The first thing you’re likely to notice when you listen to Donna Ulisse ― whether live or on a recording ― is the voice. Variously described as “rapturous and angelic,” strong, supple, warm, rich, companionable and crystalline, that voice commands your attention, adapting readily to whatever song she is singing, wrapping itself around the lyrics and imbuing them with just the right emotion needed to bring the song home.
Ulisse also has been called “one of the best singer-songwriters in bluegrass.” Which leads us to the pen. Nominated as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Songwriter of the year for four years running, Ulisse has been blessed to have her songs recorded by the Del McCoury Band, Claire Lynch, Darin and Brooke Aldridge, The Bankesters and Nu-Blu, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Larry Stephenson Band and Volume Five among others.
Throughout the various phases of her career, Donna Ulisse has remained true to who she is, and that musical integrity comes across in every note she sings. Born into a musical family in Hampton, Virginia, she grew up surrounded by traditional sounds and from an early age was drawn to performing. She later married Rick Stanley, a cousin of bluegrass legends Ralph and Carter Stanley, and was further influenced by his family’s Clinch Mountain roots. As a teenager, she sang in a western swing band.
After moving to Nashville in the 1980s, she quickly became an in-demand demo singer and background vocalist, lending her voice to recordings by legends such as Jerry Reed. A production deal with Dale Morris, manager of the supergroup Alabama, led to her signing a recording deal with Atlantic Records, which in 1991 released her well-received traditional country album, TROUBLE AT THE DOOR, and two singles that cracked the Billboard country charts. Despite critical acclaim, however, the album failed to generate widespread attention, though it remains a worldwide favorite today among discerning fans of fine traditional country music.
After her Atlantic Records deal ended, she turned her focus to songwriting, amassing a high-quality catalog that often leaned toward bluegrass and mountain music, especially when she wrote alone. That observation by her publisher, Hadley Music Group, led to the recording of her 2007 album WHEN I LOOK BACK, the inaugural release of Hadley’s own independent record label.
Since then, she has released six more well-received albums for Hadley Music Group, each incorporating traditional and contemporary bluegrass, gospel and country: WALK THIS MOUNTAIN DOWN (2009), HOLY WATERS (2010), AN EASY CLIMB (2011), ALL THE WAY TO BETHLEHEM (2012), the gospel compilation I AM A CHILD OF GOD (2013) and SHOWIN’ MY ROOTS (2013). Her 2012 release, a stunningly original song cycle relating the story of Christ’s birth, drew rave reviews, including: “may be the best Christmas story-related country album of 2012” (Country Standard Time) … “a work of art” (The Bluegrass Special) … “a masterpiece” (Bluegrass Unlimited) … and “a grand adventure told in song” (CMT.com).
After a brief detour with 2013’s Showin’ My Roots, which consisted mainly of classic country covers that had influenced her, the four-time IBMA songwriter of the year nominee is back with another superb collection of originals that demonstrate her gift for believable narrative, finely wrought detail and genuine emotion. When she wraps her warm, rich voice around these songs, you know they’re real to her.
Ulisse is a writer on 11 of the 12 songs, penning four on her own. Fans will recognize regular co-writers Marc Rossi, with four songs here; Rick Stanley, her husband and touring band member (and cousin of Carter and Ralph); and the award-winning Jerry Salley.
The first single, “It Could Have Been The Mandolin,” recalls a blissful evening in a blossoming relationship. Young love is also at the forefront of “We’re Gonna Find A Preacher,” while the feisty “Ain’t That A Pity” depicts the downside of love.
Family stories have always been a key part of Ulisse’s music, and here she offers two loving tributes. “Workin’ On The C & O” is a poor man’s railroad tale about her maternal grandfather, who began his career as a “gandy dancer.” “Papa’s Garden” honors her grandfather on her dad’s side, an Italian immigrant who found great joy in growing things. She lovingly dedicates the whole album to these two grandparents who made such an impression on her.
In the spine-tingling “The River’s Runnin’ Free,” the singer stumbles upon an acquaintance in the act of some eerily suspicious behavior by the water, demands: “Are you here to lay some kind of trouble in the ground, or are you here digging trouble up?” At the other end of the emotional spectrum is “Just As Long As We’re Together,” a love-conquers-all promise. And the gorgeously mournful title track is the type of acoustic traditional country ballad that no one can deliver like Ulisse.
The sole cover is the country classic “Whispering Pines,” a song Ulisse has long loved, and one originally made famous by Johnny Horton, her husband’s all-time favorite male vocalist. Ulisse sings the chestnut like one of her own, her voice tenderly pleading for the return of her baby.
The album closes with the lullaby-like “I’ll Sleep In Peace At Night” which includes Fayssoux McLean on harmony, one of Ulisse‘s vocal idols from the time she first heard her singing harmony on the early Emmy Lou Harris records.
Ulisse handed the production reins to six-time IBMA guitarist of the year Bryan Sutton (Hot Rize, Ricky Skaggs, Harry Connick Jr.), who also was at the board for Showin’ My Roots. As on previous albums, Ulisse is surrounded by some of the top pickers in bluegrass — which is to say some of the best musicians on the planet: Casey Campbell, a member of Sutton’s touring band, on mandolin; Dennis Crouch (June Carter Cash, Emmylou Harris, Diana Krall, Steve Earle) on upright bass. Stuart Duncan (Alison Krauss; James Taylor, the Goat Rodeo Sessions album with Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer) on fiddle. Scott Vestal (Dolly Parton, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush) on banjo. Brent Truitt of the SteelDrivers engineered and mixed.
With Hard Cry Moon, Donna Ulisse offers more proof that, whether she is interpreting the work of others or her own compositions, she has earned her spot as one of bluegrass music’s most captivating artists.
With her able touring band, The Poor Mountain Boys, Ulisse regularly hits the road, playing festivals, concert venues and churches, and gaining new fans at every stop.
Whether she is singing her own songs or those that have helped to shape her as a singer and a writer, Ulisse continues to make her mark as a uniquely talented artist. Edward Morris of CMT.com calls her “one of the most commanding voices in bluegrass music,” and Billboard’s Wade Jessen said, “It’s hard to say which is more exciting, Donna’s singing or her songwriting.” Fortunately, you don’t have to decide. You can simply savor the complete package: The voice. The pen. The heart and soul. Donna Ulisse.
To learn more about Donna Ulisse visit her website: www.donnaulisse.com