Danny Dill enjoyed one of the most remarkable second acts in country music history -- after splitting with wife and longtime Grand Ole Opry duet partner Annie Lou Stockard, he abandoned his career as a performer in favor of composing and crafted some of the most indelible songs in the American roots music canon, most notably "Long Black Veil" and "Detroit City." Born Horace Eldred Dill in Huntingdon, TN, on September 19, 1925, he launched his performing career as a teen, singing and playing guitar on a series of radio stations including WTJS in Jackson, MS; KLCN in Blytheville, AR; WNOX in Knoxville, TN; and WMC in Memphis, TN. In 1944 Dill signed on with famed country comedian Whitey Ford -- the so-called "Duke of Paducah" was also responsible for suggesting his new hire change his name to "Danny." In addition to talents including Salty Holmes, Barbara Jeffers, Jack Kenndal, and Ralph Caputo, the Ford road show included 18-year-old Annie Lou Stockard, whose sweet, innocent voice harmonized perfectly with Dill's own crystalline vocals -- off-stage, they began dating and soon married. When Ford headlined Nashville station WSM's celebrated Grand Ole Opry radio showcase in 1946, Annie Lou and Danny proved such a hit that the couple remained with the program for more than a decade. For a time, the duo also headlined their own WSM program, broadcast live each weekday morning at 5:30 a.m.
In addition to their work with Ford and on the Opry, Annie Lou and Danny were featured on Hank Thompson's 1948 program Smoky Mountain Hayride, and served as regulars on Eddy Arnold's CBS series Hometown Reunion. The couple also toured in support of Ernest Tubb, and while Annie Lou soon curtailed her travel commitments to raise their daughter, Danny continued with Tubb on his own, even joining the Nashville legend for a 1953 trek across Korea. That same year, Annie Lou and Danny reunited with Ford for a new road show, dubbed The Duke of Paducah and the Nashville Gang. Dill launched his songwriting career with the 1954 Carl Smith release "If You Saw Her Through My Eyes," but he continued focusing his attention on performing until 1957, when he and Annie Lou left the Opry. Although the couple later resurfaced in vehicles including television's The George Morgan Show, their exit from the Opry ranks negatively impacted their stature as performers -- their marriage was also on the rocks, and eventually they divorced. Dill briefly continued on as a solo act, in 1960 recording the LP Folk Songs from the Wild West for MGM. A follow-up, Folk Songs from the Country, appeared on Liberty in 1963, but neither record generated any interest at retail.
After leaving the Opry, Dill began to channel his creative energies into composing, and in 1959 he teamed with Marijohn Wilkin to author "Long Black Veil." Intended to evoke "an instant folk song," the ballad drew inspiration from several contemporary news stories, including the unsolved murder of a Catholic priest in New Jersey, but its grim lyrics and funereal atmosphere indeed recalled the rustic ballads of a long-gone America. First recorded by honky tonk legend Lefty Frizzell, "Long Black Veil" is now recognized among the truly classic songs of the postwar era, recorded by artists spanning from the Band to Johnny Cash to the Dave Matthews Band. Also in 1959 Dill penned the Jim Reeves hit "Partners," solidifying his growing reputation as a master of the story-song formula, and in 1962 he collaborated with Mel Tillis on Bobby Bare's Grammy-winning smash "Detroit City," a plaintive portrait of the alienation suffered by rural Southerners relocating north in search of work. In all, Dill authored more than 100 songs during his decades-plus affiliation with Music City-based Cedarwood Publishing Company, and in 1975 he was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Dill served as a writer/consultant for Buckhorn Music until retirement. After years out of the spotlight, he resurfaced in 2006 with a self-released solo album, Quality Is Always in Style. Dill died in a Nashville hospital on October 23, 2008 -- he was 84 years old. ~ Jason Ankeny