An Interview with Dianne Wilkinson

Dianne WilkinsonA formatted version of this story (with photos) is here: www.southerngospeljournal.com/features/200912.pdf.

I had made plans to interview Dianne Wilkinson on Tuesday night of this year’s National Quartet Convention. So we would have plenty of time, we arranged to meet at the Greater Vision booth about an hour before the last group walked off the mainstage for the night.

A few minutes before the scheduled time, I showed up at the Greater Vision booth. A few minutes passed, and she wasn’t there. So I started playing with their product manager Chad’s little boy. After a while, I was starting to get concerned, so I decided to walk around and see if she was anywhere in the area.

She was just a few rows down, at the Mark Trammell Trio booth. The two booths are within easy sight of each other if you’re standing up, but we had both been sitting. She had figured that she could wait there, since she’d surely see me when I walked up to the Greater Vision booth.

It turned out a half hour had passed by the time we actually saw each other and headed over to the media room. We got to talking, and (to borrow a phrase from her) we were having a big time, and lost track of the clock.

By the time I realized what time it was, we had been talking for about an hour fifteen minutes—forty-five minutes after the mainstage show wrapped up, and fifteen or thirty minutes after the vendors’ hall closed.

I thought that since it wasn’t too long after everything wrapped up, there would surely be people still milling around, wrapping things up after the night’s events. But the building was practically empty.

We walked out to our cars, and drove out to the main exit gate.

It was locked.

We decided to drive around back and check the back exit.

It was also locked.

After about a loop and a half on the freeway surrounding the Kentucky Fair & Expo Center grounds, we found a little exit with a guard at a security checkpoint. As we pulled up, he asked our names, wrote them down on a notepad, and waved us on out. (This surprised both of us; we thought he would surely note down our license plates or our car serial numbers. What are the chances a thief would give his real name? I guess we didn’t look suspicious!)

And here’s the interview that was worth every bit of the trouble:

DJM: Could we start with you telling us a little about your background—when you came to know the Lord, and when you started writing music?

Dianne: Daniel, I went forward at a revival meeting when I was a little grade school girl. The preacher preached on Hell and I was terrified—my little knees were knocking together. And I went forward and shook hands with the preacher; that I remember. They stood me up on the communion table in my little frilly dress, and I remember that. And I remember people shaking my hand.

I remember everything but praying the sinner’s prayer. I don’t really remember being under conviction so much as I was frightened.

I had always been in church, and I continued to always be in church. I grew up and became a church musician at age twelve—played then like I play now. I taught Sunday School as always, got married, still in church, beginning to write songs already.

In 1974, the Lord spoke to me while I was driving my car, in almost an audible voice, and these are the two words I heard: “You’re lost.”

I had not started the ignition yet, and I’m really glad, because I knew that was the Lord speaking to me. And I wrestled with that for two weeks, under that conviction. I knew I was a sinner.

I was shocked as much as anything, because I thought I had done what I was supposed to do. I loved the Lord after my fashion, was involved in church work. But I knew how you had to be saved, and if He was telling me that it had not happened, I got to thinking about that little childhood experience, and knew I had not done what I had to do.

So I got up late one night, left my late husband—I lost my husband in 1991—asleep, and I went to the spare bedroom, and got down on my face in the spare bed. And I was saved that night—and I’ve never had a doubt since then.

Many, many, people have my testimony—a lost church member. They are there three times a week, and every time for every meeting. If I had passed away during that time, if anyone that knew me had gone to my funeral, they would have said, “We know we’ll see old Di again.” But they wouldn’t have. I’d have been in that crowd that heard, “Depart from Me, I never knew you.”

So I have a heart for lost church members.

DJM: Getting back to that in a minute, has this come out in the lyrics to any of your songs?

Dianne: Well, I’ll tell you what I have some songs that do speak to, that didn’t really happen to me, but I knew they were someone’s testimony. I’ve had some songs that talked about someone that pretended to be saved, that played church for a lot of years—for instance, Mark Trammell has that testimony—and then got saved later on.

A lot of my songs relate to someone who’s come from a dark place through their sinful years, and that’s not my testimony. “What Salvation’s Done for Me” is a good example—I wrote that lyric about the dark side, all that God brought you out of. That does happen.

I don’t know that I’ve specifically written that aspect of my testimony. It’s interesting—the older I get, the my testimony songs become more like “Safe on the Glory Side”—don’t sing sad songs at my funeral, because I know where I’m heading.

No doubt it did influence me, though, because that was a little second-grade girl all the way till I was grown and married. That was a long time to think I was saved and wasn’t. It probably has influenced a lot of my songs.

DJM: How did you get started writing songs?

Born into a music family—my mother had one of those big band-style voices, Doris Day and all that. She could have been one of those people, had they been in the right place. Her sister was the same way. And they had a trio in our area. They put me in their group when I was twelve years old, playing and singing. We went to hear the Goss Brothers and the Rangers, and all those people that did it right back then—those difficult arrangements—and so I learned to love all that when I was a kid. I was always in it, always sang with my family.

I began to write when I was in my twenties. I’d always made up verses and things, but I began to write serious Gospel music when I was in my twenties. And right at the same time, the Lord really moved me into the Word of God, in a serious way. I would come from work, hole up in my bedroom—and I had gotten hold of a couple of commentaries that really opened up my Bible to me.

DJM: What were some of those commentaries, that meant the most to you?

Dianne: Well, the one that meant the most to me, and I say that no Christian’s library is complete without Clarence Larkins’ Dispensational Truth.

Are you familiar with who he is?

DJM: Hmm. Not sure.

Dianne: He was writing in the late 1800s; he was an elderly gentleman in the early 1900s. And what’s so great about his exposition and his ability to shed light on the Word of God—he was a draftsman by trade. And the book I’m talking about is atlas-sized. He has charts in there.

I know when I see Pastor Hagee, when he has the big charts with the book of Revelation and all that—Clarence Larkin was able to do that first.

I got that book in such a miraculous way. I was in civil service at the time; my town was an Air Force town. And there was a Staff Sergeant I worked with who was a lay preacher. And he had that book, and he gave me his copy of that book. And it changed my life—it opened my Bible up for me.

I should replace it because it’s ragged now, some of the pages are ripped—but I don’t want a new one! I want that one, because it’s dear to me!

And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought that book and given it to people—friends of mine, new Christians, a couple of writer friends.

So I didn’t know what He was preparing me for. I just knew I was hungry and had to get it in me.

I always taught Sunday School—He’s called me to do that, too—and He prepared me to write.

DJM: What grades did you teach?

Dianne: Well, I taught younger people when I was younger. But I now teach the Open Door Sunday School Class at Spring Hill Baptist Church in Dyersburg, Tennessee, where my brother is the pastor. We call it Open Door because we’ve got some young married people in there, we’ve got some old married people in there, we’ve got couples, we’ve got singles, we’ve got ladies whose husbands don’t come … so we say, “Come one, come all.”

I teach directly from the Bible. We’re going through Revelation again, for the third time. The first time we took it through was in 1997. It’s amazing how the news has changed on the scene since that happened!

But I really have three callings on my life—that’s one, the songwriting is one, and the Lord called me to be a church musician.

DJM: Do you still play piano for your church?

Dianne: I do—three times a week. I’m faithful to that, and love to do that. That’s why I don’t do a lot of traveling on the weekends.

I still work full-time in healthcare, and have done that for forty years. I don’t bail out on my church to go to singings, because that’s part of what I do, and I still love to do it.

It’s just an amazing thing, that you fall in love with what God calls you to do! And that’s not any accident, is it?

I just love to write songs, I just love to teach, and I love to play those old songs. We love the Stamps-Baxter songs.

DJM: Does your church sing any of your songs?

Dianne: Oh, honey, they do! My brother is a great singer. He loves quartet singing.

Some of mine he can’t do as a solo artist, because mine are quartet style, and they go from here to here [gestures high and low] range-wise. But I’ll tell you one he really does great. If you remember when Gold City did “Keep Me on the Wheel?”—that little bluesy song?

DJM: Oh, yeah!

Dianne: The Ball Brothers have it out now a capella.

DJM: I heard about that.

Dianne: Oh, it’s just great!

DJM: In fact, I think I have it in my bag right now.

Dianne: But anyway, he really has a feel for the bluesy style. Remember when Gerald Crabb came out with “I Just Can’t Sing the Blues no More”?

DJM: Yeah.

Dianne: But anyway, he does that. He was singing with my family in the early ’70s, when I wrote Boundless Love, and we were already singing it. My friend Gail back here—we sang it with her later. And here’s what she said to me one day, prophetically—I knew Gail before any of the songs hit—she looked at me and said, “That’s the one that’s gonna do it for you, girl, that’s the one!”

And it really turned out to be. The Cathedrals had that on hold for five years before they cut it.

DJM: On hold for five years!

Dianne: They did! It was on the first demo we ever did—with Tim, my late husband, a good, good singer. And this was in late 1981. We borrowed the thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in 1981, and I timidly approached my hero Eddie Crook. As a piano player, he was my hero. And I knew he did session work in Nashville. And I asked, “How much would it cost for us to go into the studio and demo some of my songs?” And he told me that [amount].

Then here’s what I asked him—I didn’t know any better—I said, “Do you think you could get the three other guys from the Goodman band to play?”

He said, “Sure!”

So we show up in Nashville, and there’s Eddie Crook, Rabbit Easter, Bruce Droit, and James Gordon Freeze, ready to play. We’d learned all the songs trio style—there were twelve of them—so we virtually had a little Dianne / Tim / Gail record, is what we ended up having. But “Boundless Love” was on there, “Jesus I Believe What You Said About Heaven” was on there, “Turn Your Back” was on there. “Turn Your Back” was the first Cathedral cut I ever had. So it was a good investment!

That year at Quartet Convention—

DJM: 1981?

Dianne: Yeah, ’cause it was that year we made the record—I had a bunch of those little tapes (is what we had then)—and I put one in Kirk Talley’s pocket. He was screening songs for the Cathedrals at that time. It was a momentous thing that I did, ’cause I was able to go with them when they were on the ascendant.

DJM: Now I read somewhere that you submitted songs to the Cathedrals a number of times before they actually cut any. Is that right, or did I just remember wrong?

Dianne: There’s almost a story there. The truth is, the very first tape I gave them had “Turn Your Back” on it, and they recorded that. It also had “Jesus, I Believe What You Said About Heaven.” And that was their last Canaan record—they had that on there. Kirk later recorded it with the Talleys, and then The Trio recorded it again, when he was singing with Ivan and Anthony.

The story you’re probably talking about is right after that period, during ’82 and ’83, Bill Traylor started Riversong, that new label. And, of course, he signed those guys. They were planning to do the Live in Atlanta record.

I had written “We Shall See Jesus” in early 1982, and here was where I was coming from with it. Back in those days, Kirk was singing “I Know a Man Who Can,” and sang a lot. And I thought, “You know, this could be a new ballad for Kirk, because it’s got some range to it.”

So I sent it to him. And I didn’t hear anything back. I now know what that means—that they’ve passed on it. But I didn’t know the jargon then! But because I didn’t know any better, I sent it to him again. How green was I?

I said, “I think you need to listen again!” [Laughs] Oh, my! I probably would not do that now, but when you’re green …

But God was in it is all I know, because then I heard, “Well, we’re recording two of your songs, and we want you and Tim to come to Atlanta and be our guests for this live album.”

DJM: Did you know which ones?

Dianne: Yeah, they said, “We’re going to do ‘We Shall See Jesus’ and ‘I’m Going Home Someday.’” Remember that little song? [She breaks into song…] “I traveled the country doin’ one-night stands…”

DJM: Oh, yeah—did they do that first, or did Gold City?

Dianne: They did it first. And then Kirk pitched it to Gold City.

DJM: Did they have the publishing on it?

Dianne: They did. And here’s what’s so funny: You know, I had “Turn Your Back,” and then I had these two, and then Gold City … and I started thinking, “This is easy! It’s a piece of cake! Falls off of my fountain pen, shows up on a record!” [Laughs]

Well, I got grounded pretty quick, but anyway … we’re sitting here, milling around a little bit, and here comes Bill Traylor to me. And he said, “Are you Dianne?”

I said, “Yes.”

And he said, “You’re just not going to believe how great ‘We Shall See Jesus’ is. Wait till you hear Glen sing it.”

And I said, “Glen?” I was thinking Kirk.

And he said, “Wait till you hear it.”

I thought, “Glen? Okay.”

Well, we were sitting there, and they came out. So the first time they ever sang it in public was there. And of course, the crowd went crazy.

But we thought—and they did, too—that was because it was a live record. Because they had primed the crowd, “Go nuts, ’cause it’s a live record!”

Well, I was just stunned by what I heard.

And when we got to Quartet Convention that year, the same thing happened on the main stage. The same thing happened in the chapel service … an amazing thing happened in chapel. And what happened was, all the twenty years that they did it, it was always the same way. I sat in the Ryman, the last time I ever saw Glen, and it was their Farewell. And then I sat at his funeral, and watched him sing it [on video]. So Glen and I came full circle with it.

And you know that I’m not particularly a ballad writer. I write uptempo stuff—that’s my favorite thing to write.

And so many people say to me, “When are we gonna have another “We Shall See Jesus?” And I say, “For me, maybe never—I don’t know.” Because I’ve written a lot of big ballads since then, but not with the impact that one had. But those didn’t have the Cathedrals, and all of the charisma and the nostalgia and the love for the people that they had. It just all worked together.

DJM: Just as one example, when I first heard the Mark Trammell Trio sing, “When Mercy Came Down,” I thought, “If this had been in the Cathedrals’ hands…” Now the Mark Trammell Trio—they did an awesome job with it.

Dianne: They did!

DJM: And I loved it! But I thought, “You know what? If the Cathedrals had done this one in 1983…”

Dianne: Maybe, maybe!

I’ll tell you, when they did my “High and Lifted Up” in the early ’90s, I thought, “Maybe that’ll be it.” And it came out great, and people loved it, but it didn’t replace the other one.

And what’s interesting is now, with Glen gone, it’s so closely identified with him, that when they have the reunions of all the guys that were in the group, they never include it, because no one thinks they can sing it.

And I tell ’em—in fact, I tell Gerald, “You’re the one that’s supposed to sing it,” because he’s got that big voice. I say, “I really think you’re the one.” Not because it’s mine, but I think the people feel like they need to hear that song.

DJM: I’ve never gotten to hear it live.

Dianne: Have you not?

DJM: Because the Cathedrals retired before I ever discovered Southern Gospel music.

Dianne: Oh, honey!

DJM: So I never got to hear that song live.

Dianne: Well, I’ll tell you—I don’t know…

DJM: I should beg Gerald Wolfe!

Dianne: He really should be the one, because he’s got that big voice. And interesting, never in all the years they did it did they ever encore that song. Because it would’ve been anticlimactic to do so. George just instinctively knew that. It just…Glen sang it all those years the very same way.

And I don’t know what it would have been like to sit out there as a fan and hear it. I watched it. But to sit there and know that the Lord gave it to you … indescribable.

You’d think someday, it would be old hat … never, never, never. It’s always like the first time, it really is. Always like the first time.

DJM: So what was it at the start, and what is it now, that motivates you to not just write down an idea, but to put hours and hours into refining that idea? What is it that drives you to write a Gospel song?

Dianne: I love it with a passion. I’m excited about it. And what’s amazing is, I always have been, but I’m getting worse. I get worse the older I get!

The older you get, you’re also aware that you don’t know how much time you have left. And it’s about not necessarily leaving a legacy, but it’s, “Lord, I don’t know if I’ll always be in my right mind. I don’t know if I’ll always be able to put two words together.”

But I can only speak for myself, and this is a beautiful thing God’s doing. And I think He does it for everyone who’s been faithful to what He’s called them to: I have more ideas now than ever! I’m writing more songs now than I ever did, partly because I’ve begun to co-write. That’s only been in very recent years—I’d never done it before. And He’s growing my gift in my sunset years. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

And it’s interesting because, as I said, I work full time. I don’t necessarily dedicate time to write. I just write when I write, when it comes. I write a lot in the car—that’s a great place to write.

That’s the big thing—I absolutely love it. And especially now, I’ve begun to co-write with some really young people. And I hadn’t thought about the mentoring thing. But I realize that that’s what God’s allowed me to do. There are three young men, especially…

DJM: Scotty Inman is one of them?

Dianne: Scotty, especially. I’ve just begun to write with Joseph.

DJM: Joseph Habedank?

Dianne: Yes.

DJM: Oh! I cannot wait to hear those!

Dianne: Well, I’ll tell you, Scotty is my little grandboy, and I’m coming back to him. Dustin Sweatman is the other. I have a heart for Bradley Littlejohn, with Paid in Full—I have a heart for all those boys, ’cause they’re from New Albany, Mississippi, and I helped him with one.

Joseph and I have been trying to get together for ever so long, and couldn’t. And we were at Songfest—Frank Arnold brings a huge three-day deal to Jackson, Tennessee every year—and he said, “Dianne, it’s so hard for us to get together!” I work, and he’s gone a lot.

He said, “Maybe we could just write one on the Internet—you know how you do. Actually, I do have an idea.”

I said, “What’s the idea?” And with you as a songwriter, this is gonna give you a chill.

And he said, “Footprints on the Water.”

I said, “Yes, I think you have an idea!” And his little ol’ face, it was just shinin’. You know how when someone’s excited, their face lights up…

Well, I live in Dyersburg, about forty miles away. I had almost the whole lyric done before I got back to my house.

And my idea was, You know, we’re gonna make this a different story, I’m gonna make this from the vantage point of another boat full of fishermen …

DJM: Wow—that’s neat!

Dianne: What am I seeing? Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?

They realize they were being storm-tossed. And then in the moonlight they see this figure. Who is that?

And so I had that whole lyric done. And two days later, he sends me an mp3. He doesn’t play an instrument. So he sings you his melody, with his finger popping. And that child is full of rhythm!

And I’m gonna sing you kind of how the chorus goes, and you’re gonna say, “Dianne, this is your tune, and your groove—it’s just like you!”

[Breaks into song…] There were footprints on the water

Who’s that walkin’ on the sea

Footprints on the water

Looks like the Son of God to me

Master of the Wind, commander of the storm

We’ve seen Him on the shores of Galilee

Oh, with those footprints on the water

Looks like the Son of God to me!

It has a line with watching Him walk, “He didn’t sink, He didn’t drown.”

DJM: Wow!

Dianne: Can you say Arthur Rice? Sounds just like him!

And I teased Joseph about that. I said, “Oh, Arthur will kill me if the Perrys do it!”

But we just got the demo. So we won’t speculate at this point. But the reason why I’d love for the Perrys to do it, is they’ve never done anything like that, that showcases the ways this kid can sing a bluesy quartet song.

DJM: Joseph can sing a bluesy quartet song?

Dianne: Oh, well, you should hear him sing this one!

And here’s what happened: He got Matthew Holt in to play the piano. Hot track on that demo!

Well, not long after that, I had another idea and wanted to write. I have a cousin that was raised like a sister to me. She has two daughters. And my brother’s daughter, Rachel, is like my daughter. And these girls are young women now, with children of their own. And you know, the travails of trying to live life … And I mentioned to my cousin once in an email, “You know, these girls are gonna keep us on our knees all of our life, because that’s what comes from love.”

And I thought, “Gee, I think I would write that!”

“Grace” started with that—you know, God could have killed Adam and Eve on the spot, but He extended grace.

So when I finished that lyric, I thought, “You know, Joseph, if you’ve got a big ol’ fat ballad in you, what can you do here?” ‘Cause I’m just trying to match, you know. I almost sent it to somebody else, and I thought, “No.” I really felt impressed of the Lord to send it to Joseph.

Three days later…amazing ballad melody. Big, big.

So both times, I took a day, went to Nashville, and met him there. I played piano and he did the vocal, so we could get a work disc turned in. So, you know how I talk and this won’t surprise you, I said, “Okay, you line up all those boys you write with, and you tell them it’s all over between you and them because I’m taking over!” [Laughter.]

He knew what I meant. That was my way of saying he was great, and he is.

Scotty … Tim and I lived across the river from Memphis when Clayton was still singing with his brothers.

DJM: As “The Inmans”?

Dianne: As the Inmans. And little bitty toddler Scotty, about this high [gestures to about hip height], stocky built little guy, blond curls—had curly hair and always has—and big ol’ china blue eyes, most darlin’ little boy. And I don’t have children. Well, he took up with me like that, and I would just beg Clayton and his wife to give him to me, I wanted him so bad! Who knew, who knew?

Well, he grew up, and he hadn’t been with Triumphant very long. And I remember seeing them in Alabama. I love Jeff Stice like a son, I love Clayton. And this was really a prophetic thing that happened, ’cause I had not co-written.

DJM: You had not co-written with anybody prior to this?

Dianne: I really hadn’t. I think this started off.

That sweet boy came to me and said, “Miss Dianne”—he knew how to work me too!—he said, “Miss Dianne, I’m trying to get started writing. Will you help me?”

And can I look at that little sweet face and say, “I’ve never been co-writing, and I don’t think I’m gonna like it?”

See, I didn’t think I would like it. Mark [Trammell] told me I wouldn’t like it. He said, “See, you’ve had the control all these years, and when you write with somebody, it’s a collaborating thing.”

But I said, “Well, honey, sure, I’ll help you!”

And here’s how much I knew about co-writing: The first time he sent me an idea he had, and he had about two lines, before I turned around, I had finished it! Didn’t plan to finish it, just started comin’!

I called him back and said, “I got it!” He said, “Well, I like it!”

Well, finally it dawned on me, You’re supposed to grab a verse and let the other person grab a verse, and all that. I just didn’t know any better.

I was writing for Centergy in those days, and Niles Borop is a marvelous motivator. He’s perfect at growing young talent. And he’s perfect at bringing something out of you that’s new to you. And he encouraged me, also.

One of my first co-write sessions—Scotty and I were writing over the phone, but I actually, formally went to Nashville with my little tablet and pencil, and here’s who I sat down with: Daryl Williams and John Darin Rowsey. I already loved both of them. Well, we talked about the first hour and a half, just having a big time, before we really got started. And what was so funny—Daryl had written with John that morning, and he was supposed to leave, and I was supposed to write with John in the afternoon.

And when Daryl got ready to go, he said, “Boy, I’d sure like to stay, but I promised my kids I’d take them to” wherever. Well, about twenty minutes passed, and he came back in, and he said, “I told my kids I couldn’t do it!”

So Daryl came in and he said, “I got a chorus.”

So here I am, first time—maiden voyage—in the room with people, where the pressure’s on, all the way over there. I thought, “Oh, nothing will come!”

He said, “I got this little chorus” [Dianne bursts into song]

It ain’t gonna worry me long…

Did you hear it? On the Talleys record.

DJM: Yeah.

Dianne: Well, here’s what happened. We finished it in no time, and we had so much fun. You could tell the kind—it was anything but high church. Someone came up with a word, and we said, “No, that’s too high for ’em…this is low church, and that won’t work!”

Well, then we got through, and Daryl sits down at the piano, and we worked out the arrangement and sang trio style, and had so much fun! And the work tape could have been on the radio, I swear it was so good!

And all I was thinking of, “I’m a co-writer. I’m gonna love it. It’s all gonna be just like this.” Turn out something great, have a big ol’ time, go home, get it cut.

And the Talleys cut it from that work tape, ’cause I gave it to them at convention that year.

So I can’t say every session’s been that much fun, but I have found my level with a few writers. That’s been a great blessing for me to do. I still love it when it’s just the Lord and me. But … it’s really fun, it stretches you.

DJM: How many songs have you written … approximately, if you don’t know exactly?

Dianne: I tell you, I wouldn’t know exactly. When Tim and I were living in Memphis—I thought I would never get over this, and Tim thought he never would—I had my songs numbered in a notebook. This was before computer days. I was working back in our home church in Blytheville, Arkansas, working there with a group of teenage girls. I had named them the “Hallelujah Chorus”—I thought that was such a cute little name. And they were doing some of my songs, and I was playing piano, and some of them were those.

And I had them in a notebook, a three-ring notebook, by the piano there in our house. And the notebook came up missing and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I thought I might have left it at the church we were going to. We turned the house upside down. And finally, he came over with this look on his face, and he said, “Do you remember that I used to keep a box of kindling down by the piano?”

And I said, “Yes.”

And he said, “Do you think you could have ever just laid it down there, maybe? I think I may have tossed it, in that box.”

I’m not sure how many songs there were at that time, but here’s what’s so sad: I had some of those lyrics on scraps of paper in the piano bench, and I was able to get some of ’em back, but some of ’em were just gone. I have to tell you, I didn’t cry as much as he did, it grieved him so bad!

But that aside, now that I’ve begun to number, it’s close to 600. That’s not a huge body of work, as long as I’ve been writing—got my first song recorded in ’76. But before I started co-writing, writing twenty a year was about what I would do. And it’s about what Rodney does. But interestingly, last year I turned in sixty songs to Daywind. And this year I’ve turned in about fifty. So the co-writing thing has really grown the product.

So depending on how the Lord leaves me here, and how long He keeps giving me songs, I don’t know if it’ll break a thousand. Now I heard Dottie Rambo had written two or three thousand, I don’t know. But Dottie would probably tell you if she was still here that she didn’t know if all of ’em were wonderful or not. You don’t know how great some of ’em are. And I don’t know how great some of mine are.

DJM: About how many of those have been cut?

Dianne: It would be a false picture of the older ones, because they never really got pitched. But Rick [Shelton] tells me that I have a cut rate of about 65%-70%. So that’s a blessing, ’cause that’s pretty high.

DJM: So there’s 30%-35% of your songs that people are probably never going to hear?

Dianne: Yeah, probably never hear.

DJM: Hmm.

Dianne: And I think this way sometimes, especially when my husband was alive. He always was minister of music at the churches where we were—he was self-taught. I learned back in those days that some of the songs I wrote back then, only Tim was ever gonna sing. Really blessed a lot of people. And I think sometimes the songs He gives me are just for me at a time.

I think they probably all have value, but I don’t know that they all have commercial value. I like to think that someday, a bunch of ’em will still get cut.

Unlike Kyla [Rowland], who has such great success getting her older songs cut . . .

But you know, the neat thing about our music: Country music and secular music, there are waves of what’s popular. You dig a great Southern Gospel song up—it was great in 1980, it was great in 1990, and it’s still great! And somebody can cut a new track on it, with a little bit of a different twist, and it’s brand new again, ’cause our subject matter doesn’t change.

She has great luck with that.

Some of the ones I’ve written with Rusty (Golden) have stretched my boundaries. I write the lyrics and he writes the melody most of the time. He hears melody like nobody else—these gorgeous melodies that may not always sound Southern Gospel, but they are perfect for the lyrics. I like to think there’s greatness in them, and someday—even the ones that don’t fit Southern Gospel or CCM now—somebody’s gonna discover that stuff and say, “My, my! Where did this stuff come from?”

Rusty and I have what we think is a great one in the works, being recorded by the Booth Brothers.

DJM: In fact, of all the lyrics you’ve ever done, that one may come closer to “We Shall See Jesus” than anything else you’ve done . . ..

Dianne: I may have told you this, but I send Rusty the lyrics ahead of time. I had come that day to work on something else. But I had that lyric on me, and I intended to do that one by myself, ’cause I had the chorus. The chorus you heard was fully mine, lyrics and tune. And I had something on the verses, but I didn’t like it.

And here’s what I say on such an occasion. “It needs the Golden touch, that’s what it needs.”

He started playing … [Dianne hums a tune you’ll all know well in a few months!] It was just right. I never impose a tune on him, because that’s his forté. He’s Rodgers, I’m Hammerstein. I said, “Let me play you what I already heard on the chorus, and let me tell you what I think.”

And he said, “It’s done! That’s what it is, right there. That’s what it has to be.”

And he said, “I think it’s done too fast. We never work this fast.”

And I said, “No, it’s finished, it’s finished.” It’s one of those moments when songwriters are together when it gets real still, and you know God is there. And so the Booth Brothers…they’re so excited about it.

DJM: So of all the songs you’ve written, which are your favorites as far as hearing a group sing it, and which are your favorites as far as what the lyrics personally mean to you?

Dianne: This is in no particular order … some of the ones where I have loved the recorded version: First of all, I’m a musician and I get real hung up on the track. In fact, I’ll say to Gail [her friend who was attending NQC with her], “I want you to listen for this little thing that the bass player’s gonna do.”

And she’ll say, “I don’t hear that! I’m listening to the vocal!”

And I’m like, “Well, I’ll get around to the vocal, but I’m listening to that percussion, and I’m listening to all that.”

So there’s some that I love for that. But some of the ones I play over and over: I play Gold City’s “Keep Me On the Wheel” with slide guitar. I love what Jonathan did with it.

“He Said” is one of my favorites. I think it was crafted well; I love to write preacher songs, and I like that one.

I listen to “The Old White Flag” till I’ve overdosed on it, because it’s infectious to me.

DJM: I’m hoping it’ll win song of the year.

Dianne: Well, I saw what you said, God love you! But it calls up the imagery of Clayton doing all his thing. And a combination of that plus, I just love the way it turned out. Did I tell you that it’s the ringtone on my telephone?

DJM: I don’t think so.

Dianne: Before I leave this room I’m gonna play it for you. My niece figured it out.

Arthur Rice’s vocal of “Pray For Me” … I think it’s the strongest Arthur Rice vocal I’ve ever heard, and what is that sayin’?! I love that.

I love the brand new one that’s six and a half minutes long that he’s doin’. Doctrinally, it speaks to me as much as anything I’ve done, “When You Look at Me.”

I say to my Sunday School class sometimes: “I know what everybody sees when they look at me. A gal who’s rapidly aging, more overweight than she needs to be, has some back trouble, has four pairs of eyeglasses, needs a new body real bad.”

That’s not what God sees when He looks at me. He sees me righteous. And I wanted to develop that. So it’s a vertical praise song to the Lord. I wanted to express the idea … I like bling, can you tell? I like glamorous clothes.

DJM: Oh … yes, I was just trying to figure out what bling was. I get it.

Dianne: Bling, bling, bling. The people that would buy a watch like that … That’s my earthly kind of clothes that I like. But when I was lost, filthy rags was all I had. And He took those away and tossed them aside, and clothed me with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And that’s what He sees.

When I played that for Arthur, two years ago, right here, he had such a look come over him. It really spoke to him. And he said this to me, and I never forgot it: “Dianne, this is the best thing you’ve ever written. It’s the best song you’ve ever written.” He still says that. So that one is special to me.

The Cathedrals ones, the nostalgia value … I’ll tell you, there’s one of theirs that I play over and over, and you may not remember it, ’cause you’re just young.

DJM: But I do have every recording that the Cathedrals have ever released.

Dianne: Well, then you know [breaks into song…]

Out of the starry sky

From that bright home on high…

DJM: I love that song!

Dianne: Well, it was actually singled about ’95. It’s the last radio single I ever had with them. It was on Raise the Roof in ’94, then on Reunion in ’95.

I had three on Raise the Roof: “No News is Good News,” “Never Before Never Again,” and “Oh Come Along.”

DJM: “Never Before Never Again” is on the Reunion video, but not on the CD.

Dianne: I know! I was there that night at the Ryman when they did all that … but “Oh Come Along” is just a little bouncy song.

And here’s what’s so cute about that. McCray Dove loves my older Cathedrals songs, and he likes that kind of old stuff that I like. And he said: “Dianne, you really drove me crazy, and you didn’t know it.”

And I said, “Why?”

And he said, “I was lookin’ through every old Stamps-Baxter songbook I had, tryin’ to find that song! I just knew they’d dug up a gem from the past that I didn’t know, and I’d thought I knew all of them! And it was brand new!”

I said, “That’s the best compliment I ever had!” Because I love to write new songs that sound old. I love that one, I love “Master Builder” … and let me tell you why I love “Master Builder.” I always hear the full orchestration in my head. And that’s the first recorded song of mine that got the full orchestra treatment. We had done the demo of that song over here at the Ben Speer studio. Mark had sung the demo of that song, and Roger and I were there, thinkin’ we would send it to the Nelons—because we did not think the Cathedrals were gonna record a rock-flavored Southern Gospel song!

And we were sayin’, who’re we gonna get to do it, knowin’ all the time that Mark owned that song, we just knew.

Well, as not luck would have it, Bill Gaither produced their next project. Roger played it for him, and he loved it. And he talked Glen and George into doin’ that song. And it’s the title.

DJM: So he had to persuade them? Were they reluctant?

Dianne: Well, I don’t know that they were, but he showed them, “This is what y’all need to do. Show ’em you can do this young kinda stuff!”

I don’t know if the other guys had played it or not. But he was who God used to get that done. But it was the first time I ever heard that big treatment. And when Roger said it to me, he said, “Di, this is the one you’ve been waiting for. You’ve got to hear this.”

They did that last chorus three times. It’s really long.

I still love to write that rock flavor, like that one, “The Rock’s Between the Hard Place and You,” and on the new Kingsmen album, “He Picks up a Beggar on the Way.” But I love to write that scaldin’ track! Mark calls it my rock ‘n’ roll Gospel. I guess that sounds bad, but that’s what he calls it. But I love that.

It’s hard to pick among your children!

I love “We Shall See Jesus” because of what it means, and what it’s done for people.

I’ll tell you, one I love is “That Little Baby.” That taught me that a choir loves to tape their toes when they’re doing a Christmas musical. Most Christmas programs, it’s all slow. But a lot of church choirs did it, and when they did it, and when they get into it, their little faces just start to smile.

This will make you smile, knowing the fan that you are: The Kingdom Heirs just recorded that one.

DJM: “That Little Baby”!

Dianne: They’ve always wanted to do it. They were so sure it was a Christmas song, and when Gold City put it out and charted it, they said [snapped fingers] “Missed our chance!”

You know, years and years ago, when Bill and Dottie were writing big, everybody sang a great song. But that was before the top 40 came out, that format. The top 40 radio format changed all that. But I’m finally going to get to hear what it sounds like for them to do that. Arthur Rice’ll just wear it out!

DJM: The top 40 radio format being more where a song belongs to a group instead of to the genre?

Dianne: Well, what it is, is back in the old days, when you’d buy records, and someone sent the DJs a record, they just played everything on it. And the fans just kinda picked what was gonna be the hit by what they requested.

Now, though, the powers-that-be, whoever they are, decide what’s gonna be the single, most of the time.

It turns out to be that the songs people know you by are your singles. Because somewhere along the way is a non-performing writer. They’ll generally figure out most of the songs that are mine, because the name’s in the Singing News. But it’s like…unless they buy the record, they’ll never know about “When You Look at Me,” which will never go to radio, because it’s six and a half minutes long. “Keep Me on the Wheel” never went to the radio.

DJM: Really?

Dianne: “We Shall See Jesus” never went to radio!

DJM: Now I knew that.

Dianne: People think it was #1. Never went!

I’ll tell you, what did make the chart that was never singled was “Turn Your Back.” I saved a little chart from the Quartet Convention. It was the last one in there, but it was never singled, and it was there. They were already getting hot by then.

But that changed it. If someone has had a hit on the radio out of it, groups won’t do it. Even the B-level groups and the weekend warrior groups that call me, some of them will say that all they want’s original material. And I’m goin’, “Well that’s a mistake, ’cause most of my stuff has been cut, except the ones that have been around!”

And then they’ll say, “Well, we wouldn’t mind doin’ one if it’s just an album cut, but not if it’s closely associated with somebody.”

DJM: That’s just something I’d like to see change.

Dianne: Well, I’d love to see some things change like that, too.

DJM: Every now and then, you get exceptions.

Dianne: Yeah, a few times.

DJM: “Calvary Answers for Me.” Signature Sound did a great job with it, but when the Perrys decided that they were gonna try their hand at it … well, let’s just say that it’s the song that got me hooked on the Perrys. And then, with Joseph singing it now, I heard them do it a couple of months ago, and that was one of the most wonderful moments of the year for me.

Dianne: Absolutely! And they have a way with a power ballad. They have since the Mike Bowling days, and then through the Loren days. And if anybody wondered if Joseph could step in … I don’t think they wonder anymore! He owns that lead!

DJM: Are there any songs in Southern Gospel that come to mind that, when you hear them the first time, you’re like, “I wish I’d had that idea, I wish I’d written that song”? Or does that not happen?

Dianne: “Four Days Late.”

“Day Three.” Which I find out my co-writer friend Jerry Salley wrote. Greatly crafted song.

“He’d Still Been God,” my favorite Rodney Griffin song of all time.

The great hook is the key. If you’ve got writing chops at all, you can develop a great hook.

DJM: Somebody was talking to me in the vendors’ hall, just a few hours ago, saying “Rodney Griffin never wrote another ‘My Name is Lazarus.’” But I said, “He did write ‘He’d Still Been God.’”

Dianne: See, I love Lazarus … but the way “He’d Still Been God Moves,” nobody else could do it like that. And they have a new track to it—I just heard the new track. But to me, that one’s just great.

I love Aaron Wilburn’s writing. “Four Days Late” is a great example.

DJM: Do you think that in Heaven, we will sometimes sing the songs of earth?

Dianne: I think so.

DJM: I sure hope so!

Dianne: I think so.

I’ll tell you what I think; I have two theories. I don’t think songwriters will be able to quit writing songs up there. I don’t think we’ll be able to quiet! I think we’ll want to put down on Heavenly parchment, [whispers] what it looks like up here. Ooh, what it looks like!

Then we won’t be sayin’, “I’m gonna see,” we’ll be saying, “I’ve just been with Jesus! I’ve just asked Him everything I wanted to know, and He told me!

“Where have you been? I’ve been sitting in God’s lap. You know, He’s my Daddy, and I can talk to Him any time I want to!”

Guess who I just sat with? David! We wrote one together—he played the harp!

DJM: Now that’s a thought that never occurred to me. Dianne Wilkinson co-writing with David. But why not?

Dianne: Why not?

I’ll say, “David, I know you like praise, and I know you dance, ’cause the Bible says so. Let’s write an upbeat song up here!”

Angel Band … I know it’s supposed to be like a band of brothers, but I think it means band!

So I don’t think we’re gonna quit writing. I know there’s a new song that the angels can’t sing, but I think the Lord’s gonna let us write.

And I think when you take these great old preachers, these silver-haired giants of the Lord, I don’t think they’re gonna be able to turn off the preachin’. They won’t have to preach about sin and repentance anymore, but I don’t think they’ll be able to stop preaching about everything Jesus did for us, and what a great God we have!

I just believe that whatever you loved that had to do with worship, had to do with the King’s work, I just don’t think you can cut it off that quick! I just think in Heaven, we’ll keep doin’ some of those things that we loved to do.

There’s gonna be music there! There’s gonna be music!

Maybe everybody will be a writer up there. Wouldn’t that be great? So many people want to, and don’t have the gift … but yeah, there’ll be a bunch of us sitting around with a golden quill.

Oh, that’ll be great! I can’t wait!

DJM: This is jumping topics entirely, but I wanted to get this in, get this down somewhere. I remember a couple of years ago you were writing a column for a magazine, and you told the story behind the song Signature Sound did, “This Old Place.” But the magazine went out of print, and that column went down, and that story’s nowhere to be found. I was wondering if you could retell that story?

Dianne: That’s a very sweet story. I should have mentioned that song; I’m glad you brought it up. I don’t know why it didn’t come back—I guess because you can never think of all your songs.

My daddy came back from World War II a different person. My mother says that a man came back who looked like my daddy, but it wasn’t my daddy. And he was drinking. My daddy was never able to overcome that. And that was back in the ’40s, before there was any Al-Anon or any help for alcoholics like that.

So my daddy was a full-blown alcoholic, when he was still a young man. He was a medic; he was at the Battle of the Bulge, and he carted his friends away, what was left of ’em. And we know now what happens with many who come back from war, but back then, I don’t think they knew how to help people like that.

Bottom line, I’m a child of divorce, and no one my age had divorced parents when we grew up. So my mother and her two little ones moved into my grandmother’s house. My granddaddy had built that house, in Blytheville, Arkansas, in the ’40s. It was on a corner of a little, sweet neighborhood there, right around the corner from the Calvary Baptist Church. So we moved into that house, and I lived all of my life in that house, till I married.

After my grandparents passed on, my mother never re-married. She lived in that house until 2001, when she began to be so weak in her legs that we had to move her to Dyersburg. So “family home” doesn’t begin to say … I grew up being raised by my godly grandmother. She taught me about Jesus, she sent me for my first piano lesson.

I love every blade of grass growing there. There’s just something about that place—of course, everyone feels that way.

Well, my brother and I were put into the position of our mother had already moved in with him. His wife doesn’t work outside the home, and I do, so she lives with him. No one is supposed to have to do the final cleanup at your family home while your parent’s still alive. We had to pack all those things—our mother wasn’t able. We would go up on Saturdays, and pack up all those things.

We didn’t know how we would get it sold. It was run-down, and old. And as it turns out, my mother’s sweet neighbors bought the house for a son of theirs. And so I was on my way up there to help my brother do the final cleanup and turn the key over.

And, Daniel, my heart was all the way down in my knees. I just didn’t think I could do it.

I was focusin’ on the boards, and the nails, and the roof. And the Lord began to speak to me with that song. He got me to focus on the people in that house who were waiting for me.

I got the whole thing before I got there. It got me through that afternoon; I don’t think I could have done it any other way.

Well, this was in the Centergy days. And it was so personal that I almost didn’t send it to Niles Borop, my publisher, ’cause I thought, “This is so my song; this happened to me.” And I made a Gospel song out of it, but it was really about my homeplace.

But I told him about it, and he said, “No, just send it, just send it.” And that’s back when I was playing my own demos. I just played the simple piano. It’s really one of Terry [Franklin]’s stunning vocals.

When any of those Cathedrals boys were lookin’, back before we could mp3 stuff, unlike we’re taught to pitch songs, they wanted to hear virtually everything I had, so they could pick and choose from a disc. So I sent Ernie probably ten or twelve songs. He picked “Pray For Me”—their version is bluesy—and he picked that one. He said, “That song touches me, because I’ve lived that song.”

So he recorded it—sings it like an angel. And what happened—I still get emails from people about that song. And I thought, “I was so wrong!” Because everyone will live “This Old Place.” You’ve either already lived it, or you’re gonna.

I got an email from a lady a few months back. And she said, “We’re about to have to tear down our church, because we’re going to have to rebuild. We don’t believe we can stand it. We know the church is not the bricks, but we just don’t think we can stand it. We would like to use your song in our program to build our new church, because we think it’ll help us get through it.”

And I thought, “Well, what a good idea, to apply it to the church.”

I replied, “I’m honored, and I hope you will, but I want you to let me know how it goes.”

So later on, she emailed me; she said, “We broke ground. It’s goin’ up, and it was a happy occasion, and not a sad occasion, because we were able to focus on the people, on their influence, and where they were.” She said, “I don’t think we could have done it…”

So to say it’s special … there’s no way to describe it.

DJM: Have you ever had a Vocal Band cut?

Dianne: I’ve never had a Vocal Band cut. And I’ve always loved Guy, but with Michael…really want one with Michael.

DJM: What are some of your songs that went to radio, songs everybody knows, that took the longest to get cut? I know “Boundless Love” was obviously one, that waited nearly ten years, I think. What are some of the other ones?

Dianne: You know, it’s interesting. With most of mine, if they’re strong, they get picked up pretty quick.

Because here’s the way I do. When I’m hooked up with an exclusive publisher, which is now Daywind, they do pitching of course. But with the tried and true groups with whom I have a track record, and you know who those people are—they’re quartet boys, mostly—all of the offshoots of the Cathedrals, whatever configuration, all those boys—and the Kingdom Heirs, Triumphant, just so many. I have continued to pitch directly to all those people.

And a lot of them still like for me to just go ahead and send a disc with a lot on it. The Kingsmen did three of mine, this time. It’s the first time in their history that anybody has ever had three on one record. Ray just told me that this week.

Phillip, their lead singer, wanted songs. And he said, “I want everything you’ve got.” I sent him a disc with probably 15, 16 songs on it. So either that or one at a time.

And if I’m pitching straight to them and I have a track record, I know what they want from me. Well, Phillip called me back and said, “I like all these!”

I said, “Well, honey, I handpicked ’em for you!” Now he loves country Gospel, so I had some on there that were kinda country, and I had others on there that wasn’t really country, but I knew that he would like it.

DJM: But they gave it a little bit of a country twang, enough where you could hear how a country person could like it…

Dianne: Well, it could be. He liked all those. And when I send those along, the ones they pick, they cut ’em, or they hold ’em for the next one they do.

Now the ones they don’t … I’ll tell you this cute story. When we went to the SoGospelNews awards thing, back in the spring, I knew I wasn’t gonna win writer again, ’cause I had won the year before. I knew it was gonna be Marty’s year. But I still wanted to go.

So Gary Casto was there. And he said, “We’re lookin’ right now. We’ve never done a Dianne song, but we need some good quartet songs.”

I said, “Come to my car!” I had a bunch of demos.

I sat him down, put the CDs on, and he put a hold on “Beggar on the Way,” “They Went to Pray,” and one of mine that you’ve not heard yet, which I hope you hear soon—it’s a quartet song, think about the rapture now, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” [breaks into song]

Jesus shouts the proclamation,

Wanted dead or alive…

Well, he put that one on hold. Back to the studio, passed on “Beggar,” passed on “They Went to Pray.” Well, the Kingsmen turned right around and cut ’em.

There’s a song of mine called “I Believe, I Believe, I Believe.” It’s a swingy little Cathedrals-style song:

I wanna live like I know where I’m goin’

I wanna love like Jesus loves me

I wanna sail like the wind’s never blowin’

That kind of thing. Great demo.

Well, I played it for Rodney last year. What Rodney and I like to do is to sing our new ones to each other. We’ve done it for years.

Now I had the iPod, so he didn’t have to hear me. And he was sayin’, “I think we’re gonna hold that one! Is that one available?”

I said, “Yeah!”

Well, I hadn’t been to Arthur yet. So when Arthur heard it, he just fell out, fell out. I said, “Rodney just put it on hold.”

He said, “Well, we’re gonna go down there and talk to Rodney. He’ll pass on it at the last minute, and put one of his on it, and then I’m gonna get it! So go down there and tell him!”

So he took me down by the arm, and said, “Okay, let’s barter over this song.” He said, “You won’t do it, you won’t do it!” Rodney said, “We will, we will!”

They didn’t.

Arthur had to give it up.

DJM: The Kingdom Heirs didn’t do it?

Dianne: No—Greater Vision didn’t do it. And the Kingdom Heirs had already cut, and won’t cut again for two years.

Well, Mark Trammell’s got it on hold now.

Arthur said, “What did you say?”

I said, “Well, he’s looking right now.”

He said, “I can’t believe you didn’t save that for me!”

Bottom line, I know I’ve got a cut on that one.

So through the process of pitching—Rick Shelton pitches like crazy, especially to people I don’t have a real personal relationship with. But I pitch to my tried and true boys, and as a consequence, they get picked up.

DJM: Now speaking of your tried and true boys, I didn’t want the interview to go by without some reference to the Kingdom Heirs. Well, I know we’ve had brief references, but when did they first cut one of your songs, and how did it build from there?

Dianne: I’ll tell you what—this is funny. I have to tell you, Steve French is unique among all my friends. Steve French is a straight shooter.

DJM: He’ll tell you if he likes the song … or not?

Dianne: Well, whatever the issue on the table is. If you don’t want to know what he thinks, don’t ask him because in a kind way, he’ll just say it. He says what needs to be said. He’s just a straight shooter like that.

Well, I didn’t know Steve French. I knew who they were.

Out of the blue one day, I got a phone call. I remember thinking, “How’d he find out who I was, or where I lived?”

And then in his darlin’, East Tennessee Steve French voice, “Dianne, this is Steve French, Kingdom Heirs. We just cut your song.”

I said, “Which one?”

He said, “Well, Gold City never did anything with ‘I’ve Passed Over into Canaanland,’ and it just kinda laid on their record, and they never sent it to the radio, but we’ve always loved it, and we just cut it, and we’re gonna send it to the radio!”

I said, “Well, honey, help yourself!”

Instantly, we were in sync with each other. There is a personality thing about my humor that just blends with some people, and he was one of them.

And then, he said, “What else have you got? We liked that ‘un so well, send us something else!”

Well, I was just beginning to write for Centergy, and I had some new ones. And I put some on a disc, and mailed ’em to him. Didn’t think much more about it.

A year or two later, I get a call. “Dianne, this is Steve French. We just cut five of them songs you sent me!” It was on the City of Light project.

They did “Salvation is the Miracle to Me” that Legacy did. They didn’t care if somebody else had done it, they’d do it anyway. They still kinda will.

They did “Common Little Things,” they did “City of Light,” they did the bluesy kind that Arthur loves so well, “Do You Know what it Means”—and, you see, N’Harmony had cut that.

DJM: Five on one record! That’s a lot!

Well, we got on a roll. The first thing I noticed is that when you get something back from the Kingdom Heirs, and it’s quartet, it’s so good you can’t stand it. ‘Cause whatever lineup they have, Steve and Arthur are the George and Glen today. They are the core. Whatever lineup, it’s still gonna be Kingdom Heirs. And it’s still gonna be traditional quartet, in-the-pocket.

DJM: And even so, this lineup they have today is one of the most incredible lineups they’ve ever put on stage.

Dianne: Amazing, amazing.

So, to make the long story long, from “I’ve Passed Over,” which was about 2000, till today, they have recorded thirty of my sings in that in that period of time. It didn’t hurt to have eight on True to the Call and nine on When You Look at Me.

There was another one that I’ve had three on, and I’ve had two on a couple. With them and with me, if supply and demand is the right kind of expression, I can get in Arthur’s head now. I can think in his head, if you know what I’m sayin’. I can tell by his eyes when I’m pitching to his face. I can tell by his breathin’ on the telephone when I’m singin’ one to him! I swear I can!

And so I know what they want, and I know when I finish one if it’s got their name on it. I just know.

And for some reason that I can’t explain, they love to do songs I come up with.

DJM: When you wrote “What We Needed,” did you know it was a generally great song, or did you know it was a Kingdom Heirs song?

Dianne: I’ll tell you what happened with “What We Needed”; it’s a neat story.

I had seen Cold Mountain—which, by the way, if you’ve got the Cold Mountain DVD, you just need to throw it away. You ever seen that movie? Civil War?

DJM: No. I have seen so few movies—a few independent Christian films and a very few classics, but I’m just such a Southern Gospel nerd that I don’t have time!

Dianne: Well, I’m a movie nut. Well, Cold Mountain is a Civil War drama. I watched it because I knew that I loved historical romance. It was Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. There was a scene in that movie when they’re in a little mountain town in North Carolina. They’re in a little white frame church, and they were singing, spirited singing.

In the plot line, this was the occasion where someone came whooping in on a horse, “They’ve declared war!” and the boys got all excited. But they were singin’ a song, and it was an old, old hymn.

I guess people did this in the day; they were keeping the beat with their right hand. [demonstrates] And the name of the song was, [breaks into song]

And I don’t have to stay here long

Oh, yes, my Lord, and I…

And I was going, “Oh, I like that!”

And I did some investigating, got online. And the singin’ was really being done by the Sacred Harp singers. They’re the people who are keeping the shape note thing goin’.

I got a phone number, and I called. An elderly gentleman picked up the phone. I was trying to get the hymnal that had that song. He said, “Yes, ma’am, I got it right here. It’s so much money; you send a check, I’ll send it to you.”

I thought, “God love him, he doesn’t even do the credit card thing!”

Well, I got it, and it’s full of that kind of song. And I will always … “What we Needed” was the next song after that. And it’s … [breaks into song]

We have never seen all through history

I know it was inspired by my love for that.

And then, I thought, “We’ve gotta change gears in the chorus. We’ve gotta quartet this thing into high gear.” But I will always believe that that hymn influenced that.

And when I got the demo in, I thought: “This is one of the greatest demos Terry’s ever done.” And I knew they would take it.

Through this time, I was sendin’ “Since Jesus Moved In,” and some of those other ones, and he was holding them just like that. And so when he got down to the final selection, of course, that was in the list. And he said, “We’re gonna single ‘Rock and a Hard Place’ first, but I’m telling you what, ‘What We Needed’ is gonna be the hit on this record.”

Arthur has the wisdom—he just knows. He said, “It’s gonna be a big song, I just know it.”

Well, I remember the first time I ever saw him do it in person, and up came the crowd, did like they do. And the cutest thing I ever heard about it, and you’ll appreciate this: Arthur has a friend. He called Arthur, and said, “You really should put a warning on that song: ‘Do not listen while driving.’”

I thought, “Oh, I like that!” And it’s true!

So I did know it was for them. And I’ll honestly say that I knew somebody would cut it, but I knew it needed their touch, because Arthur is such a modest man. Nobody knows, but he is a master producer, arranger. He knows exactly where the mod should be; he knows when it needs a false ending; he knows when to tear off another chorus. He knows all that instinctively. So I knew what he would do with it.

And there was a little bit of speculation about “I Want You to Know,” because that was co-written with Chris Binion. It’s a big ol’ barn-burning convention song, too, but he turned out to be right about “What We Needed.” All four singles did well, and they all had my name on it, by the grace of God.

And that’s one of my favorites, too. It just gets people excited. And the message—it’s what everybody needs, they just don’t know it. And I wanted to bring in the people of other religions; they don’t believe like we do, but that’s what they need, too. And He’d take them in any time they’d come. And it’s a song about the Gospel. And still, they just wear it out! [Said in a positive tone!]

DJM: Well, I’d probably better wrap it up. I could talk forever…

Dianne: Well, I’ve enjoyed it, Hon!

DJM: Any other thoughts or comments you wanted to share, in closing?

Dianne: Just that I have a burning desire to write, as long as I’m able to write well. I’ve talked to a few people whom I trust and value to say, “When I can’t do it anymore, pull me aside, and give me the word.”

They’re people who love me, and they say, “Oh, we don’t think we could ever do that!”

But I say, “Don’t let me be a fool, don’t let me start turning out junk just because I want to keep doing it.”

But, Mosie Lister’s like 88 years old. And he’s not turning out anything but great stuff. And if Dottie was here, she would be, too.

DJM: I saw Mosie earlier today, but I haven’t heard many new songs from him in the last few years.

Dianne: I have written two songs with Mosie Lister. [whispers] I cannot believe it!

Steve Mauldin got us together, ’cause Mosie had never done any co-writin’. And probably of everyone writing today, I’m the only one that’s doing the old-time kind that he would like. And I emailed him—he does email!—and he’s kind of a taciturn gentleman, doesn’t have a lot to say, you know. He sent me a lyric; it was called “The Amen Corner.” It was about a guy walking into a church and asking, “Y’all got an amen corner in here? That’s where I want to sit!”

So I put a little tune to it… [breaks into song]

Do you have an Amen corner in here….

That’s not been cut. Then we wrote another one, and I can’t remember its title right now. Through the process of the interchange and all that, I was calling him Mr. Mosie, because I thought, “I can’t say Mosie! That would be like walking up to Dad Speer and saying, ‘Hey, George! How ‘ya doin?’”

So he wrote me back and said, “If you call me Mr. Mosie, I don’t answer. You gotta call me Mosie.” And I’m thinking, “I don’t think I can!” But I got to where I could.

I’m still writing for the Gospel Music News online, by the way; it’s just all online. The U.S. Gospel News was the one before. Paul Boden was the publisher, and Paul died with cancer. He’d been my friend since I was in high school. He comes from northeast Arkansas; our groups sang together all those years.

So I wanted to interview him [Mosie]. So I emailed him the questions, and he answered. And I wanted a picture. And he sent me a beautiful color picture. He’s still got his beautiful hair; he’s still a handsome gentleman. And I wrote back and I said, “I have a problem! I don’t want to send the picture to those people; I want the picture myself!”

Well, about three days later, here came my picture of him! So here’s my mantel, if you’re looking in my den, which is my music room: The painting of Glen and George, which everyone has; mine is framed beautifully. And here’s my eight-by-ten of Mosie. And I think that’s fitting. I’ve got other stuff there, too.

I still can’t believe that I’ve written with him. And when we looked down on the songwriter’s showcase, and he’s right down there and I’m right here, I’m goin’, “Lord, how did you bless an old Arkansas girl to that extent!”

When I was little and going to singings and lovin’ it, I never dreamed, I never dreamed … it’s been a marvelous thing.

And that’s what’s been on my mind now. I want to take the time I have left and still get the doctrinal truth on paper, get the Gospel message on paper, get it out. Southern is the only people doin’ that, Daniel, to that deep degree.

DJM: Yes. You’ll get occasional deep songs elsewhere …

Dianne: but it’s not the norm.

DJM: Like the song the McKameys cut, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”—what an awesome lyric!

Dianne: It is.

DJM: But that’s the rare exception.

Dianne: My favorite song from another genre—and my brother sings it like an angel— [breaks into song…]

Fly to Jesus

Fly to Jesus…

Have you ever heard it? It has no chorus—it has the most beautiful melody, and it’s about the seasons of life. When you’re happy, laugh with Jesus. When you’re sad, cry with Jesus. It’s the prettiest thing I ever heard.

DJM: Was it the Chris Rice song?

Dianne: I don’t know.

DJM: ‘Cause I had a friend who sang a song “Come to Jesus.”

Dianne: That’s it! You talk about one I wish I had written—that’s high on that list.

Well, I want to get that message out while there’s still time. I know we’re in the last days. I know there’s not much time. The Holy Spirit is not moving in huge ways like He once did; He’s withdrawing. He’s getting ready to take us home.

So I feel an urgency. And I also feel an urgency to pass it down to the younger ones, as I said. It’s a hand-me-down thing.

We like to think our best one is still in us, Daniel. I’d like to keep writing till He comes. I’d really like to see the rapture—I’d like to live till then. That could happen! I want to cheat death! That’s why I put that line in a song—“I might need a tomb / But I hope they can sell it / I’ll be dead and I’ll be buried / But I’ll live to tell it”!

DJM: Not ringing a bell—what song was that?

Dianne: Well, it hasn’t been cut yet. It’s on hold. It comes from Jesus [breaks into song]

Jesus died and was buried and He lived to tell it

That was my hook—“He Lived to tell It.” Mark had it on hold; Arthur had it on hold. It’ll get cut one of these days.

That’s my whole thing. I may have a tomb some day, but I won’t need that tomb. I’d like to cheat it—just go straight up, get changed in transit!

But I want to write what God has for me to write till I go.

If I never wrote another thing, and I was still here, that would grieve me. But I would be happy that He gave me what He did. I’d be happy with what He’s given—because what He gave was what was supposed to be given.

I’ll tell you what else—He knows who’s supposed to do ’em, too. Tell you what, “Safe on the Glory Side” was pitched first to the Booth Brothers. I sang it to Jim Brady’s face, and he just fell for it. Just loved it. And he was gonna go back and talk to the other guys about it, and in the process, I sung it to Mark Trammell, and the rest is history, ’cause Mark put it on hold!

I thought about that tonight, when Jim Brady was up there singing with him—I thought, “Well, God love you, you do get to sing it sometimes, anyway!” But God meant for Mark to have that song.

DJM: And for Eric Phillips to sing it, too. Because that Always Have a Song project—I am so glad Eric Phillips went out on that note.

Dianne: Well, that brought Eric out. That showed people what Eric could do.

DJM: That he had that recording in him before he came off the road

Dianne: He did, he did.

DJM: When I first heard their music, I heard what they could be, that potential, and I’m glad they realized it while Eric was still with them.

Dianne: God’s in charge of who does the song. When you think you’ve got it like it’s gonna be, He’ll change gears every time.

So that’s my burden. Keep writing the best I can write, craft it the best I can craft it, and give it the best I’ve got, as long as I can get it done.

I’ve loved talking to you, Hon!

DJM: I’ve loved talking to you, too!


For more about and and and —and other Southern Gospel news and commentary—follow our RSS feed or sign up for our email updates!

44 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. Wonderful interview, Daniel. Absolutely wonderful. I did not think you could have topped your interview with Mark, but this may have done it. Thanks, Daniel!

    • Thanks! Doing it was an incredible experience. 🙂

  2. She’s the best! Great interview…thanks Daniel as always. And since I suspect she’ll see this, I’ll also say thank you to Mrs. Wilkinson for giving us so much wonderful insight. Keep on writing those old-fashioned gospel songs…that is “What We Needed”, and what we still need today.

  3. What a wonderful visit with one of my favorite people and the woman I consider my songwriting mother! Dianne Wilkinson is the REAL DEAL, and I am so honored and blessed to call her a dear friend and song-writing mentor. She knows I want to be her when I grow up! LOL! Some of my favorite songs down through the years have been Dianne songs. Before I ever met her I knew her through her music, and now to know her and know she’s as wonderful as I’d hoped she’d be is just a blessing. She herself is a blessing to the entire song-writing community, and I speak for countless writers when I say that. Much love to you, Mama Di!!

    • I’m honored that you’d stop by! Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  4. Yes – Fantastic interview!

    Interestingly, though – you were talking at the beginning about her testimony and whether it had influenced her songs. I thought immediately about “You Gotta Know” – wasn’t that by her? I’ve always been surprised by the depth of that song lyric.

    Thirty minutes ago I was going to make a quick comment and leave because I didn’t have time to finish reading the interview just now … but it was really good!

    • Yes, she did write that one. Hmm!

  5. Ditto on the great interview.

    I will add that although Dianne is known for her quartet songs and that is where she has had a great measure of success, I personally like her mixed group cuts, like “Saved” and “I’m Gonna Get Up” by Karen Peck and New River, “You Gotta Go By Grace,” by the Hoppers, “It Ain’t Gonna Worry Me Long” by the Talley Trio and “King Jesus Is Coming” by the Whisnants, which by all means should be their next single.

    • I need to check out “King Jesus is Coming.” From the title, it sounds awesome!

      • King Jesus will be the Whisnant’s next “New Day Dawning.” It’s a co-write with Chris Binion, and it’s not only well-written, but also arranged very well, so each vocalist in that group is featured on a lead.

  6. What a great in-depth interview with one of the very best Gospel music writers alive today. It was also really neat to hear some of the stories behind the songs we know and love. That guy that does a bunch of her demos told me he liked it, too.

    • How neat that you stopped by! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  7. She’s long been one of my favorites…I’m one of those people who opens up a CD after I get it and looks right away to see who the songwriters are. I always love to see her name because I know it’s gonna be good.

    • I do the same! In fact, I’m aiming for a complete collection of all her recorded songs. 🙂

  8. I knew in advance it was going to be long. BUT….I’m so glad you and she covered so many aspects of her life and career because as well as I know DW….i realized that I maybe didn’t I didn’t know so much after all. I am proud to say that I believe in all my heart the DW was put in my life by GOD and we have a whole lotta’ songs to prove it. To win 2009 “SONG of the YEAR” with her (‘WHAT SALVATION’S DONE FOR ME”- Booth Brothers) has been one of the highlights of my life and most of it has to do with the fact that as she said, she writes OTHER peoples life stories so well and in the case of that song…she wrote mine. Oh and by the way…I am proud to be one of those co-writers that she gave a copy of the book “DISPENSATIONAL TRUTH” to. It is displayed proudly on the coffee table between my 2 couches in my writing/music room along with a framed picture of DW and myself. I can just hear her saying that I need to be READING that thing…not ‘displaying’ it….( i have read some of it and looked at the graphics and maps)….and whenever I am working on one of her lyrics…I just look up from my piano or guitar and there she is looking at me saying…”Hurry Up, Hon….only 11 more to go!!!!!”
    Thanks Daniel for a wonderful interview with a remarkable lady.

    • You’re welcome!

      Wow, if this has things you didn’t know about her, that’s really something! 🙂

  9. Wonderful interview, Daniel! It took forever to read it, but it was worth every minute! I think this is the best one you’ve ever done. And, Dianne is such a hoot….Hon!

    • I know she is! I don’t think I ever had more fun doing an interview . . . and I’ve interviewed some pretty incredible people (Mark Trammell, Kim Collingsworth) and some pretty funny people (Aaron Wilburn, The Ball Brothers). 🙂

  10. This is the best interview you have done. I became familiar with her several years ago when I got hooked on the Kingdom Heirs and saw all the songs they did by her checked out her web site and saw all the songs she had written, all the songs that I loved so much. Now I can hear a song and just about bet it is one of her songs. I think she is THE best songwriter of all. Thanks for that interview.

    • You are certainly welcome! 🙂

  11. Awesome interview Daniel, I really did not feel I had time to read the whole thing at one sitting, but once I got started, I could not break away.
    She is one Great Lady, and so gifted. I am always in awe of someone like her that the Lord has blessed with such talent.
    I have not been following your Blog for that long, but this was the Best Interview that I have read….She has so many interesting stories to tell. What a life she has lived….

    • If I sit back and think about it, I’m very much in awe of her, too . . . but she has such a disarming and friendly personality (the mother or grandma everyone wishes they had!) that it’s hard to be in awe in a live conversation. 🙂

  12. awesome daniel. Your site has become THE place for southern gospel. Too bad you can’t make money at this so you could do this full time. You are great at it.

  13. Thanks Daniel for a superb interview and insight to the REAL Lady Di!!! She has been my favorite SG writer since first hearing her songs with my favorite group, the Cathedrals back in the early 80’s. It was my privilege to meet her for the first time at NQC this year, and she is a wonderful lady!!! I know that Rodney Griffin is a wonderful song writer also, but this past year it was a travesty that Diane was not the “Song writer of the year”, she had so many great songs on the chart all year long. This interview should be in the Singing News Magazine for everyone to read! (Of course just to include those that don’t have a computer to read your interviews….lol)

    • That’s the truth (about SN).

    • Thanks!

      But at 25 pages typed, this interview would take up all the non-advertising space in one issue!

      • Well … ya gotta point. 😀

      • And how on earth could you condense this? I mean, what part would I want to leave out?

      • You could do a year-long serial. It would maybe mean a Songwriter of the Year award!

      • Hmm, now there’s an idea! ❗

      • And I do think there are lots of little bits here and there that could be abridged if necessary. I don’t know how that would affect the total length. But we’re probably dreaming.

      • I agree, on both counts. 🙂

  14. I’ve always known that Southern Gospel fans were the shining best, and I can’t miss this opportunity to express my thanks to all of you for your kind words. As a non-performing writer, I’m so blessed that so many of you know the songs and actually read what’s on those CDs….as Aaron would say – bless your heart!!! Daniel is a wonderful interviewer, as we already knew…and Hon, you did a great job of getting it all down; when you get a songwriter talking about her songs, it’s like a Mama talking about her kids!! God bless all of you, and please pray for all of us who write Southern Gospel…that we will keep it true…keep it strong, and STAY IN THE BOOK! Love in Christ…Dianne.

    • Thank you so much, again, for doing it!

  15. Wow…just wow. What a brilliant interview…this has to be your best ever Daniel! So glad I stumbled across it. Dianne is one of my favorite SG writers ever. I admire her commitment to writing songs with meaning, with a point. She’s a one in a million. Her song “High And Lifted Up” is one of the greatest songs the Cathedrals ever recorded, in my opinion. It just gives me goosebumps. Thank you for taking the time to give us this wonderfully unabridged look into what makes this amazingly talented woman tick!

    • Thanks!

      “wonderfully unabridged” – I LOVE that phrase!

  16. This is the first time I read it. Great interview about a great person who has written great songs. Thanks, Daniel!

    • You’re welcome! Interviewing her was probably the most incredible experience I’ve had since starting this site.

  17. Daniel, I bought an accompanyman tape of the song “goin ‘in style” in 1988 composed by Dianne Wilkinson. I loved singing it in church. Unfortunately I lost it in moving. Do you know of any way I could find the song in a sound track cd? Thank you for your time and God Bless you. Sincerely desperate, Dianne Leifheit

  18. I am trying to get the words of the song “He Came Back”by he Cathedrals many years ago. I am putting together my own funeral service to spare my loved ones upon my death. I have a dear friend I grew up with who is a minister, and he also plays a good guitar and sings beautifully. I would like to get the words for the sole purpose of him singing the song at my funeral. When I first heard the song on my car radio so many years ago, it made a beautiful life impression on me. Can you help me? Thank you!

    Love in Christ, Nita Owenby

    • Nita, it’s against copyright law for me to post them online without direct permission from the copyright owner, which I don’t have. I would suggest listening to the song and writing them out.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Question of the Week: Joseph Habedank | SouthernGospelBlog.com - [...] a year ago (now two years ago!), I posted an interview with Dianne Wilkinson; one highlight was her account…