Story Behind the Song: Billy Dean's 'Billy The Kid'

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"I miss Billy The Kid/ The times that he had/ The life that he lived."

Before he became a country star and hit songwriter, Billy Dean grew up in the Florida Panhandle — and he was expected to grow up fast. He channeled his childhood memories into the 1992 hit "Billy The Kid," and recently told the Story Behind the Song to Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International.

Bart Herbison: You’re one of my favorites, always have been, the great Billy Dean…I’ve got to tell you, Billy, getting ready for this, I really researched -- research is the wrong word, I listened to it and read the lyrics. It's got two meanings, man. It's a fun song, (and) this is some deep, deep stuff, Billy Dean. You co-wrote the song. Take us back to that time.

Billy Dean: I co-wrote this with the great Paul Nelson, and we were just sitting there talking one day about life growing up in the panhandle of Florida. What it was like when I was a kid, what we did to entertain ourselves. And let me tell you, when you grow up in the panhandle of Florida in the ‘60s and ‘70s, especially in the summertime, you spend a lot of time outdoors, because we only had one air conditioning unit…most of the time we were outside enjoying outdoors and just trying to stay cool and entertaining ourselves in a lot of ways.

Billy Dean, left. speaks with Bart Herbison about songwriting.
Billy Dean, left. speaks with Bart Herbison about songwriting.

BH: Well, I know you've kind of returned to your Florida roots. I didn't know you were from there. A flight attendant one day told me, he had a real Southern accent. He said, “Florida, the further north you go, the further south you get.” Was that where your love for country music started?

BD: It sure was. North Florida, believe it or not, it was a major crossroads of a lot of different types of music… we all worked in the fields and the farms when I was growing up and listened to real, traditional country music. and then, but just a couple of hours north, you had Statesboro, Georgia where the Statesboro blues, the Allman Brothers. About three hours to the east was Jacksonville, Florida. We had Lynyrd Skynyrd.

BH: I started reading (the lyrics) a couple of nights ago and the first couple verses are Billy the kid on his tricycle, little white handle gun and fierce through the neighborhood, and imagine that listen to this chorus, man. “I miss Billy the kid, the times that he had, the life that he lived. I guess he must have got caught.” And here's the line that got me: “His innocence lost. I wonder where he is. I miss Billy the kid.” Then it goes into the second verse and it says, “These days, I don't know whose side to be on. There's such a thin line between right and wrong. I live and learn, do the best as I can. There's only so much you can do as a man.” Oh my God, Billy Dean, that is deep, pointed and never truer than today. What were you thinking? What was the juxtaposition? You, you were looking inside a little bit, I believe.

BD: Absolutely. "His innocence was lost. I wonder where he is." That line came from being raised by a dad from World War II, who in his mind, it was a very dangerous world. And he had people shooting at him at 18. I grew up during the Vietnam war and my dad wanted to grow me up really quickly. I didn't have time to be a kid. You gotta be a man. You gotta learn how to live off the land. You gotta learn how to support family. You gotta be ready. What if you have to go to Vietnam? …It's another reason I spent a lot of time on my bicycle out of that, out of those four walls in that house, because when I was home, it was work, work, work. It was really kind of like robbing me of my innocence, really, in a way. But then when I got to Nashville, the other layer to that was when I got finally got off on my own, I pretty much pretty much was on my own around 17 years old. My dad was sick. He had a crippling disease from the war. And he really couldn't parent that much. So, I pretty much was a man at 16, 17 years old. And as soon as I could get the heck out of north Florida, man, I got out of there and I got to Nashville when I was about 19 years old. I’d never been to a big city before. I’d never been tempted by all the things that a big city tempts you (with).

BH: Look, it's the early '90s dude and country music's blowing up. I think you were part of it. I don't know how to label you, Billy Dean. You talked about Statesboro. You talked about north Florida. I was also thinking about this. Who do you compare Billy Dean to? Billy Dean. You're very unique that you took all these mixes and you had a big pop following too.

BD: That was always a hard place to land on. There was always a crack, right? And we knew that if you fall on the crack, that you're doomed and you’ve got to fall on one side of the crack or the other, and that might be pop, or it might be country, but somewhere in the middle one or two things happen: you go into obscurity or you create your own lane. And I really wanted to create my own lane. I knew there wasn't a lot of probably wouldn't be a lot of numbers in that lane. But I always thought that's what being an artist was, was working within your limitations. You start off your career imitating people, trying to sound like your heroes. And then you find (you’re) not quite as good as they are that. So, you start really working within your own limitations and realizing what you can't do and then stick with what you can do. And that's how you usually create your lane, and mine was a combination of those, of the James Taylors and the Merle Haggards, the singer-songwriters.

BH: That's what it was. And look, I think you were genuine. I think that you were true. And I think this song was so important because it's introspective, but it's fun…it could have been too cutesy. It could have been too deep, but the first time I heard it – and I remembered it when I re-read the lyrics – you nailed it, man… It's got me thinking about my own life in the past couple of days.

BD: I'm surprised at how many (women) like "Billy The Kid" and identified with it. The night before I had the writing meeting with Paul Nelson, I had tuned my E string down to a D and I was learning an old Doobie Brothers riff, the "Old Black Water" riff. ..The next day when I got to the writing room with Paul, I pulled out my guitar and it was still tuned that way. So the music had this kind of tough riff, but yet the lyric had, ‘I miss Billy the Kid.’

BH: Who produced it?

BD: Chuck Howard and Tom Shapiro.

BH: Oh, I didn't know Tom was involved. They killed this thing, man. It still sounds amazing.

BD: Thank you, man…I was just catching on as a songwriter. I'd already written "Somewhere In My Broken Heart," and Tom's a Hall of Fame songwriter. And Chuck was a Hall of Fame publisher. So I have to give them credit for letting me be who I was as a songwriter and a singer.

About the series

In partnership with Nashville Songwriters Association International, the "Story Behind the Song" video interview series features Nashville-connected songwriters discussing one of their compositions. For full video interviews with all of our subjects, visit

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Story Behind the Song: Billy Dean's 'Billy The Kid'