Dean was in the north for the annual Bay of Islands Country Music Festival, but the tourist – retired from engineering company Bosch – was in town and totally oblivious of the event. The ferry was near empty and Dean asked the man if he was enjoying the music. “What music?”
He tagged along to her gig at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, where he happened to be staying, and afterwards suggested she come to play in Germany. There was no plan, but the man had a former workmate who was a mad country fan and was sponsoring an English duo through Europe.
After almost a year of faxes back and forth, during which time Dean recorded her debut album, she was on the road with the pair in Germany. It was the first of many tours through the country and her music has since had her living in England and briefly Australia.
‘What Am I Gonna Do?’ was awarded Best NZ Country Album of the Year in 2011.
That first release, Destination Life, was followed by six more CDs; What Am I Gonna Do? was awarded best New Zealand country album of the year in 2011. She has twice been awarded best New Zealand country music song: ‘Work It Out’ in 2004 and ‘What Am I Gonna Do?’ in 2011.
In 2016 her tour of the southwest of the United States was the subject of the documentary The Sound Of Her Guitar, which also touched on the cycle of domestic violence and alcohol abuse suffered during Dean’s childhood and early 20s.
It was music that instigated the introduction of Dean’s parents when her maternal grandfather Neil McLean brought a bunch of fellow navy men home to party. McLean played Hawaiian lap steel and would often arrive home with a posse of young sailors toting guitars or ukuleles. One particular night, two of the guests took a shine to two of his daughters and eventually married them.
Joan and Jimmy Kouka were living in naval accommodation in Devonport when their second daughter was born in 1959; they named after the Ritchie Valens song ‘Donna’, popular on radio at the time. When she was about three, they moved to Glen Innes.
As well as the Hawaiian lap steel influences of her grandfather, the house was full of country and western music. A big fan of the Carter Family and “the Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, Joan had learned to play guitar as a teenager while in a tuberculosis shelter in Epsom and later appeared in bands with Bill Wolfgramm and Bill Sevesi.
As a child, Dean wrote poems and played the ukulele, singing with her cousin, but it wasn’t until the end of her first marriage in her late 20s that she contemplated performing seriously. She was in MOR covers bands playing restaurants and private parties before plucking up the courage to present something she had written.
Her second husband, singer and keyboards player Rick Dean, was responsible for her first solo gig in 1989 when she played at the Gluepot in the break between another band and his band DVS. After withstanding the early drunken shouts of a couple of punters, she came through unscathed.
By the mid-1990s she was a regular at the monthly meetings of the Auckland branch of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, meeting and sharing new songs with the likes of Arthur Baysting and Al Hunter.
Taking a job as a part-time kitchen hand, Dean saved to attend the association’s 1996 convention in Nashville. There she took advantage of Nashville-based New Zealander Kevin Greaves – one of country pioneer Rusty Greaves’ 14 children – and his Music City connections to record two songs at the Tyler Trax studio.
Back in Auckland, Dean enrolled in a music course at Tai Poutini Polytechnic with Verlaines leader Graeme Downes as tutor. Along the way, she teamed up with fellow students Rob Robati (bass guitar) and Aaron Reilly (drums), enlisting them to record her debut album Destination Life (1998) at Montage Studio the following year.
Produced by Dean and engineered by Sam Ford, the album also included the two Nashville-recorded tracks and was completed in time for the six-week tour of Germany just a few weeks later. It had taken a year to arrange but, backed by two English instrumentalists, Dean was well received and returned home with $7000 cash wrapped up in a sock and an invitation to return.
Meanwhile, her friend Lena Days introduced her album to Real Groovy promoter Kevin Byrt and he added her and her band to the Jazz, Blues & Roots Stage at Sweetwaters 99. Another act on that stage was American Grammy winners The Amazing Rhythm Aces. Dean was beside herself when Byrt proposed she do some recording with them while they were over.
The Aces insisted on hearing a demo first. Once they agreed, time was booked at Stebbing Recording Centre and the tracks laid down; meanwhile Sweetwaters 99 spectacularly unravelled less than 30 kilometres south. Having insisted on their money before boarding the plane to New Zealand, The Amazing Rhythm Aces were among the only bands to be paid for the festival.
while Sweetwaters 99 unravelled, AT STEBBING’S Dean recorded an album with the Amazing Rhythm Aces.
On the Saturday, Dean performed her Sweetwaters set having experienced the high of recording with the Aces – and then receiving the news her father had passed away. The album Between You And Me snuck out with little fanfare later in the year.
Dean opened for songwriting royalty Jimmy Webb, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham in Auckland and Wellington. With the lure of more work in Germany and Europe, she moved to London with partner Jeremy Dart, the former Waltons and Glen Moffatt Band guitarist. The pair married more out of convenience to secure Dean a visa.
Thus began a cycle of returning to Germany for gigs every three or four weeks as well as the occasional London club show. On a return trip to New Zealand, Dean stopped off in Nashville to record a second album with The Amazing Rhythm Aces, this time including the band’s non-touring guitarist Barry “Byrd” Burton. Again released independently, Money featured a duet with Aces singer Russell Smith on ‘He Deserves Somebody’.
Dean recorded the solo album A Little Faith in London, but the distance from family became too much in 2005, and she moved back to Auckland. She found many of the places she used to play such as Java Jive Café and the Temple had either closed or changed direction, but the local folk scene embraced her.
American bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent recorded Dean’s ‘Destination Life’ as the title track for her 2009 album of the same name, which went on to be nominated for best bluegrass album at that year’s Grammy Awards.
In Auckland the following year, Dean recorded What Am I Gonna Do? at pedal-steel guitarist Janek “Buck” Croydon’s Hill Street Studio with Mumbai-born producer Warren Mendonsa, nephew of Bollywood composer Loy Mendonsa.
Released on Ode Records, it featured contributions from Croydon, Australian alt-country patriarch Bill Chambers, Nigel Gavin on mandolin, and former Dark Ages, Underdogs and Red McKelvie drummer Ian Thomson. The following year, What Am I Gonna Do? won the Tui for best country album and its title track was judged best country song.
Dean was invited to a Mushroom Music Publishing songwriters’ retreat near Melbourne with American hit writer Kim Richey and Mushroom creative manager Bill Page. In 2011, Dean moved to Melbourne for two years with her new husband, who had work there, and Page introduced her to the local scene.
At the Whare Flat Folk Festival in Otago, Dean met multi-instrumentalist John Egenes, a Californian native now living in Dunedin. He loved her songs and encouraged her to record an album with him. Over the following months, Dean ventured south to lay down demos and the two struck up a rapport.
Alongside the local musicians that appeared on Tyre Tracks & Broken Hearts, Dean and Egenes used their collective contact books to secure guitar overdubs from session luminaries Albert Lee (Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band), Redd Volkaert (Merle Haggard), Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams) and Amos Garrett (you name it), who all recorded their parts in North America.
Egenes set up a tour of the southwest of the United States in 2013 and hit upon the idea of having nature filmmaker Bill Morris tag along. The month-long trek took in around 16 gigs from Austin to California, and at its culmination Dean flew to Nashville for a songwriter showcase at the legendary Bluebird Café, where she followed Australian icon Paul Kelly.
The resulting documentary, The Sound Of Her Guitar, took on a life of its own following interviews with Dean back in Auckland that touched on domestic violence and alcohol abuse. It received full houses and rave reviews at the Doc Edge Film Festivals in Wellington and Auckland and opened the Manitoba Film Festival in Winnipeg. It was less successful in New Zealand’s country music capital Gore where it attracted an audience of six!
During a South Island tour in 2014, Dean and Egenes spent a day around a single microphone in Fairfield House, Nelson, and recorded the acoustic album Rosebud. They plan to release another album in 2020.
Donna Dean opened for American songwriter Don McLean at the Christchurch Town Hall the night before the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. The tour party departed Christchurch minutes before the disaster and learned of it after touching down in Wellington. The Town Hall suffered substantial damage but was rebuilt and partially reopened in 2019.