CD Review: Donna Dean - Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts



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


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Tags: albert, am, amos, australian, country, dean, do, donna, egenes, garrett, More…gonna, i, john, lee, music, new, what, zealand

Comment by Edison Lopez on March 18, 2013 at 10:40am

wow, very interesting Qué es avon


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.