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.