“Let me tell you about how I ended up in Nashville,” exclaims country music singer-songwriter and producer Ira Dean excitedly. “I was working as a maintenance man at the Elizabethan Inn in Manteo, North Carolina. To fix a water line, I had to climb under the hotel, and in the process, I got electrocuted. At that point, I said to my brother, ‘I’m not cut out for maintenance; I just want to play music.’”
Dean—who is engaged to Naples advocate and philanthropist Jennifer Parisi—has been singing, playing, or writing country music his entire life. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, he is the youngest of five children. Both he and his brother, Billy, excelled in music. Their father was also a gifted instrumentalist—a “monster guitar player,” says Ira—who encouraged their talents in performing and songwriting.
“I started playing the drums before anything else,” explains Ira. “And, I have been playing clubs since I was 12 years old. I had gigs five nights a week, and on breaks, I would sit and do my homework.”
Ira graduated high school early so he could pursue music on the road, drumming alongside Billy, who sang vocals and played guitar. For college, Ira enrolled at Southern Illinois University, where he was a jazz performance major (for percussion). While the academic expectation was to hone skills in this genre, he had other ideas.
“I liked to study music theory, and I was going to college for jazz,” explains Ira. “But, at the end of the day, I wanted to play country music.”
After stepping away from the jazz path and his university studies, he eventually found himself back in North Carolina, performing “beach music”—again alongside his brother—and working as a maintenance person, the shocking career that ushered him off to Music City.
“In 1990, Billy and I, along with his wife, Ginger, packed up a little box truck with $300 among us and headed to Nashville,” says Ira. “We thought they’d be waiting for us at the border with a record deal.”
In short order, what greeted them instead was a heavy dose of disillusionment. Ira slept on the couch in a small house, barbacking at the Opryland Hotel and playing small gigs here and there to make ends meet.
“I wasn’t eating enough and barely making the money it cost me to stay on that couch,” relates Ira. “I thought, ‘What am I doing?’”
And then it happened. Luck struck in a big way, bringing him one of the biggest breaks of his career.
Ira was playing at the Bell Cove Club, a small club outside of Nashville, when he became acquainted with a young man known as John Carter. The two quickly hit it off and became fast friends, sometimes even performing with each other.
“He learned I was broke, having a hard time making rent, and contemplating leaving Nashville,” he recounts. “And I learned he was Johnny and June Carter Cash’s son: John Carter Cash. We became inseparable.”
One day, John invited Ira over for lunch at the Cash home. “After that, I never really left,” Ira explains. “I went from paying $200 a month to sleep on a couch and weighing about 160 pounds to waking up in Johnny Cash’s home to breakfast and him pouring me coffee.”
Ira lived in the Cash residence for about a year and for several more in a home situated on a property the Cash family owned nearby. “June always said I was like the dog they fed that never left,” Ira jokes. “The two were like a second mom and dad to me.”
“I would travel with them, too,” he expounds. “We would visit their place in Tampa and Cinnamon Hill, their home in Jamaica.” (Cinnamon Hill is where Ira and Jennifer plan to wed in February 2024, with John Carter Cash serving as the officiant.)
In addition to treating him like kin, the Cash family embraced Ira’s musicality, with Johnny assisting Ira’s career whenever he could. “Johnny helped me; he’d pitch my songs all the time,” says Ira. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Cash family.”
Ira was recognized as a drummer. However, that changed one day when he was playing a gig with John Carter Cash, and the bass player didn’t show.
“John wanted me to step in because I would play around with bass on my own some. I said, ‘John, I’ve never actually performed on bass before.’ But somehow, I did that night, and after, I never returned to drums again. Bass came so naturally.”
Ira, who now plays more than 10 different instruments, including piano and guitar, eventually landed as the bass player for Tanya Tucker. During this time on the road, he met Keith Burns, who played bass for Joe Diffie. Burns mentioned a concept for a new band he had to Ira, but nothing materialized.
“I was still playing for Tanya Tucker, and we had just finished a show in Texas,” says Ira. “I learned I had been fired. I started to weigh my options and remembered Keith’s idea. From that, Trick Pony was formed.” On bass was Ira, while Burns handled guitar and Heidi Newfield sang lead vocals.
Together, the three started writing songs with one of the first, “Pour Me,” skyrocketing to a top-10 hit. “I remember getting the royalty check,” says Ira. “I bought my first house and my first furniture—and my first bed.”
In 2000, the band was signed by Warner Bros. and all in all recorded three studio albums. In 2002, Trick Pony won the Academy of Country Music Awards’ Top New Vocal Group honor and Favorite Country New Artist at the American Music Awards. The band was also nominated for a Grammy in 2003. They wore out the road touring, too. After several hectic years, Trick Pony dismantled in 2007.
“We were burned out,” Ira says, though he reflects upon his Trick Pony days affectionately. “It changed my life,” he indicates.
For the Record
Ira has produced records and recorded with a long list of country music all-stars, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Dunn, Darius Rucker, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Blake Shelton, and several others. He’s also a highly respected songwriter.
“Ira is one of those rare guys that can do it all,” says Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn. “He’s a studio and live quality player and a world-class hit songwriter.”
Gary Allan, country music singer-songwriter, adds, “I’ve written with Ira many times. He’s a great musician—always an asset in the room.”
Ira credits at least some of his success to others. “I didn’t fine-tune my craft until I went to Nashville and started writing with some really heavy hitters like Jeffrey Steele, Aaron Barker, Chris Wallin, and David Lee Murphy. They taught me so much.”
Besides “Pour Me,” Ira wrote or cowrote other chart-topping tunes, including “Just What I Do” (Trick Pony); “A Feelin’ Like That” (Gary Allan); “One in Every Crowd” (Montgomery Gentry); and “Am I the Only One” (Aaron Lewis).
At present, Ira is touring. He’s also working on a new album, part of which was recorded at renowned Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He describes it as “upbeat” and explains it will include talent from several recognized artists, such as Vince Gill, John Osborne, Ronnie Dunn, and Ted Nugent. Rumor has it Gary Allan, Jamey Johnson, and Gretchen Wilson will also be involved in the album, set to release in early 2024.
Ira and Jennifer met on her first jaunt to Nashville in 2019. He was performing at the famous Bluebird Cafe, and Jennifer was there with her family to enjoy the entertainment. While Ira was onstage, Jennifer snapped a photo. The next day, her daughter Serena, who thought the pic was Instagram worthy, suggested she post it. Jennifer did so, tagging Ira who later messaged her, requesting permission to use it on his social media platforms. However, Ira asked more than this; he also asked her on a date later that night. Jennifer said yes then—and yes again when Ira proposed to her this past April.
The pair travel between Nashville and Naples, frequently attending philanthropic events here. Jennifer and her daughter are responsible for initiating Serena’s Law, which requires clerks of court to post the identities online of sexual perpetrators with injunctions or restraining orders filed against them for the protection of minors. Jennifer is likewise passionate about helping the Southwest Florida community and contributes her time and talents to organizations like Path2Freedom, Lee Health, and The Everglades Foundation.
Ira and Jennifer have tackled philanthropic events together in Southwest Florida. Following Hurricane Ian, the two—in partnership with several others—worked to organize the Boots on the Sand benefit concert at Hertz Arena last December. Hosted by comedian Jim Breuer and featuring an impressive lineup that included performances from Gavin DeGraw, Brian Kelley, Tracy Lawrence, Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ira, and others, the event was hugely successful, with approximately $1.5 million raised and about $1.21 million distributed among Volunteer Florida, the Collaboratory, Collier Community Foundation, and Charlotte Community Foundation. While Ira secured the talent and coproduced the show, he gives the credit to Jennifer and those helping her.
“They worked around the clock; they just made it happen,” says Ira, which sounds a lot like how he grew his own career—through grit and determination.