When Ira Dean moved to Nashville in 1990, the starry-eyed newcomer could not have mapped out the winding journey to his current success as a songwriter of chart-topping hits for artists like Chris Young, Montgomery Gentry, Rascal Flatts, and Uncle Kracker. And he certainly did not anticipate that an unlikely friendship with the late legend, Johnny Cash, would be the fateful force that guided him along the way.
On what would be Cash’s 89th birthday (Feb. 26), Dean feels proud of his recent tribute track, “Let It Be Tonight.” The song, released in October 2020, is the songwriter’s contribution to the Expanded Edition of the 2018 Sony Legacy album, Johnny Cash: Forever Words. The record was compiled by Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, who recently discovered almost 2,000 pages of lost lyrics, poems, and letters that his father had written. He called upon several contemporary artists to put Cash’s words to music, including Dean, Jewel, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, John Mellencamp, Kacey Musgraves, and Willie Nelson.
“John Carter is like a brother to me,” Dean explains. The two met working at a venue in Nashville. With only a few dollars to his name and no forward progress, Dean told him he planned on heading home to North Carolina to work a maintenance job. John Carter objected. He placed Dean in his backing band and even brought him home to his family. That’s where Dean’s friendship with Johnny Cash began.
“He really brought me into the fold,” he continued. “The Cash’s—Johnny, June, John Carter, all of them—are just good people with big hearts. They’d invite a stranger to the dinner table, and they took me in like their own.”
Dean isn’t sure what the late Cash saw in him as an emerging talent, but the two kindred spirits seemed to complement each other. Cash stuck his neck out for him wherever he could, even calling Alan Jackson about possibly cutting some of Dean’s songs in the early days. The memory, now slightly embarrassing to Dean, makes him laugh.
“I was a wild kid; maybe he saw the fire,” Dean postulates. “I’ve played clubs since I was 12—it’s all I’ve ever done. And I came to town on a mission. My dad taught me never to give up. If someone says no, it’s one no closer to a yes. Just keep prayin’, pushin’, keepin’ the pen moving. You can teach people how to write songs, but you can’t teach drive.”
Cash’s generosity shone through in his mentor-like relationship with other artists, including The Statler Brothers and Marty Stewart. Yet, Dean suggests the legendary songwriter did not invest in those who lacked drive.
“Maybe that had something to do with it,” he shares. Thinking for a moment, Dean adds, “He also liked to laugh, and I had a pocket full of jokes. He’d call asking for them in the middle of the night. I loved to tell him stories, and he’d tell me. And it turned us into best friends. I’ll never know why he believed in me, but all I can say is I’m glad he did.”
Before his death, Cash promised Dean that if he ever signed a record deal, he would sing on one of his records. In 2000, Dean was signed to Warner Bros. Records as a part of the country music band, Trick Pony. Cash made good on his 10-year promise and joined the band in the studio to record their track “Big River.” According to Dean, “that’s just the kind of guy he was.”
The Forever Words project is deeply personal. The process involved John Carter delivering a lyric sheet—sometimes a few sentences, others a full poem—to the artists he felt could honor his father’s legacy with their own musical interpretation. He provided a background of what his father might have been going through when he wrote the words.
Wanting to keep the lyrical heirlooms “in the family,” John Carter asked Dean to help co-produce some of the tunes. After years of somewhat delayed songwriting success, Dean was finally able to express his gratitude towards Cash in a language they shared.
“He came to me with a poem and said, ‘I think this one will work for you,’” Dean recalls. “It was the hardest thing in the world. When it’s your own work, you’re not afraid to screw it up, but when you’re looking at Johnny Cash’s words from 1979, you really don’t want to screw it up.”
The songwriter ruminated for weeks over the poem. In a co-write with his dear friend David Lee Murphy, Dean provided the back story and his intentions with the work.
“The words on this record belong to Johny Cash,” he explains. “But for the most part, the music doesn’t sound like him—it’s the artists’ take on the provided lyrics. Being an upright player myself, I wanted this one to have a rockabilly, 1960s Johnny Cash thing.”
The two mulled over three or four verses from the original poem, carefully extracting two. They then wrote a chorus to carry the lines and played it for John Carter. Aiming for an “old record sound,” he co-produced his track “Let It Be Tonight” alongside John Carter, with Alison Krauss on background vocals. The duo also produced John Popper’s track “Who’s Gonna Grease My Skillet” and Aaron Lewis’s track “The Third Degree.”
The ties that bind the songs on Johnny Cash: Forever Words (Expanded Edition) are deeply-rooted and interwoven through generations of musical tradition. Dean and his collaborators breathed new life into the previously unturned remnants with equal parts reverence and reinvention, expanding upon Johnny Cash’s unmatched legacy.
“It would’ve been a shame if no one ever read this body of work,” says Dean. “The names on this project reflect the heart of the whole Cash family. Johnny and June were family-centric, good friend-driven people, and I’m just honored to be a part of this tribute.”