Just before diving into a formidable stack of country classics, Ulisse salutes her songwriting heroes like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton on the thoughtful title track. This pleasing set concludes with a message relatable to any music fan: "I've Always Had a Song I Can Lean On."
Since discovering her songwriting muse and moving across from mainstream country to a more rootsy bluegrass style, this is the first album by
Donna Ulisse to feature outside songs. In fact, she contributes just two self-penned songs, the opening title song and the closer "I've Always Had A Song I Can Lean On". They book-end 11 classic songs that were a huge influence on a young Donna and range from the catalogues of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, through to the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe. With such musicians as Bryan Sutton, Rob Ickes, Scott Vestal, Andy Leftwich, Sam Bush, Viktor Krauss, plus guest vocalists Fayssoux McLean, John Cowan, Larry Stephenson, Larry Cordle, Carl Jackson, Jerry Salley and her husband Rick Stanley, this is something extra special both musically and vocally. Especially when you factor in Donna's superb "country" voice that lies somewhere between Loretta and XX.
The two self-penned songs are heartfelt tributes to what drives Donna musically. This lady has a passion for music that, all too often, is missing from many of the mainstream country acts driven by the greed for commercial success rather than following their heart. Both "Showin'My Roots" which name-checks Loretta, Merle, and Bonnie (Owens) and "I've Always Had A Song I Can Lean On" which recalls the influence of her mother and the music that she instilled in her, should get into your very heart and soul. Equally impressive is Donna's version of the well-known songs like the Stanley Brothers' "How Mountain Girls Can Love", Tammy's "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad" and Dolly's "In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad" which is based on Merle Haggard's version.
The highlight of the album, though, is her rendition of Loretta's "Somebody Somewhere (Don't Know What He's Missing Tonight)". Depressed and tortured; weeping Dobro, moaning honky-tonk delivery and completely against the happy mainstream country ditty trend of today. In complete contrast, but equally impressive, is Rodney Crowell's "One Way Rider". A splendid driving country-rock song performed in classic up-tempo bluegrass style; Linda and Emmylou will smile the smile of recognition. Producer Bryan Sutton's unique artistic sense and vision has helped to make this one of the best-sounding country albums of the year. Donna possesses the purest country voice and that little catch in her throat gives it just a touch of hillbilly soul.
A celebrated songwriter with multiple International Bluegrass Music Association nominations in recent years, Virginian Donna Ulisse mixes it up on her new project with a collection of covers pulled from her favorite songs. Showin' My Roots, Donna's sixth album in seven years, digs deep into the catalogs of Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and others while serving up recast versions of classic songs.
Though Donna did write the title-track as well as the autobiographical closer "I've Always Had A Song I Could Lean On", Showin' My Roots is all about honoring those that came before her and offering fans a firsthand look at her influences. Name-checking Dolly and Merle in the title track, Showin' My Roots does an excellent job delivering on the promise of its title. The Dolly/Hag-hybrid "In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad" (Dolly wrote it, but Donna does Haggard's version) and the Rodney Crowell-penned "One Way Rider" offer different perspectives on country and bluegrass. While the former is a 3/4-time ballad, the latter moves at breakneck speed with racing banjo and a vocal cadence designed to increase the urgency. Donna sings in the moment and with conviction while relishing the chance to portray characters like those in a pair of Loretta Lynn classics: 1968's tough-girl "Fist City" and 1976's "Somebody Somewhere (Don't Know What He's Missing Tonight). "Better move your feet if you don't wanna eat a meal that's called Fist City", she sings with a hint of glee at the entertaining bad-girl persona. While selections like this and the biting Tammy Wynette tune "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad" go down well with the help of a strong traditional bluegrass arrangement, the project's gems are those with family ties.
With album notes that describe the significance of each song, works like "Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus"and "Send Me The Pillow You Dream On" take on substantial meaning. The mid-tempo prayer "Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus" is the only song Donna ever heard her father sing while the other is one her family often sang together. Including these, as well as the dark and seedy "I Hope You Have Learned" (a 1954 Bill Monroe duet Donna's uncle Gene "Curly" Butler co-wrote), weaves an even deeper connection into the project. Choices like these offer Donna the chance to showcase the music in her blood as well as the standards she heard growing up.
An excellent cast of musicians joins Donna for the project. In addition to her husband, Rick Stanley, providing harmony vocals throughout, players include Viktor Krauss on upright bass and album co-producer Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar. The chemistry is strong and songs like "How Mountain Girls Can Love" show off a band that knows how to play off each other. Noted bluegrass musician Sam Bush joins Donna in harmony on the traditional working class number "Take This Hammer."
Showin' My Roots, available now, continues a prolific stretch for the bluegrass artist as Donna has released one new project per year since 2009. However, by picking to cover some of her favorites in addition to sharing those that are the most personal, Donna gives fans a rare opportunity to learn more about her past and musical loves with a meaningful and unique set.
Key Tracks "Somebody Somewhere (Don't Know What He's Missing Tonight), "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," "I Hope You Have Learned," "Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus"