Donna Dean
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Donna Dean

Papakura, New Zealand | Established. Jan 01, 2012 | INDIE

Papakura, New Zealand | INDIE
Established on Jan, 2012
Duo Americana Singer/Songwriter




"No Depression"


Albert Lee, Amos Garrett, Redd Volkaert and Gurf Morlix team on Award-Winning artist Donna Dean’s new collection

“Now I know some people who sold their souls to the devil and they don’t sound nothin’ like Robert Johnson...”
To suggest Donna Dean’s been on a roller coaster the last two years is an understatement. For those unacquainted with Donna Dean – last year she won The New Zealand Country Music Award for Best Country Music Album & Best Country Music Song of 2011. Winning two of the highest honors in New Zealand for country music writing and recording – accepting the Tuis for the RIANZ country music album of the year and the APRA best country song for “What Am I Gonna Do?”

What is exceptional is that Donna is closer to what real American country music is than most American artists who continue to reap awards in Nashville for what is essentially pop-music and not true country music at all.

But, maybe that’s what today’s audience wants to hear – or maybe they don’t know any better. The further away one gets from what something is supposed to be it eventually blurs to the point where it becomes – unseen.

Donna Dean is far closer to the traditions of an Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Rhonda Vincent, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Martha Wainwright (and she’s from Canada), than the country artists who are beginning to sound more like commercial pop music.

So it’s my assessment that much of American country music has moved so far south it’s taken up a home in Australia and New Zealand, and so far North it vacations in Canada. I will admit, that – some not all – American artists are in some netherworld of what the country artists before them had originally created. Some not all… keep the wolves from my door.

Maybe the reason lies in the possibility that most modern country artists really want to be rock stars -- be a little perverse and vulgar – because that’s what sustains a career? Or does it? A fine bluegrass artist like Rhonda Vincent actually found a VALUABLE bluegrass song from a New Zealand writer who is so far away from the Kentucky-Tennessee mountains that it’s ironic….or maybe a miracle. But, Rhonda knew something good when she heard it. It didn’t matter where it came from. Good is good.

Donna has recorded with Russell Smith & the Amazing Rhythm Aces & wrote the title track to the 2010 Grammy nominated bluegrass album – Rhonda Vincent’s “Destination Life.” Bluegrass? From New Zealand? A resounding yes….

Valuable? Well, Donna Dean must have had some value for Don McLean when she was chosen by him personally to open for the “American Pie” legend. Then she continued to bring her shows to the States and even Europe. One fiddler on her new album is from Denmark!! And this woman can go toe to toe with any of American country’s best.

The proof is in the music. Donna is one of the best country singers not from the United States. She remains an artist the naïve American country media (and audience maybe) have yet to discover. And this is despite a slow concentrated build in popularity by the ears who have been fortunate to hear this marvelous voice.

After all this pontificating, I finally arrive at the follow-up CD “Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts” – to what seems to be an almost monumental chore to overcome. How do you top the success of an album such as “What Am I Gonna Do?”

Yes, profoundly, “what was she going to do?”

She could bring in a rock band and go full throttle commercial like the American artists. Or, just re-write some of her successes from previous albums and cross her fingers. She could put together a live album of the same songs and hold her breath for a year. How about putting together some tunes and calling them “out-takes” just in case they don’t impress the audience a second time?

But Donna Dean didn’t do that.

Instead, she made friends along the way, moved to Australia and then assembled an entirely new group of musicians. In essence, she did what Bob Dylan does regularly – especially when he has a successful album. He starts over again.

According to her producer John Egenes: We recorded without high tech gimmicks; Donna simply sat down in the studio with Marcel Rodeka, John Dodd, and me (a few pickers) (rhythm section) and played the songs, one by one. For you engineer wireheads, the tracks were recorded with only 7 or 8 microphones, total; drums and all. Her reference vocals are what you hear. No overdubs there; she just sang the songs and played her guitar and we kept those takes.

So what do we also have here?

We have some recognizable names lending a helping hand who have done just that for many artists: Let’s start with the incredible English guitarist Albert Lee who has respect from musicians he has either recorded with or performed with on both sides of the Atlantic: The Everly Brothers, Eric Clapton, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Joe Cocker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley’s bassist Jerry Scheff and countless other musicians.

There is Amos Garrett – famous for the guitar solo in Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis.” Amos also graced music by: Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Anne Murray.

Redd Volkaert – a former Merle Haggard guitarist who won a 2009 Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Then there’s Gurf Morlix who also plays and contributes a track on this new Donna Dean album. (There was a February 18th 2013 write up on Gurf in No Depression). Gurf is an American multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter and record producer from Austin, Texas. Among his clients: Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Mary Gauthier and he toured with the late Warren Zevon.

This new Donna Dean collection surprised me because the path Donna chose was – a wise artist’s choice. This album is – let’s call it Donna’s “Nebraska.”

Like Bruce Springsteen it’s far more personal, a little more laid back than the previous album, a little more “live” in recording than multi-tracked, leans heavily on storytelling that can be weaved together. The energy is in the craftsmanship Donna and the musicians display. A real curiosity here…

The title track opens the album: “Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts,” with an upbeat intro showcasing a Charlie Daniels’ style fire with it’s somber lyric, lightning fast guitars courtesy of Albert Lee and scorching fiddle by Denmark’s Jane Clark (yes, Denmark. I guess even they understand American country music more so than we can understand) – her fiddle playing is passionate as it duels with the guitars with vigor – it’s like sucking on an ice cube that was in a glass of whiskey. It may be water but it’s strong water.

Donna Dean? She has lost none of her power and love for what she does best with a lyric sewn together into a traditional sounding melody. This is what a winning artist possesses and never loses sight of.

“Twister” follows and is pasted down tight and straight -- with crystal clear guitars and banjos. Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris would have a cat fight for this. This is bleak – in a “Nebraska” kind of way. “Why’d you do it John take her life like that….”

As sad as the tale is, there’s lots to envy here. It IS what makes for a great country legend song. This is what Donna Dean has learned from our own American mountain storytelling traditions – the way its told in brilliant movies like “Songcatcher” with Janet McTeer -- that many artists in America have been disconnected from. Some American songwriters still adhere to this formula: Buddy Miller, Jon Dee Graham, Billy Joe Shaver – but, these are legends of the business and Donna Dean is righteously so – hot on their heels.

“Banjo Mac,” written by Donna Dean and Bill Chambers – shifts the repertoire into a more positive gear. Donna reminisces about when her own mother played an old Jimmie Rodgers song on her guitar when she was a youngster. I don’t believe I’m too far off in presuming this is definitely Donna’s “Nebraska” as she winds through songs that are head and shoulders above average commercial country music. If Jimmie Rodgers only knew how far his influence reached.

Just listen to how honey sweet Donna’s voice is on the words of this incredible tale. You can’t teach this to someone who wants to sing -- they have to understand it, absorb it and most importantly they have to sincerely love it. Donna loves it.

The musicians on “Banjo Man” continue to rapid fire great notes off their stringed instruments and for songs like this to NOT get American airplay on any U.S. country radio is a sin. It’s like preferring cheap apple wine over fine French Beaujolais or a domestic beer over moonshine from a Mason jar.

“Crossroads,” has the bait American radio should bite with all its teeth firmly planted. Written by Gurf Morlix who plays the smoking / rocking lead guitar mixed up front with Donna’s prowling voice excellently threatening: “You’re gonna get cut and you’re gonna bleed.”

Then toward the end -- a classic line worth the price of the song: “Now I know some people who sold their souls to the devil and they don’t sound nothin’ like Robert Johnson.” Oh God…if that’s not one of the best lines a female vocalist has sung this year. Songwriters wait an entire career to have a line like that for someone to sing.

“How About Texas,” is upbeat and rural with Donna using her best clever Dylan lyric style – Donna rhymes Texas with “affect us.” Impressive. Made me smile. This is totally Southwest America and from a biting track like “Crossroads,” Donna shows her Patsy Cline chops and twangs it. Rosie Flores would probably smile and maybe Rosie should cover this. Redd Volkaert provides the reliable lead guitar and Gunther Flutney -- accordion.

The ballad “Long Time Gone,” once again is graced by Denmark’s Jane Clark -- her fine fiddle buzzes low like bees in a hive with John Egenes’ mandolin collectively spilling out the pensive melody. Amos Garrett’s guitar weeps compellingly around the other musicians. The story: an elderly man left with his aches and pains -- but what he truly aches for is the hand he once held. A remarkable little song in a Neil Young type of country way.

“Pretty Buttons,” is the tale of Robeeta – a young bride who’s up in a lonely hilltop cabin where her new husband -- a rascal -- has already buried two other brides -- out where the rattle snakes slide. Brilliant. First class storytelling in the pass it down to the children traditional style which dominated much of the Carter Family country catalog. Could New Zealand be closer to the Kentucky - Tennessee mountains than the rest of the United States? The influences are eerily accurate and the songs on this album could easily be supplanted into the Southern United States and no one would know a beautiful Down Under woman wrote them. I listened carefully to the musicians on this track and it sounds hauntingly like The Band is backing Donna. Garth Hudson, Levon Helm and the others clearly punctuating the spirit of this beautiful song. If there’s a song on this new collection to equal the greatness of Donna’s previous “What Am I Gonna Do,” this is the track.“Pretty Buttons” from the new album with lyrics:

“Don’t Go Fallin’” – I hear deep bacon fat sizzling in a kitchen of country molasses sour mash whisky where hominy and grits permeates the room as the voice playfully vocalizes: “Don’t go fallin’ at my feet…” “I’m broken but I’m not bad….” Who is this woman Donna Dean? How can she write like this and not be from Georgia? Did she watch “Coal Miner’s Daughter” too many times? This is a song George Jones could record – please George, before you retire….find this one and win a Grammy.

Jane Clark’s fiddle continues to be hypnotic and rural, the fingerpickin’ guitar is back porch perfect and we just need a spittoon and a lazy dog to make it certifiable. It’s so good I can taste the shoo-fly pie, chewin’ tobacco and I have a desire to watch a young girl wearing a halter sloppin’ a big soapy sponge across the doors of a ’39 Ford Pickup. This song inspires it all. (Did I forget the fishing pole and fly swatter?). I love this stuff and it is an album that grows on you with successive listens.

Written by producer John Egenes “Sing A Lullaby,” is optimistic and reflective – “no matter how you try, it’s hard to say goodbye…” is a careful distance from being sappy – but it never is. It’s a song in the hands of professionals and has strength in its message without being too high brow. Amos Garrett graces this track as well and the song comes at an ideal moment in the tracking of the album. “Shelter,” has a splendid upbeat message for those with doubts, are alone and anxious. The pedal steel and mandolin accentuate their notes clearly and the fiddle, as usual, doesn’t so much play as it sneaks in with delicate potent support where it should. The song has a superb suave rhythm.

“Long, Long Time,” features Albert Lee’s guitar framing a story about an elderly man who feels it’s been a long, long time since he ran along the beach, ran a printing press, saw his grandchildren. Poignant and fragile. In the hands of Donna Dean these stories unfold like short stories – and her “Nebraska,” continues to bridge the songs together, to unify characters, to conjure another time with other people and cherished memories like in a big quilt. Every graceful note of “Long, Long Time,” is beautiful the way a Neil Young country song can be. Most artists wait a lifetime to write one as good as this.

The importance of some music is as brief as smoke or an exploding firework on a holiday. There it is, the audience applauds – and it’s beautiful…and then….it’s gone. Where’s the next one? Donna Dean’s music sparkles and sparkles and stays with you even when it’s not playing anymore. These songs light off each other continuously and remain lit because they make that kind of impression. “When It’s Time To Leave,” – is a good finale.

After 12 wondrous tracks this is a concert goodnight song or encore. Anna Bowen provides the fiddles this time and Redd Volkaert brings his guitar. Donna must know by now that this work is good and it’s satisfying – something she can be proud of. Does all this stand up to her previous award-winning album? Does “Nebraska” by Bruce stand up to “Born To Run” ?

You decide. If you can.

Produced by John Egenes in association with the New Zealand Music Industry Centre with all songs written by Donna Dean except where noted in the review. Every musician who contributed to “Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts” did a fine job. The cover art is also commendable – a beautiful die-cut tri-fold with lyric sheet and great photography, musician credits and fold out poster of Donna Dean sporting her Billie Holiday best – a colorful corsage in her hair. A beautiful tribute, whether it was intended or not, and a look that personifies the new Donna Dean.

Donna Dean's US Tour begins in La Grange, Texas August 24th 2013 -- details are posted on her website.

"Some Sweet Day,” from the Award-Winning album

For more Donna Dean information visit both her website & No Depression page:

“Shelter” from her new album. A live version recorded at the Wellington Bluegrass Society in Petone, New Zealand

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression.

John Apice – Contributor – No Depression – March 2013 - John Apice

"Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts"

Who knew that to hear a truly great, honest to God country music recording I'd have to wait for it to arrive from—now get ready for this—New Zealand! No, not Nashville, Austin, some Kentucky back porch or even a retro-offering from Brooklyn. No, New Zealand.

Now I'm not trying to be my characteristically cynical, wise-ass, anti-country-music-conveyor-belt self here. What I'm trying to say is Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts can/should teach many of our cannibalizing country stars how to be, well country: more concerned with the music and the stories than pimping for Versace and having a roadie spit shine the Stetson while their lawyer tries to get L.L. Cool J to record a hip/hop hoedown.

But I've belabored the point too long already. Following her multi-award winning 2010 ear-opener What Am I Gonna Do?, Dean turns her back and goes more rustic on this must have/must hear release. "No one keeps a circus girl distracted too long" she sings on the title opener, even as a dazzling dance of Albert Lee's guitar and Jane Clark's explosively emotive fiddle tries their damnedest to keep her distracted, but Twister, a deep rooted murder ballad ("Why'd you do it John / Take her life like that / She was all I had / I want my mother back") just blows you away.

Imagine a country music disc devoid of the vulgar pop flash of America but instead with the ageless, resonant playing of Amos Garrett; Gurf Murlix (Lucinda, Zevon); producer and stringman John Egenes (Eliza Gilkyson, Nancy Griffith, Guy Clark, Townes, etc.) Imagine a singer songwriter so detailed, so devoted to her craft and vision she's worked with and/or toured with Willie Nelson, Jimmy Webb, and other iconic notables.

Then there are the songs which you needn't imagine. Real lyrics. Real themes. Real people. Darkly transcendent. Pretty Buttons ("Oh Roberta / Don't you look back as you go / One little hesitation / Will lay you down low") Don't Go Fallin', Shelter, Long Time Gone, Long, Long Time…listen to Dean's voice—aching, haunted, clear and determined.

It's been an excruciatingly lean year for music thus far in 2013, which mean no contenders for those inevitably tiresome end-of-the-year best of lists. But that's until now. Until Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts. - Mike Jurkovic FAME - Folk Acoustic Music Exchange

"Donna Dean What Am I Gonna Do?"

DONNA DEAN – WHAT AM I GONNA DO? – Distributed by Ode Records

I've been listening to many artists recently and found that just like decades before many artists seem to have one or two good ideas, brilliant ideas, but then the balance of the material falls into mediocrity to fill out an album. I have always felt aspiring artists should not start with the commitment of an entire album’s worth of material. They should just focus on their best and see where that leads.

Not many artists have the imaginations of a Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Or the creative lunacy of a John Prine, Randy Newman or Tom Waits. This is why many good musicians have short careers. After their initial album there’s nothing left to say. It is not as easy to be consistent and creative as you may think. Not many great authors write as many stories as Hemingway.

I do marvel at how some artists of some fame, limited fame, no fame – can rise to the top and produce material that a veteran performer could only hope to achieve. I seldom find this consistently. But recently, I came across a New Zealand singer who easily reaches into a listener’s heart and stirs up the emotional coals or gets your ass to shimmy on a barstool.

No Depression gives many artists a forum to promote and provide a sampling of their finest work and some are quite deserving -- even if for selected tastes -- and that’s fine.

What I have found is a diamond among coal. Singer, songwriter Donna Dean is deserving of gaining that momentum that’s needed to take center stage. She is that artist that the famous, accomplished artists in attendance would stop and listen to. Her friendly and polished manner is professional and attractive.

Donna Dean’s 2010 released CD “What Am I Gonna Do?” – recorded with her crack band of musicians from New Zealand -- sculptured a fresh face of Americana-folk-country that amazes.

How can someone in a country far from Austin, Texas, Nashville and Oklahoma – absorb those traditions and be so convincingly good -- if not better -- than some American contemporaries? I think I may know.

They put in all the American ingredients they learned and then they sprinkled in some New Zealand seasoning. You see, every country has a folk tradition -- even Bulgaria. In music – a universal language for sure – it’s easy to understand what people in our South have developed and how it can be applied to a culture as far as New Zealand. Recently, Italian rock singer Eugenio Finardi released an all blues English sung CD "Anima Blues" that got airplay on some blues stations in Texas and Chicago and was favorably reviewed in the United States. But he's Italian! How can an Italian sing the blues? You have to hear it to believe it.

Donna Dean succeeds thoroughly and convincingly with her brand of Americana-Folk-Country. Succeeds so thoroughly my eyes widened a few times as I listened.

Her earlier album “Money” is an equally extraordinary and highly listenable collection. Partially produced in Nashville with help from The Amazing Rhythm Aces, this is an assurance that Donna Dean is no flash in the pan. The LP contains a wealth of great songs. But for now, our focus is on her new album and why Donna Dean is one of those artists that can provide an entire album’s worth of interesting tales, sing along melodies and memorable music. She has something to say.

First track: Ms. Dean’s opening track is one of the best “country” songs I have heard in years. Alison Krauss take note.

The title track ”What Am I Gonna Do?” is so smooth and sincere Donna must have lived it. It’s just full of truth. Her band is tight. They never crowd Donna’s vocals. Steel guitar is not one of my favorite instruments but in this song – Janek “Buck” Croydon plays an essential role to that truth and his sound is a pleasure. It weeps quietly like many lonely people do late at night. But Donna’s vocals have a sense of optimism in her tone. I absolutely love the way the steel guitar virtually "duets" with Donna's singing. I am primarily a lyricist and after reading Donna’s words – she is excellent. “Been walkin’ on egg shells round you lately….” Oh yeah, who doesn’t relate to that? The song moves along nicely and deserves to be set multiple times into replay. A song for those who must make a decision, to make an escape. Very brave statement.

“Baby Doesn’t Love Me,” Donna’s ability to hold notes on all the right words and places makes the track quite musical even if just listening to what she is saying. A beautifully captured word painting. Can almost see the characters she is talking about.

“Empty Big Blue Sky,” – if Patsy Cline were alive today….what a cover she would have with this Donna Dean jewel. But Ms. Dean’s voice -- different here – is assured and solid. Again, her band is there supporting -- not overbearing. A perfect selection for a single release right behind “What Am I Gonna Do?” Excellent.

“Rain Fall On Me,” – this is what makes an artist great, great, great. Donna shows her teeth here. Tough, tight, with just a little echo. From an angel in the other songs to a tight blue-jeaned tattooed leather jacketed “you’re not gonna push me around anymore” strong feminine stance. Don’t mess around with this lady. This is rock and roll with a sneering lead guitar and driving beat. A nice surprise. Ms. Dean knows how to mix her material to keep the interest level sharp. One of my favorites. Down and dirty. Bluesy. More more more of this please. Real hot track.

Donna succeeds where some fail. How many country influenced artists can roll around in the dirt of the blues? Jerry Lee Lewis, yeah. Elvis -- definitely. Maybe the late Timi Yuro. But not many. This is an incredible song – highly endorsed by me. If you don’t hear anything by Donna Dean….listen to this. The hairs on my neck were standing up. Hit that replay button.

From the aggressive “Rain Fall On Me,” the selection positioning was chosen wisely. Now we drift into a religiously beautiful and haunting ballad “Pray.” This is Donna Dean not showing her teeth but showing her intensity in a poignant well-performed and memorable song.

If I plugged songs in the 70’s I would have sent this to either Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash. The song pulls you in and you’re compelled to listen. Yet, the song continues to ripple through your ears long after it has stopped.

An audience who enjoys the music of Carrie Newcomer, Cindy Bullens and Mary Chapin Carpenter – would embrace the voice of Donna Dean.

“Some Sweet Day,” – so far every track -- in my opinion –is superior to many songs produced in Nashville today. Maybe it’s because Ms. Dean has lived a different life, has different insight, yet is capable to apply that southern American musical style to her own happiness and sadness equally.

This track suggests to me what Annie Lennox would sound like doing country and it’s real good. Now I am not saying Donna is imitating but this is an excellent showcase for Donna to give a taste of who can cover her material effectively. Thanks to Ms. Dean I am now convinced Annie Lennox should tackle country next. This track with its many oh oh oh’s and hey hey hey’s is seductive and the mandolin -- like a feather touching your skin. Well thought out arrangement. Good closing number for a concert because the entire audience can and will sing along.

“Fireflies,” returns the listener to a serious deeper contemplative voice. Very well recorded. Every instrument clear, crisp and pensive.

“We crawled in and out of a crumpled bed, tattoo of Lucy cushioning my head..” Wonderful lyrical imagery. I wish more of Nashville would tap into the freshness of New Zealand artists like Donna Dean. Get away from the clichés. In order for country-Americana to maintain freshness they must start producing work that goes to the next level.

Suggestion: Steve Earle….T Bone Burnett -- produce Donna’s next CD.

Earle recently did well with Joan Baez. Burnett: Jeff Bridges.

“A Silent Life,” – amazing. Great lyrics. Nothing like any of the other tracks. Donna’s high octane band splashes bluesy takes over her spirited aching vocals. Donna’s voice is up close, sincere, and she convinces me she could sing the blues. Think: Bonnie Raitt. Strong stuff. The CD is worth the price just for this song alone. Play often.

“Too High” – this one is for the commercial ear. Catchy. This is the kind of song radio loves. Me? This one goes on my new “driving with the top down” CD compilation. This spring, 70 mph and cranked up to 10. Is it a revenge song? Hard to say, Donna sings it with such gusto that the message gets hidden. Oh yeah…”what goes around comes around.” Nashville – you must be all deaf. This lady is kicking ass.

This track segued beautifully and almost unnoticeable from the fast “Too High.”

I can’t express how effective and complimentary Donna’s band is on the majority of these tunes.

“Tumble” -- even though it sounds like country-Americana, I doubt someone in Nashville or Austin would write something like this. It’s as if, she has taken some light pop lyrics and applied liberally a beautiful folk inspired melody over it and magically -- created a very likeable short tale. There is no gloss, sugary sweet approach to Donna Dean's music. It's polished but it has equal amounts of vinegar and spices to keep it all interesting.

The entire CD was produced by Donna and musician Warren Mendonsa. I must compliment the quality of the production and engineering. It was a wonderful 37 minutes. Anyone who does enjoy this new CD will find her 2003 album “Money,” partially recorded in Nashville a great listen. I couldn’t find a weak track among 19. Musician friends who stopped over -- Emmylou Harris and Roseanne Cash devotees -- played the CD twice in an afternoon.

Donna is accompanied by The Amazing Rhythm Aces and Russell Smith on “Money.” An album of ingenious melodies and subject. Nothing about it makes you grow bored. Every track -- a jewel.

All songs on the new CD were written Donna Dean.

Ok -- I admit I admire Donna's work on these cds. But, I have heard enough music to recognize someone who has something to say. With so little time to dedicate to finding new music -- these collections of music will redeem your faith in song. There is good music out there. At least, there is some in New Zealand.

I am looking forward to more. Video samples are available on No Depression: the beautifully photographed live performance of “What Am I Gonna Do?” and the walk through a paradise filming of “Pray.”

Don’t miss that 19-track “Money” CD. One of the treats about this CD is that toward the end Donna sings several tracks acoustically -- stripped down and proving she does not need tons of support. Refreshing. She is capable of getting attention with just an acoustic guitar and voice. This is Americana music of the highest quality.
Thanks No Depression for delivering great music to everyone’s ears and helping many to discover artists like Donna. I hope others will listen and take my word. Kudos to all the musicians on this cd. This is a beautiful lady and talented artist.

John Apice - February 2011 / USA / Revised March 2013 - No Depression

"Music to cross the Rimutakas by"

Driving home from Wellington to the Wairarapa a few days ago, I seized the opportunity to play a new CD I’d been looking forward to (thanks, Simon). Listening to music in the car isn’t ideal; even with a reasonably good stereo, road and wind noise can muddy the sound. But because there are no distractions (gosh, was that a logging truck that pulled over just then to avoid hitting me?), some of my most rewarding listening these days is done on the road. And albums don’t come much more rewarding than this.
It was the latest release by Melbourne-based New Zealand country singer and songwriter Donna Dean, who was mentioned in this blog last year. Tyre Tracks and Broken Hearts is not just a great New Zealand country album – that might be interpreted as damning it with faint praise – but a great country album, full stop. It was recorded in Dunedin but would be no less great if it had come out of Nashville, where it richly deserves to be noticed.

The album is a revelation not just for the quality of Dean’s vocals and songwriting, but also for the musicians she and producer John Egenes – a former American session musician, ex of Sante Fe but now in the music department at Otago University – gathered around them.
Many of these names were unfamiliar to me, but it turns out they’re veterans of the Otago music scene: people such as drummer Marcel Rodeka, once with the outrageous 1970s Dunedin band Mother Goose, and Dunedin folkies John Dodd (bass), Lynn Vare, Mike Moroney and Dave Coleclough (vocals) and Anna Bowen (fiddle). I use that term “folkies” merely as a label of convenience in this context, since their superb work on this album shows how blurred the line has become between folk and other genres such as country and bluegrass.

Egenes himself is a huge presence, contributing pedal steel guitar, mandolin, dobro and acoustic guitar. But the drop-dead names in the credits, listed so casually you’d think they were everyday fixtures on New Zealand albums, are those of Albert Lee, Amos Garrett, Redd Volkaert and Gurf Morlix, who laid down their instrumental tracks overseas.
Google these names if they mean nothing to you. Suffice it to say that British-born guitarist Lee was in Emmylou Harris’s fabled Hot Band, Garrett played one of the most memorable guitar solos in the history of pop music (that’s him on Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis), Volkaert is a Grammy Award winner who played in Merle Haggard’s band and multi-instrumentalist Morlix has worked with the likes of Lucinda Williams.

Morlix was roped in by Egenes but Dean tells me she recruited the other musicians with the help of a friend in Germany, where she has toured. Another sublime instrumentalist on the album is English fiddler Jane Clark, whom Egenes had toured with (just listen to her exhilarating interplay with Lee and Egenes on the title track. Brilliant).
Needless to say, you don’t attract the attention of musicians like these without having something worthwhile to bring to the table. Dean is a masterful songwriter whose best work packs a real emotional punch; Twister, in which a girl asks her mother’s killer why he did it, is a song so wrenching it’s hard to believe it’s not autobiographical.

Dean is open about having led a tough life – drugs, rehab, a father in prison – and must have to reach deep inside herself to write songs like this. What makes the songs work so well is that their emotional pitch is perfectly complemented by her voice. It has a resigned, almost world-weary quality, as if she’s seen it all before.
Yet she never descends to slash-your-wrist despair. And though a thread of dark country gothic runs through her material (I wonder if she’s a fan of the Louvin Brothers, who never seemed happier than when singing about gruesome murders), there’s light as well as shade. How About Texas is a jaunty, uncomplicated piece of western swing; Banjo Mac is an affectionate tribute to her grandfather.

It’s clear from her references to Krispy Kreme donuts, rattlesnakes and Chevy pickups that Dean has an eye on the US market (in Banjo Mac, her grandfather becomes granddaddy), but her songs never sound cringingly contrived. This is a superb album that neatly turns the cultural cringe on its head, forcing me to seriously question my long-held assumption that only Americans can write authentic country music.

- Karl Du Fresne SATURDAY, APRIL 13, 2013

"Donna Dean"

A wealth of musical influences has shaped Aucklander Donna Dean’s sound, a smooth blend of country, blues, rock and bluegrass. Each of these elements is in full effect here, the sound of American country music honed through Dean’s touring and work with artists such as The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Spooner Oldham and Jimmy Webb strong on the album. Dean says she has always found songwriting an easy, natural way of expressing herself, a journal-like outlet of her problems that enabled her to get through various challenges faced. Personal experience of addiction, depression, divorce etc. is wholly interwoven through this release, leading to an album of heartfelt, meaningful tracks. Each well-crafted song is lyrically convincing and builds a strong portrait of the artist, the powerful and heart-warming ballads providing good contrast to the country rockers with catchy hooks and stomp. A country album boldly filled with real soul from a former NZ Music Awards’ double Tui winner, it’s certainly one to check out.
Amy Maclaine NZ Musician Magazine Oct/Nov 2010 - NZ Musician Magazine

"Donna Dean 'What Am I Gonna Do?'"

When it comes to country music (alt. or country-rock) Donna Dean has the credentials: the gal has done it all -- marriage, kids, divorce, rehab,bars and clubs, opening for the likes of Willie Nelson, Jimmy Webb and the Penn-Oldham team . . .She spent time in London and Europe, recorded her debut album Money with The Amazing Rhythm Aces in Nashville, and for this follow-up recorded in Auckland, she hooks in Bill Chambers and Nigel Gavin (on mandolin) alongside a cracking band which includes pedal steel, dobro and Weisenborn. Dean really covers the stylistic waterfront here: the album opens with the airy, prairie-wide ballad title track, follows that with the backbeat-driven country rocker Baby Doesn't Love Me (which could have come from the Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds) and elsewhere there are finely crafted songs which shift from pure country-rock (Shania Twain and the likes could do worse than look to Too High here) to roadhouse rockers (Rain Fall On Me, Some Sweet Day).The centrepiece Pray -- "get disappointed by trivial things, then I get down on my luck, that's when I need a reminder to get my priorities straight . . . I get down and pray"-- is a thoughful, pointed ballad. As is the deliciously spare Fireflies. Aside from this welcome musical diversity, Dean is a writer with something to say. A Silent Lie here is a model of economy and observation: "A tiny crack appeared as your story unfolded, the tilt of your head, the way you shrugged your shoulders. You didn't have to say a name, I could smell her in the silence, feel her in my veins . . ." And The Tumble right at the end is a motel room late at night when the blue light from television, as silent as the night sky, casts a lonely glow and it's clear "you're not coming back . . . I'm missing you". Donna Dean has won Tui (songwriting) awards and is a country songwriter of great depth -- and the brief liner notes here say these are "songs that will stand the test of time because they're well crafted and rooted in truth". But you've already guessed that from what I've said, right?
Graham Reid Elsewhere 2/08/10 - Elsewhere

"She's best in country"

She's opened for American legend Don McLean, worked alongside the likes of Willie Nelson and now Donna Dean has been recognised as one of New Zealand's top musicians.

Ms Dean won the RIANZ Best Country Music Album award and the APRA Best Country Music Song of 2011 at the New Zealand Country Music Awards in Gore.

It's the second time she has had success at the awards, taking out top honours in the same categories in 2004.

Her winning album What Am I Gonna Do? was released last year and its title track won best song.

She says the album is doing well.

"I took it to Germany. I've been going back and forward there since 1998."

It may sound like an unlikely place to find a country music audience but Ms Dean's music has a strong following.

She was invited to perform there in 1998 and has toured around most of the country since then.

The Eden Terrace resident grew up in a musical household – her mother and father both played instruments and her mum sang.

"I grew up around music, soaking it up. I've been playing, singing and songwriting for a long time."

Ms Dean started writing "very corny" songs at the age of 11 and was writing poetry before that.

"You have to write all the corny stuff to learn what works and what doesn't. Like anything, you work at it and the more you work at it, the better you get."

Having something to say through the music is important, especially when it comes to winning awards, she says.

"Country music is usually talking about real events in life, the real guts of what's going on. You have to have some kind of hook to make it commercial enough for people and the radio to like it."

Websites like YouTube can be a great way to get music out to a worldwide audience, she says.

Despite her success in the country music genre, Ms Dean doesn't consider herself strictly a country artist.

"There are elements of it in what I do. There's country rock, pop and blues. I'm quite influenced by the blues. I don't label myself as country."

She says people still associate country music with cowboy hats and fringed jackets.

"There are still elements of that but it's about people living hard lives and working hard. Songs are little three minute stories. I've always written songs, whether they've been popular with an audience or not. It's a means of self-expression."

Ms Dean has overcome some major challenges in her life including going through rehab for alcohol addiction.

Ad Feedback "It's great for songwriting. I don't see all of that stuff as negative at all. I see it as a good opportunity. It's surprising how many people come up at the end of a gig and say they related to songs because that's what happened to them or someone they know."

The award-winning song What Am I Gonna Do? is about co-dependency.

"It's about being stuck in a relationship or being around somebody where you are a little bit apprehensive about saying what you think or what you want to say in case they go off."

Recording Industry Association of New Zealand managing director Chris Caddick says: "My sincere congratulations to Donna, who has crafted a truly exceptional album. Here's hoping the Tui award helps the album reach the wide audience it deserves."

Ms Dean is playing a gig on Sunday at Cafe One 2 One, 121 Ponsonby Rd, from 4pm to 7pm to celebrate her success at the awards. She will be playing with Greg Turner and special guest Glenn Ross Campbell.

Go to for more information about Ms Dean. - Auckland City Harbour News


Rosebud 2014
Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts 2012
What Am I Gonna Do? 2010
Money extended 2003
A Little Faith 2000
Money 2000
Between You & Me 1999
Destination Life 1998



Donna Dean's first musical heroes were her parents, grandfather and aunts she heard sing and play around the kitchen table as a child. Her mother mimicked the unmistakeable guitar riffs of Jimmie Rogers and Maybelle Carter which had a profound and lasting impression on Dean. Her mother taught a young Donna a few chords on guitar so that by age 11 she was composing songs and playing them for her school friends. 
n her 12th year, Dean's uncle introduced her to Bluegrass music when he bought a vinyl copy of the 1972 release 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken' by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band which features legends Roy Acuff, "Mother" Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis and others. That early musical influence turned to gold when Donna's song 'Destination Life' was chosen as the title track of American artist Rhonda Vincent's 2009 Grammy nominated Bluegrass album.
At 13, the music of Credence Clearwater Revival became of interest when one her cousins was listening  incessantly to a CCR album. The band's songwriting made it's mark on Donna. Not very long after, her deep connection with music went into a long hibernation. 
Live stage performance wasn't to come until a troubled, stifling relationship which began in her teens, ended in her late 20's. It was then that the flood gates opened. Her debut album 'Destination Life' was released in 1998 followed a year later by 'Between You & Me'. Her fourth album 'Money', featuring American country-rock band The Amazing Rhythm Aces, won 2004 Best Country Song & Best Country Album. A double win came again in 2011 for Dean's 'What Am I Gonna Do?' album. 'Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts', produced by John Egenes, was nominated Best Country Album 2013. The album features Albert Lee, Amos Garrett, Redd Volkaert and Gurf Morlix. 'Rosebud', her 2014 album, also produced by John Egenes, consists of 11 stripped back tracks recorded in a single day while on tour. 

A true pioneer of the Americana singer-songwriter scene in New Zealand, paving the way for a new generation (Marlon WilliamsMel Parsons and others) Dean has opened shows for Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Don Mclean, Jimmy Webb, Katy Moffatt, Bert Jansch and Eric Bibb and more. While touring Germany Dean has been a feature artist on the same bill as Willie Nelson and opened shows for Texas artists Eric Taylor and Terry Allen.
Summer 2013, Dean was a guest at Nashville songwriters Mecca, The Bluebird Cafe, alongside Australia's Paul Kelly.
She was a guest at the 2016 Illawarra folk festival, Australia and Auckland folk festival, New Zealand. She will headline at Whare Flat folk festival in NZ's south over new years eve 2016/2017. 

Donna's life and music was the focus of award winning documentary film 'The Sound of Her Guitar' released in New Zealand in May 2016. The film opened the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival in Canada November 2017. 
"The Sound of Her Guitar is brave and beautiful​. This is must-see documentary film-making".
Simon Sweetman read full review

CD Reviews  John Apice (No Depression)

New Zealand Music Industry Awards
RIANZ Nominee Best Country Album Award 2013
Best Country Song Award 2010 awarded by APRA (Australasian Performing Rights Association)
Best Country Album Award 2010 awarded by RIANZ (Recording Industry Association New Zealand)
Best Country Song Award 2004 awarded by APRA (Australasian Performing Rights Association)Best Country Album Award 2004 awarded by RIANZ (Recording Industry Association New Zealand)

Band Members