To celebrate Johnny Cash’s birthday on February 26, check out the new expanded edition of 2018's tribute album Johnny Cash: Forever Words.
In 2018, a group of Cash-loving contemporary artists released a tribute album featuring songs and other writings by the inimitable Johnny Cash but put to music by other well-known artists. Called Johnny Cash: Forever Words, it’s now out in a brand-new expanded edition that includes “Let It Be Tonight” by Trick Pony’s Ira Dean, who also produced several songs on the album, along with John Carter Cash.
The Grammy-nominated and AMA and ACM Award-winning Dean was a founding member of the country music trio Trick Pony alongside co-founder Keith Burns and lead vocalist Heidi Newfield. The band recorded three studio albums — Trick Pony, On a Mission, and R.I.D.E — and scored four Top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
Dean began his career as a drummer and bassist for John Carter Cash. Today he says he owes his entire career to the Cash family, who let him stay with them when he was ready to move back to North Carolina and give up his musical aspirations.
As a member of John Carter’s band, Dean toured and opened for the legendary Johnny Cash, who helped him hone his songwriting skills. Dean has since gone on to write chart-topping hits for artists such as Trace Adkins, Gary Allan, Rascal Flatts, Uncle Kracker, Montgomery Gentry, Aaron Lewis, Heidi Newfield, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, and Chris Young.
We talked with Dean about his relationship with Johnny Cash and the tribute record that honors his words and his musical legacy.
Cowboys & Indians: Tell us more about your Johnny Cash connection.
Ira Dean: I’ve made a lot of music with John Carter over the years. I consider the Cash family, family. I remember Johnny Cash literally gave me the shirt off of his back once so that I could go open for him. They’re those kinds of people. They just give and give and give. Just look at the names on this tribute album. There wasn’t any artist who didn’t want to be on this record. You go down the list and then Ira Dean. John Carter didn’t have to ask me to be on this record, but that just shows what kind of people they are. He asked me to be on it and co-produce with him. I just knew this was something that was going to be around for a long time.
C&I: Tell us about your song on the Cash tribute album.
Dean: John Carter keeps a vault of all the old instruments his dad used to play and instruments someone famous played. He’s got all these instruments — all these pieces of history, all the old microphones from the old days — so when we recorded the Jamey Johnson, Aaron Lewis, and John Popper tracks, we started breaking out all the old instruments from the vault. We were experimenting with just capturing great sounds.
John Carter is a genius when it comes to the art of mic placement and trying to get a singer’s emotion to meet the lyric. When he gave me “Let It Be Tonight,” I sat for a good two weeks with that poem. When you write songs, there’s no boundaries, but with this one, it was Johnny’s words written sometime in late ’70s, and I did not wanna screw it up. It was the biggest task of my life, and I remember I’d look at it and put it away, look at it and put away.
Then one day I had a writing session with David Lee Murphy, and we couldn’t come up with anything, so I broke out the poem and asked him if he wanted to be a co-writer on a Johnny Cash tune. I’ve heard Jewel’s song and Chris Cornell’s, but it didn’t sound like Johnny Cash. It was Johnny Cash’s words, but everyone put their own spin on the music. I wanted to capture a true Johnny Cash-sounding record. I figure if you wanna take Johnny’s words, add some of your own words to it, and then add music to it, I wanted it to be the closest representation of John. I played it for John Carter, and he loved it. Talking about it now, I still get goosebumps because it’s not like any other record I’ve ever been a part of.
C&I: Fill us in a little on your musical journey. What got you to this place?
Dean: I once read an article about myself, and it said that I played 13 instruments. I don’t know if it’s 13 or not, but I do play a lot of instruments. I went to college for music as a drummer; then I came to [Nashville], and John Carter moved me to bass in his band because he thought I should be a front guy. I’ve made a lot of music with John Carter over the years but never on this level. On this record, every time we went in the studio, he always switched up what instrument I was playing, I think just to see if I could do it. On this album, I played acoustic on Jamey Johnson’s stuff, played acoustic and baritone 8-string guitar and upright. Throughout the album, I played acoustic, 8-string baritone, upright bass, electric bass, and B3. I guess that all comes together to say I just love music. I think of all the things I do in my spare time, and none of that comes close to how much I love creating and making music.
C&I: Not that you can boil down Johnny Cash, but how do you summarize him and his legacy?
Dean: Johnny Cash! Unless you’ve met Johnny Cash, this is going to sound so cliche, but you felt him walk in the room he had such a presence. He was a poet, the voice of the working man. He was a patriot. He was a Christian. He didn’t talk a lot, but when he said something, you had better sit on the edge of your seat and listen. He was like a psychic. He knew what was going on in your life to say the right thing at the right time to put you on the right path.
He believed in me. When I first met him, I played him some of the songs I wrote, and I know those songs sucked. But he personally called Alan Jackson and pitched him one of my songs. He pushed just enough, and he guided me more than I think he even knew. The heart of that man, and the heart he passed down to his kids! I know John Carter is doing his dad proud.
I miss his words of wisdom. I miss his laugh. He was a true artist. He was the true voice of America. He was just a great spirit and great soul. I will never meet another. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. On and off stage, he was the best. I’m lucky to know the Cash family.
Listen to Johnny Cash’s “Let It Be Tonight” performed by Ira Dean.
Johnny Cash: Forever Words (Expanded Edition) includes the original album plus all of the following new material, which has been rolling out in stages:
October 23, 2020
“Big Hearted Girl” — Hard Working Americans
“I’m Comin’ Honey” — Shawn Camp
“Brand New Pair of Shoes” — Ana Cristina Cash
“If You Love Me” — Elvis Costello & The Imposters
December 11, 2020
“I’ve Been Around” — Marty Stuart
“Who’s Gonna Grease My Skillet?” — John Popper
“California Poem” — Jamey Johnson (Featuring Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush)
“Little Patch of Grass” — Brandon Robert Young and Clare Bowen
“The Dogs Are in the Woods” — John McEuen
February 5, 2021
“Does Anybody Out There Love Me?” — Jewel
“Autumn” — The Watkins Family Hour
“Let It Be Tonight” — Ira Dean
“Pretty Pictures in My Mind” — The Lumineers
April 2, 2021
“Outta Site Tonite” — Ronnie Dunn and The Brad Paisley Band
“My Song” — Runaway June
“Dark and Bloody Ground” — Ruston Kelly
“The Third Degree” — Aaron Lewis
“Tecumseh” — Bill Miller