Bluegrass singer-songwriter, Donna Ulisse (pronounced You-liss-ee)-- nominated songwriter of the year by the IBMA the last two years forgoes her own material, other than two co-writes with her husband, Rick Stanley (cousin of Dr. Ralph Stanley) on her latest album.
Their songs "Showin' My Roots" and "I've Always Had A Song I Can Lean On" speak a great deal about how Ulisse decided on music as a career, and how songs have always been a great comfort to her during hard times (as illustrated in the lyrics of the latter). Title cut "Showin" My Roots" starts off the album at a gallop as she speaks of her great inspirational figures of Loretta (Lynn), Dolly (Parton) and Merle (Haggard); and how their writing lit a fire in her. She doesn't hide where she is from, musically. Just the opposite is true. As she sings about how her past shines like a beacon on taking loan of songs from the repertoire of the ladies, plus Carter Stanley's "How Mountain Girls Can Love", Peggy Stanley Bland -- Ralph Stanley's "If That's The Way You Feel", Rodney Crowell's "One Way Rider", Hank Locklin's "Send Me The Pillow You Dream On" and traditional favourite, "Take This Hammer' (on having Sam Bush share lead a better version could not be asked for) and there are others too.
The album is co-produced by Bryan Sutton and Ulisse, and as you would expect has a list of quality pickers assist to give their all. Pickers are Sutton (guitar, banjo), Andy Leftwich (fiddle, mandolin), Rob Ickes (Dobro), Victor Krauss, Byron House (upright bass) and Scott Vestal (banjo), while harmony vocals come from Fayssoux McLean, Rick Stanley, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Larry Cordle, Carl Jackson, Larry Stephenson and Jerry Salley. Usually used in permutations of two, the vocalists like the pickers give stellar support to Ulisse who for her part hits the road running to never look back.
As for choice tracks a few of the tunes have already been listed above, but it is the joy and drive that goes with them and grace on the ballads that grabs the listener's attention most. Her liner notes give detailed accounts of how the songs effected her and were part in her growing up / developing as a performer. Loretta's "Fist City", Dolly (though it is Hag's version she goes for) "In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad" and Tammy's (Wynette) hit "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad" and another Loretta hit. Only this time it's one she did not write, "Somebody Somewhere" (Lola Jean Fawbush). Awash in tempered emotion Dobro Ulisse comes through with the strongest performance on the album. A match for Lynn if ever there were one.
While the impact of the players near edges out Ulisse on a couple of songs she wins through with plaudits on "Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus" and a song that was written by her great uncle Eugene Butler (w/Bill Carrigan) who penned "I Hope You Have Learned", as covered as a duet by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe (Monroe Brothers). Be sure to check out her website for more; her bluegrass / gospel music likewise is excellent.
In the song-by-song liner notes she's written for her exceptional new album, Donna Ulisse says something truly remarkable. In reflecting on the song "I Hope You Have Learned," co-written by her great-uncle Gene "Curly" Butler (and best known as a popular Bill Monroe recording released in 1954), she claims her fame to date in the bluegrass world "has been how I am related to the Stanley Brothers through my marriage to Rick [Stanley], who is a cousin of Carter and Ralph." This is a prelude to her revealing how she learned of her kinship with Mr. Butler via a Monroe biographer who had traced the family history to the Ulisse family. Unfortunately, only the part about her familial link to Curly Butler is accurate, for Donna Ulisse is an artist every serious bluegrass fan knows about, especially when it comes to her superior songwriting. But she's been putting all the pieces together - singing and songwriting - with regularity dating back to her mainstream country debut of 1991, Trouble At the Door; after concentrating solely on songwriting for a decade-plus, she broke out in a big way as a bluegrass artist with 2007's acclaimed When I Look Back, and since 2009 has really been on a major roll with her secular albums Walk This Mountain Down (2009) and An Easy Climb (2011), along with two religious albums (Holy Waters, 2010; and I Am a Child of God, 2013), all of which led up to her astonishing Christmas-themed album of 2012, All the Way to Bethlehem, an Album of the Week selection at Deep Roots and the top pick of 2012 Yuletide releases in the annual Christmas Music issue of our sister publication, TheBluegrassSpecial.com. Of All the Way to Bethlehem this publication stated, "Donna Ulisse's song cycle is not merely close to perfect, it's a work of art."
So as far as yours truly is concerned, there will be no talk of Ms. Ulisse's bluegrass fame being in any way circumscribed or defined by her clearly fruitful musical and personal partnership with Rick Stanley. Apart from the reasons cited above the best evidence available in support of Ms. Ulisse being considered a major bluegrass artist is her newest long player, Showin' My Roots, a tribute to the artists and songs that inspired her own artistry. It does contain two Ulisse originals (co-written with Rick) including the sprightly album opening title track in which she name checks specific artists whose work made the most significant early impact on her youthful sensibility; and the tender, rustic closing track, the self-explanatory I've Always Had a Song I Could Lean On" which soars aloft, straight out of the mountains, on the instrumental wings of Scott Vestal's banjo, Andy Leftwich's fiddle and Rob Ickes's dobro underpinning the poignant, warm rendering of lyrics looking back on the life sustaining properties of music. In between these bookends are eleven tunes of varied vintage, not all of them being obvious titles you might have expected to be featured in an album such as this. As you might gather from the triumvirate of musicians listed above, the band bringing new vigor to these timeless tracks is populated by bluegrass A-teamers: in addition to Vestal, Leftwich and Ickes, the lineup features co-producer Bryan Sutton on guitar, Viktor Krauss on upright bass and a number of harmony vocalists of great repute (such as John Cowan, Fayssoux McLean, Larry Stephenson, Larry Cordle, Carl Jackson, Greg Davis, Tony King, Jerry Salley, Frank Solivan and Rick Stanley). Since this is not a showcase for her songwriting, Ms. Ulisse reminds us she is also one of the outstanding bluegrass singers of the day no matter whose lyrics she's singing. From track to track the warmth, the soul, the sheer depth of feeling and understanding of each song's message, be it playful or poignant, she delivers is truly a wondrous thing to experience as a listener.
In plumbing her roots, Ms. Ulisse does indeed go all the way back: as a three-year-old she made her public singing debut with the venerable "Take This Hammer," a prison-railroad-work song dating back to the turn of the 20th century. With Sam Bush adding a heart male duet voice to hers, Ms. Ulisse revisits it with an impassioned reading in an arrangement offering plenty of room for Andy Leftwich to make a robust statement of his own on fiddle. In her song "Showin' My Roots," she references Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn as signal influences, and so gives them their just due in the tunestack. She takes care of Dolly and Merle in one fell swoop by way of Dolly's wrenching account of a hardscrabble childhood, "In the Good Old Days When Times Were Bad." With Rick Stanley and Frank Solivan contributing tempered harmonizing and Andy Leftwich and Rob Ickes adding backwoods atmospheric flourishes, Ms. Ulisse, with the slightest of cries in her richly personal reading, delivers not the straight Dolly version but Hag's slightly reworked cover rendition, which is not so reworked as to dull the singer's memories of the deprivations her family suffered or her resolve never to revisit those days again. Loretta has the honor of being represented twice, first with a fiddle-fired bluegrass workout of Lynn's chart topping 1968 hit, "Fist City," in which she threatens to cold-cock any woman intent on a dalliance with her man (which Lynn wrote out of frustration with her husband Doolittle's inability to spurn the advances of admiring females who tended to flock to him when Loretta was on the road), and, even more impressively, with an emotional reading of the Lola Jean Fawbush-penned heartbreaker, "Somebody Somewhere (Don't Know What He's Missing Tonight)," a 1976 chart topper for Lynn and a remarkable song for its' time in speaking frankly of a lonely female performer lusting for companionship after "the late show" and drowning her sorrow in drink. Ickes's dobro is the sorrowful shadow voice to Ms. Ulisse's own despairing one in a remarkably effective instrumental-vocal pas de deux of a tear-stained nature.
Ms. Ulisse didn't have to marry Rick Stanley in order to be indebted to the Stanley Brothers - they were part of her life early on, an indispensable influence, and her nod to their legacy in her music comes by way of a hard charging "How Mountain Girls Can Love," with a frisky lead vocal and heated soloing from Sutton on lead guitar, Ickes on dobro and Leftwich on fiddle, and one of the album's most touching moments in her wounded delivery of the haunting breakup ballad "If That's the Way You Feel," in which the singer makes a show - but only a show - of coming to grips with losing a paramour, a pose that disintegrates in the piercing, soaring chorus.
In the self affirming mode of "Fist City," she takes on Tammy Wynette's "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," with banjo, fiddle and mandolin solos adding a bluegrass twist and the singer stating matter of factly her intention to be the kind of footloose gal to whom her man seems inexorably drawn. Hank Cochran's beautiful "Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On," a Ulisse family favorite, has a music box delicacy about it, due in part to Leftwich's soft mandolin flourishes, in part to Sutton's gentle guitar solo, and mostly to the aching lead vocal and Rick Stanley's gentle harmony support - a gem of an arrangement that heightens the beauty of Cochran's tune by emphasizing the wish in the title sentiment in a tender way. And of course Donna Ulisse could not sing of her principal influences without referencing gospel. She does so with a persuasive, firm reading of "Wait a Little Longer Please Jesus," a plea for time to bring sinners into the fold delivered with plainspoken earnestness and buttressed by plaintive solos from Ickes and Leftwich (on fiddle and mandolin both).
No holding pattern this, Showin' My Roots is a vital album by an artist described on her website as a "bluegrass poet." Even though most of the songs are not her originals, Ms. Ulisse, a savvy songwriter and gifted interpretive singer to boot, makes poetry of her time herein.
This has been a busy year for Donna Ulisse; earlier in the year she released Child of God, an album of gospel songs. On her newest album, Showin' My Roots, Ulisse honors the men and women whose music and writing are so much a part of what has created her. In the album's title track, co-written with husband Rick Stanley, Ulisse proclaims in her warm and supple voice that Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens, and others' "singin' and writin' lit a fire in me," and her golden throat wraps its beauty around songs ranging from "Fist City" to "How Mountain Girls Can Love" to "Send Me the Pillow You Dream On" on this album of loving tributes.