Quarandeaned: Billy Dean revels in island ’Happy Hour’
For the last month or so, Franklin County has been like a ghost town on the Gulf.
The streets of downtown Apalachicola deserted, the boat ramps of Carrabelle empty of all but locals, the quietness of the county has been downright eerie.
St. George Island, often bustling this time of year with spring breakers, has been no exception, its beach a long stretch of truly undisturbed sand.
But every evening for the last two weeks, from a back deck just off the corner of West Sixth Street and Bay Shore Avenue, overlooking a large lot, the music has rung out like a sweet songbird, and people have gathered, socially distanced of course, to savor the break from being cooped up in their homes.
Going on his third week, country music singer and songwriter Billy Dean has shared an hour-long serenade, from 6 to 7 p.m., which also can be enjoyed live on Facebook, or listened to at a convenient time.
“I kind of feel like it's sort of my responsibility,” said Dean, during a telephone interview from the St. George Island home he shares year-round with wife Stephanie. “My favorite scene in ’Titanic’ is of the musicians. I would have been right there playing with the ship.
“I had a busy spring and summer that got canceled, so we just decided to have a little ‘happy hour,’” he said. “The response was so overwhelming that I got to keep going until the ship goes down, or until the quarantine’s been lifted.”
At first Dean, who turned 58 on April 2, just a few days after his concerts commenced, performed from his front porch, which was not far off the road. But when the outside noise began to intrude, he switched to his back deck, overlooking a large empty lot owned by Justin McMillan, of Journeys of St. George Island.
“A bunch of people started coming,” he said. “I put my speakers up, and it’s just absolutely been great.
“Everybody’s kind of making it work,” said Dean. “We’re social distancing and trying to responsible.”
For those wary of venturing out, there’s been a steady and growing following on Dean’s Facebook page at countrysingerbillydean, and from the many comments, it’s being enjoyed both by locals and by those from faraway places.
“I was going to get all fancy, and show video clips, but we tried that one time and people did not want it,” Dean said. “They just want that camera set-up and Stephanie talking to me.
“We just thought ‘Keep it simple, stupid, keep it simple Billy,’” he said. “You got to keep it fresh.
“It’s been a pleasant surprise. I never thought they would stay tuned in this long,” Dean said. “I wonder what the world record is for most consistent Facebook lives. I wonder if I can play every stinking song that I know.
“Two weeks into it, and I’ve repeated a lot of songs,” he said. “I haven't run out of songs yet but I’ve been scraping bottom of barrel.”
Of course, fans always want to hear the well-known Dean hits, from “Billy the Kid,” to “Let Them Be Little,” to the many covers he’s done of country classics, and that’s the fare six days a week.
Then on Sundays, same time same place, the crooner, born and raised in Quincy, offers a family hour of sacred and inspirational songs. That too is familiar territory, Dean having recorded a 2005 album of Christmas music “The Christ (A Song for Joseph)” and more recently, performing in Branson, Missouri in the lead role of Kenny Rogers’ musical “The Toy Shoppe.”
Every day around 2 p.m. Dean begins prepping for the show, figuring out his song list. “It’s kind of turned into a job now. We look forward to this all day long,” he said.
The benefit of applause, and hearing people whooping and hollering from their golf carts, and the response online, hasn’t been the only reward from Dean’s stay-at-home concert tour.
“It’s been great for me. It’s keeping my guitar playing, and keeping my voice, exercised,” he said. “I didn’t need to be going three or four months without that. It’s been great practice staying in great performing shape.
“I just keep expecting any day now people will get bored with it and move on to something else,” said. “It’s been great for me, been great for my neighbors.”
Dean also took a moment to reflect on the toll the coronavirus has taken on the music industry he has been a dynamic part of since his early 20s, back to his 1990 debut album “Young Man.”
He spoke of the coronavirus-related death of Joe Diffie, at age 60, on March 31, and the passing of John Prine a week later.
“Joe and I were friends before a record deal,” Dean said. “It was really shocking to see someone of Joe’s age pass away.
“None of us are going to be candidates to survive, because of all the wear and tear we’ve done to our lungs over the years,” he said.
He recalled seeing John Prine around town when he was living in Nashville, and wrote of the great artist on a tribute page.
“John Prine was a giant when it came to songwriters. He never wasted a word in his songs, and he kept the music simple and accessible to us all,” Dean wrote. “If Hank Williams, Bobby Dylan and Johnny Cash morphed into one being, it was John Prine.”
On a deeply personal note, Dean shared how Prine had passed way at Vanderbilt University, at a medical center where Dean underwent vocal cord surgery three years ago.
“If they can’t save you at Vanderbilt I don’t think they can anywhere,” he said.
Dean said he’s been concerned about the long-term effects the COVID-19 pandemic might have.
“I am worried about the fallout,” he said. “The worst could be yet to come what the financial situation will be.
Dean did share he does see an upside, particularly among those living on the coast. “We’re all learning we can live on a lot less, we're not spending anymore,” he said. “And we got plenty of food. Everybody’s got seafood and stuff stored up in their freezers; we’re not worried about going hungry. I have a crab trap sitting out right now.”
For the time being, Dean is going to continue what he’s doing, enjoying the break from a hectic travel schedule, and a chance to lighten up peoples’ days.
“I love being home, I can think of worse places to be playing,” he said. “Everybody on the island is getting stir crazy and cabin fever. I don’t know what we’re going to do when this things over.
“I hope it’s blessed people,” Dean said. “To make a little bright spot in people’s day. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if I was quarantined another 60 days.”