Donna Ulisse deserves much admiration for her album "All The Way to Bethlehem," which may be the best Christmas story-related country album of 2012. For starters, it's traditional bluegrass music from start to finish. Better still, it's comprised of all original songs. There isn't a single holiday retread on this sturdy, but entertaining new model vehicle.
Ulisse is a fine singer and songwriter, as she applies a short story writer's approach to telling Jesus' birth story from various angles. While Mary's unique dilemma - that of being a virgin mother - has been contemplated in song a few times before, and is done so again here with He's Not Mine, Ulisse also takes time to consider Elisabeth's story, however (she was Mary's older cousin and the mother of John The Baptist). This lesser known cousin is sung about on one simply titled Elisabeth.
Perhaps this album's prettiest song is Let the World Wait for A Little While, which finds Mary describing the universal joys of motherhood. We may sometimes forget how much Mary must have loved her little boy, aside from this relationship's huge spiritual implications. Yes, Jesus would have a great work ahead of him; but for a little while, he was Mary's precious little child. Ulisse sings with great tenderness throughout this album, while her topnotch instrumental talent, including Byron House and Viktor Krauss, back her up beautifully. If you buy only one new Christmas album this year, make it "All The Way to Bethlehem."
It is the season of good tidings and song, and here to help make the holidays brighter are two new albums from the bluegrass community.
The first album is a live concert recording from the Rural Rhythm Records label called "Christmas -- The Mountain Way." The all-star show was captured at the Bell Theater in Pineville, Ky., and features Mike Scott, Dale Ann Bradley, Steve Gulley, Marty Raybon, Audie Blaylock, Cumberland River, the students of the Cumberland River Academy and many more.
Accompanying the CD is a DVD video of the concert that includes additional performances not found on the album. There are many classic Christmas songs on the recording ranging from "Jingle Bells," "Away In The Manger," "Joy To The World" to "Silent Night," all done in the Appalachian roots music tradition. And, there are two new original songs offered with "Christmas The Mountain Way" and "Christmas In The Mountains."
Another new album released this Christmas season is the ambitious "All The Way To Bethlehem," performed by the 2012 International Bluegrass Music Association Songwriter of the Year nominee Donna Ulisse.
"All The Way To Bethlehem" is not your run of the mill Christmas album. It has been getting a lot of music industry buzz lately because it is not filled with traditional holiday music. Instead, it is a concept album that features 11 new original songs that weave a narrative about the time of the birth of Jesus. The composition's attempt to fill out the rest of the New Testament story that Christians believe took place more than 2,000 years ago.
The album features Ulisse's vocals backed by an all-star group of bluegrass musicians including Andy Leftwich (Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder), Byron House (Robert Plant, Sam Bush), Viktor Krauss (Lyle Lovett), Rick Stanley (Ulisse's husband and band member), Rob Ickes (Blue Highway), John Mock and Keith Sewell, who also produced the project. Adding harmony vocals are Wendy Buckner Sewell and Ana Sewell.
"I think the innkeeper was probably a good guy looking for a dollar and he just didn't have room," said Ulisse, about how the idea for the album came together. "I was convinced in my head that he didn't know who he was turning away and I think he was a standup guy for pointing out the stable. And that is what started it. I wrote the song "You Cannot Stay Here" and it came out of my head in about 30 minutes. Then, I wrote "You Will Be Delivered" with a friend of mine, Marc Rossi, and then it was a fever. From last November until this past March, I wrote 40 songs for this project. Once I wrote that song and connected with the innkeeper on such a personal and human level, I thought, "Oh no, I can't just know this guy, I want to know all of the characters."
After the final 11 songs were culled from the 40 written, the musicians gathered in the studio to bring the album to life.
"The way the recording process went down is, Earl Scruggs died and they had that great big funeral for him that weekend and Keith was a pall bearer," said Ulisse. "We went to record right after the funeral. Keith really took it hard and he was upset. It was just Andy and Byron and Keith and I on that first day. So we decided, since Byron is such a man of God, Keith wanted Byron to lead us in prayer and it was neat because we stood together like a huddle in a football game, kind of linked at the shoulders with our heads together.
"At the same time, I was facing a surgery that I hadn't shared with anyone, and my surgery was going to be three days after that session. I was upset for all kinds of different reasons because they told me that they found something that could be cancerous. I thought, "Great. This will be the last thing I ever record." So, I'm singing like it is the last thing I'll ever record. They kept my vocal tracks because I couldn't match it, emotionally, after we went back to try and do overdubs. It ended up being this wonderful, emotional mess that actually made the record more interesting."
Two examples of the scope of "All The Way To Bethlehem" are the songs "Elisabeth" and "He's Not Mine." The former cut deals with the meeting of Mary and her cousin Elisabeth. Mary, at the time, according to the Bible, was pregnant with Jesus while Elisabeth was simultaneously carrying her baby, who would become known as John the Baptist. Ulisse's lyrics portray the two women as having a lot to talk about, especially with Mary being married to Joseph, who was having trouble dealing with the concept of a virgin birth. "He's Not Mine" contemplates the thoughts that may have gone through Joseph's mind when confronted with the decision to accept and raise a baby that was not his own.
"What a dude Joseph was," said Ulisse. "When I tapped into his story and I think about how many men today are raising other men's children. He was really the shining example of unconditional love for someone you weren't a part of creating. What a stand-up guy he was for not letting Mary go through that alone."
From the moment this musical journey begins-with the soaring call-and-response of "I See the Light of the World"-to the closing joyous, Irish reel-inflected shouts of shepherds running through the streets of Bethlehem crying, "The Baby King is born/Heaven's here on earth," in "Morning in Bethlehem," Ulisse's rapturous and angelic voice soulfully accompanies us on the path that Zechariah, Elisabeth, John, Joseph, and Mary took along that donkey trail to Bethlehem long ago.
Her energetic and moving song cycle captures the emotions of every character in the biblical story found in Luke 1-3 of the events leading up to and surrounding Jesus' birth. A Celtic-tinged ballad introduces Gabriel, the angel who promises both Elisabeth, through her husband Zechariah, and Mary that "You Will be Delivered," and "Heaven will rest in Mary's arms." Ulisse's touching duet with husband Rick Stanley on "All the Way to Bethlehem" captures both the doubt that Joseph feels about taking his pregnant wife on a journey to a faraway place and Mary's deep faith as she reassures him that God "will carry me and my little baby/All the way, all the way to Bethlehem." In the Appalachian folk song "He is Here," carried along by dual fiddles, Ulisse expresses the wonder and awe with which the angel Gabriel announces Jesus's birth to the shepherds, and in
"I'm Gonna Shine," the star shining in the East excitedly announces in a rollicking bluegrass romp that "I'm gonna shine/and shed the light that leads to Christ tonight."
Surrounded by the witnesses of Byron House on upright bass, Andy Leftwich on violin and mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro, John Mock on concertina, and Viktor Krauss on upright bass, Ulisse testifies to the true meaning of Christmas in these joyful hymns of adoration, praise, and worship.