Donna Ulisse, who has the voice of somebody you might hear on current country radio, migrated into bluegrass after landing a major-label deal some years ago but then failing to score radio hits and achieve mainstream stardom. No disgrace in that; plenty of talented performers don't make Nashville's big time, and given what Nashville has come to over the past couple of decades, it's just as well. It means that individuals like Ulisse are freed to pursue music that is at least artistically more rewarding.
Her early indie albums, consisting almost entirely of original material, felt as much like commercial country in acoustic settings as bluegrass. An Easy Climb (which I reviewed here on 15 October 2011) marked a turn toward a more rural sound. It bears noting, incidentally, that she is married to Rick Stanley, younger cousin to mountain-music giants Carter & Ralph Stanley. In other words, bluegrass has never been exactly an alien musical form in her life.
On Showin' My Roots Ulisse takes acoustic guitar wizard Bryan Sutton as her co-producer, joins forces with bluegrass notables such as Andy Leftwich, Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes, Sam Bush and others, and revisits some superior songs, most of them from country's 1960s/'70s golden age. They include a couple of Loretta Lynn hits ("Somebody Somewhere" and "Fist City," the latter also composed by Lynn) and one each associated with Dolly Parton (her own "In the Good Old Days When Times Were Bad") and Tammy Wynette (Sherrill/Sutton's "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad"). These women's influence on Ulisse is manifest, as for that matter it is on practically any worthwhile female country singer who came after them. Their songs are done in thoughtfully restrained (as opposed to hard-driving) bluegrass style.
I am always pleased to hear "Send Me the Pillow You Dream On," one of country's tenderly romantic songs, done lovingly here. A small correction, however: it was Hank Locklin, not "Lochlin," who wrote it. "How Mountain Girls Can Love" by the late Carter Stanley is among the most-covered songs in the bluegrass songbook, though it is not often sung from a woman's perspective. Ulisse pairs up with the celebrated mandolinist Sam Bush for the folksong "Take This Hammer," a highlight on an album aglow with them.
Over time Ulisse, whose abundant gifts have never been at issue, has grown ever more assured as a bluegrass artist. Showin' My Roots is her most satisfying effort so far.
Donna Ulisse is primarily a bluegrass singer-songwriter. And she's produced several outstanding albums of her own material.
But "Showin" My Roots," primarily an album of cover songs, may just be her best album yet.
It's not just covers. It's covers of songs by artists who have inspired her through the years.
And that makes it a concept album.
Ulisse and her husband, Rick Stanley, a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, wrote the opening and closing songs, which serve as book-ends to the collection.
The title song, which opens the album, mentions several of the artists who inspired her. The closing track, "I've Always Had A Song I Could Lean On," tells how music has influenced her life.
"Take This Hammer," a traditional song sung as a duet with Sam Bush, is a song Ulisse sang as a 3-year-old at a family barbecue.
The Loretta Lynn classic, "Somebody Somewhere (Don't Know What He's Missing Tonight)" is a song she sang early in her career.
Lynn was the first artist Ulisse saw perform live. And her "Fist City" is a tribute to that memory.
Other songs include a couple of Stanley Brothers songs "How Mountain Girls Can Love" and "If That's The Way You Feel,"; Rodney Crowell's "One Way Rider"; Dolly Parton's "In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad"; Tammy Wynette's "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad"; Hank Locklin's "Send Me The Pillow You Dream On"; "I Hope You Have Learned," a Bill Monroe song co-written by her uncle, Gene Butler; and the gospel classic, "Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus," a song her father used to sing.
The band is an all-star lineup featuring Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes, Andy Leftwich, Viktor Krauss and Byron House. Harmony singers include John Cowan, Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Larry Stephenson, Frank Solivan, Jerry Salley and Rick Stanley.Great album.
Can't find it in stores? Try /www.donnaulisse.com.
For the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I've enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.
Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.
A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. "I've Always Had A Song I Could Lean On" is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.
Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of "Fist City" and "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad", both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton's "In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad" acts as Donna's nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.
Donna's husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna's version of the Stanley Brothers' "How Mountain Girls Can Love" is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley's deeply mournful "If That's The Way You Feel" is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.
Almost as good, "Somebody Somewhere (Don't Know What He's Missing Tonight)", a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.
Donna is sincere and compelling on "Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus", a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional "Take This Hammer" (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic "Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On" is delicately pretty.
"I Hope You Have Learned" was written in the 1950s by Donna's great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.
The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell's "One Way Rider", which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan's harmony providing some flavor.
This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna's beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.