Meet Clay Dilmore, WFSU's 'Tiny Desk' Fan Favorite

Apr 1, 2016

People who have great musical talent typically discover that fact fairly early on. Clay Dilmore is a high school English teacher whose musical abilities emerged relatively late in life.  He got the most votes among the local entrants to NPR's Tiny Desk Contest. Dilmore is WFSU's "fan favorite". He came to our studios this week, and he'll soon take the stage in WFSU-TV's "Local Routes" show.

Clay Dilmore says his parents did buy him a guitar when he was a kid, but it wasn’t until his college days that he really got interested in playing music.

“Of all things I was in a psychology class," he said. " I was sitting in the back of the room with a friend of mine and he walked in with a guitar in his hand and started playing songs and the most amazing thing was I recognized what they were.  This was a live performance and I recognized what the songs were and immediately I thought, ‘I’ve got to do that!’”

Dilmore plays his guitar in the WFSU studios
Credit LHatter / WFSU News

So Dilmore started playing and singing on a regular basis.  He eventually added a little bit of keyboard to his capabilities.  But he never turned professional.  He got a teaching degree from Florida State and has been an English Teacher – twice “Teacher of the Year” – at Jackson County’s Cottondale High School.  Ironically, his wife Rebecca, also an FSU grad, is the school’s music teacher.  A big NPR fan, Dilmore loves the regular Tiny Desk concerts and was inspired to enter the recent Tiny Desk competition.

“This whole contest was really just sort of a shot in the dark, like: ‘Hey, I’ve been playing music and writing songs for a long time now.  No one’s known anything about it.  I’m 30; I’m not getting any younger. Let’s throw some stuff out there and see what sticks.’”

But first, Dilmore had to shoot a video of himself playing and singing.  Luckily, he says, a great setting for that video was close at hand.

Hey, I've been playing music and writing songs for a long time now. No one know anything about it. I'm 30; I'm not getting any younger.

“One of the requirements of the Tiny Desk Contest was you had to have a desk somewhere in there.  So that’s great!  I have a whole classroom full of desks in there; it’s no problem.  So I pushed a couple to the back of the room and I’ve collected bookshelves so that my kids can check out a book anytime they want and I try to keep it updated with some of the literature that young people like to read; those who still read literature.”

All that remained to be done was to choose a song to perform on the video.

Clay Dilmore speaks to WFSU's Tom Flanigan.
Credit LHatter / WFSU News

“It was actually the song that I wrote as soon as I heard that the competition existed.  So whenever I heard about the competition and I thought about entering a song, I always go upstairs and pick around on the guitar and see what happens and the song came out of it and the song came out pretty much complete in a couple of hours," he said. "I’m not really good at writing anything but sad songs so I figured that I might as well go with what I know.  If I went with a syrupy/happy song that wasn’t something I believed in, then it probably wouldn’t go over very well.  But it is down tempo and it is downbeat and I was worried about that a little bit, but I thought, ‘a song’s a song; if it connects with people, that’s what matters.’”

That song would wind up connecting with literally thousands of people who voted it the best submission among the six regional Tiny Desk finalists.  It’s entitled, “Henry Goes to War.”

“Who goes to war with the best of intentions, who goes to war like so many of our young men do with a slight romanticization of it, but comes back different because of the things that he’s seen and the differences affect all of the relationships; with his wife and his community.”

Clay Dilmore.  WFSU’s fan-favorite in NPR’s Tiny Desk Competition.  Now that you’ve heard Clay and his music, be sure to see him during WFSU-TV’s next “Local Routes” segment that debuts April 14th.  You can follow him on twitter @babybearclay