There have been many examples over the years of mainstream country music missing the boat on some of the best vocalists in the business. Some of those singers, in turn, have thankfully landed in the bluegrass genre. What is Pop Country's loss is bluegrass music's gain, including artists such as Rhonda Vincent, Sonya Isaacs, Pam Gadd, Patty Loveless and more. You can add another one to the list with Donna Ulisse. There have been bluegrass-fueled songs from each of Ulisse's recent albums, usually one song in particular, that simply soar with her sweet vocals singing the right melody and the best bluegrass musicians given room to rip. On her When I Look Back album it was the song "I'm Calling Heaven Down." On her Holy Waters CD it was "This Crazy World." On her brand new album, titled An Easy Climb, it is a rocking group effort called "Let It Rain." Her pipes can withstand the pressure and then sing a pretty song to boot, and that is a beautiful thing!
"An Easy Climb" marks the fourth venture into the studio by Donna and her producer guitarist Keith Sewell and they have once again proven that they are a team with chemistry knowing how to deliver a top notch bluegrass/acoustic project. With Ulisse supplying the remarkable original material that sets her apart from so many other artists in her genre and powerful yet sensitive vocals and Sewell leading a stellar group of musicians with the perfect arrangements for Ulisse's compositions, it makes a truly winning combination.
Once again, Ulisse treats us to songs that are born of many of her family and personal relationships; and like a great painter would observe life around them and put it on canvas, she does the same by putting what she observes into the songs she writes and sings. With "Hand Me Down Home" she sings about the land in the Clinch Mountains of Virginia where her husband, Rick Stanley and his family hail from. The song references how the family homestead became more like a family heirloom after the passing of her father-in-law a few years ago. "Banks of Roane River" is a tender ballad about her own great-grandmother who lived a hard life working on a farm and raising fourteen children. "Where The Cold Wind Blows" was written after learning her niece's young husband was being deployed to Afghanistan and thinking about all the soldiers who go and never return. There are some romping fun tracks also like the opening song "Let It Rain" that is a real barn-barner it goes so fast!
Lemonade from lemons. Strike that. Really good ice cold frosty strawberry lemonade from lemons.
Let me explain. Way back in 1991, a young singer/songwriter named Donna Ulisse was signed to Atlantic Records which subsequently released three solid singles and two music videos. For whatever reason, the country music Gods didn't smile down on the release and Ulisse and the label parted ways. For most artists that would have been the end. Lemons. But in a moment of serendipitous purpose, Ulisse returned a whopping eight years later with a homespun collection of bluegrass albums that even better represented the artist.
Over a five year period, Ulisse has released four independent bluegrass albums to widespread critical acclaim. What makes each album consistent to one-another is the inclusion of one magical and powerful song to go along with a collection of solid ones. 2007's album was the Just Plain Folks Awards Bluegrass Song of the Year, "I'm Calling Heaven Down", off of her 2007 release of When I Look Back. On 2009's Walk This Mountain Down, the haunting tale of a lost child on "Levi Stone" was one of That Nashville Sound's top ten songs of the year- in all genres. 2010's Holy Waters' title track made an incredible combination of faith and Appalachian love.
An Easy Climb continues that trend of including a song for the ages- only this time, we're treated with two. "Shady Glen" is masterful storytelling at its best. At once fictional history as well as a fantastic ghost story, it tells the tale of a Confederate loyalist female infiltrating the union army before they destroy her town and poisoning them with rabbit stew. It's modern day ghosts and a story from 150 years ago all wrapped up in a perfect little package. It has all the things you want from a story' a protagonist, a purpose, a cause, action and reaction- all wrapped up perfectly in a wondrous four minute tale. The other phenomenal track is the fantastic autobiographical "Hand Me Down Home." Every detail of her family cabin that's been handed down by several generations is lovingly described in personal important minutia. From the background of the family headstones to the wood the porch is made from, it's a caring tribute to her family that's a treasure- one she shares with us like a guest room.
For those two reasons alone, this album is worth a purchase.
Hand Me Down Home
Let It Rain
Patty Loveless's Mountain Soul Albums
Four Stars Out Of Five