded over 60 of mine since about 2000); “Strike Up the Band” by Legacy Five; and “Good News from Jerusalem”, just to name a few!”
Eaton: Has there been a time when you heard one of your songs recorded by an artist and it turned out totally different (in terms of arrangement/song delivery/tempo) than your initial vision of the song?
Wilkinson: “I’ve been blessed for the most part in that 99% of the time, Tim Parton and Terry Franklin do my demos, and they are amazing; so groups find little or nothing they want to change. But back in the 1980s, after the Cathedrals’ version came out, a noted T.V. evangelist recorded “We Shall See Jesus”, and kept the chorus as I had written it but re-wrote the verses completely. He tossed out my trilogy thing of the times when Jesus was with a group of people on a hillside. I was still new at getting songs cut and thought surely Roger Bennett could do something about it (the Cathedrals had publishing on it), but he said there wasn’t. It still smarts, Rick!”
Eaton: Who are some of your songwriter heroes/mentors?
Wilkinson: “I never had any mentoring when I started writing; but some of my favorite writers back then include Rusty Goodman, Gordon Jensen, and Andrae Crouch. I also loved our great convention songwriters like Dad Speer, LeRoy Abernathy, and Mosie Lister. In the late 1970s my writing was strongly influenced by a young man named Larry Gatlin. I’m still a huge fan.”
Eaton: If you could give a brief bit of advice to an aspiring songwriter, what would it be?
Wilkinson: “If the person wants to be a Gospel songwriter and wants the anointing of God on his writing, he needs a close relationship with the Lord…lots of prayer, lots of obedience. The most important tool for the Gospel songwriter is the Word of God. He or she should be a lifelong, avid student of it. The lyrics we write must be doctrinally sound. Artists tell me often these days that they receive songs with no real spiritual, Scriptural significance. So fledgling songwriter, follow the Apostle Paul’s admonition to study the Bible like a workman for hire…one who does not need to be ashamed before God. As to the writing itself, reach for lyrics and melodies that have not been overdone. Listen to a song you consider a pretty good Gospel song…then listen to one you consider great. Then list the things that make them different.”
Eaton: How about a fun question. I know you love quartet music. If you could assemble a quartet with your favorite singers at each position, what would the quartet look like?
Wilkinson: “Left to right: Terry Franklin on tenor, Arthur Rice on lead, Mark Trammell on baritone, Gene McDonald on bass, and Tim Parton on piano. Oh, my GOODNESS!”
Eaton: In closing, tell us a little bit about Dianne Wilkinson, outside of songwriting.
Wilkinson: “I grew up in a musical family and started playing and singing the high part in a trio with my mother and aunt as the Ross Sisters when I was 12 years old. We sang all around Northeast Arkansas, South Missouri, and West Tennessee. I sang with them all my growing up years. My husband, Tim, and I had 19 years together, all spent doing church music together. He led the choirs where we went to church and I played piano. I have been a church musician since the age of 12, and still am by the grace of God. Most important, I was saved in 1974…a lost church member who thought that my childhood profession which was really a hand-shake with the preacher was the real thing until God spoke to my heart and brought the conviction of the Holy Spirit. I am a Southern Baptist by conviction and by choice.”
“I am semi-retired from a 40+ year healthcare career which I have always loved, and I still work a few hours a week as a Compliance Educator/Auditor for a large hospital system in West Tennessee. I don’t have children of my own, but I have countless adopted sons and daughters…mostly in the Gospel Music business, and am blessed with a very close immediate and extended family and a host of loving, supportive friends. As a sixty-something (!), I’m writing more than ever, by the grace of God. God has blessed me beyond measure. There’s an old Frank Capra movie I love, and the title is “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Looking back on mine, starting out by being raised in a Christian home and learning to love the things of God…all the way to seeing God’s plan fulfilled in my life, that’s what I’d say about mine…it’s been a wonderful life!”
I want to thank the incomparable Dianne Wilkinson for stopping by for our conversations feature. I have always had a special place for songwriters, for without them we wouldn’t have Southern Gospel music (it wouldn’t matter how great the singers were). I’m also of the mindset that individuals should be given roses while they are still around to enjoy them. Dianne, your songs have brought JOY to so many people over the course of the last 30+ years. Thanks for your contribution!
Here is a YouTube clip (published by thekingdomheirs), of the Kingdom Heirs performing the song Dianne chose to be the most personal to her; “When You Look At Me”. Enjoy!