With so many people out there unhappy with the current state of mainstream country music there is a big place in the music industry where traditional country and bluegrass music still can survive. Donna Ulisse fits into that mold perfectly. Remembered for her traditional country album Trouble At The Door, which earned her critical praise she has since focused her career towards the bluegrass genre releasing 2 albums within it. Now she is back with her new album Holy Waters and brings us to yet again a different side of her music. This 12 track, original gospel based album, combines the sounds she has been accustomed to with prominent use of instrumentation that includes banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and dobro, but she surrounds it utilizing her voice with positive songs steeped rich in traditional Christian music. However, this isn't even your typical Christian music straight through and through in that it isn't a praise and worship album. Ulisse instead uses the creations God has placed before her in everyday life such as nature and all of its beauty to help deliver the points in the songs. This album is a nice addition to any catalog of bluegrass inspired traditional country based music that encompasses outstanding songwriting and vocals with a positive message. Holy Waters is another solid effort from one of the most talented and under-rated artists out there today.
Donna Ulisse's new all gospel album is a faith filled and tuneful addition to her growing catalog of songs. Produced by Keith Sewell, the CD includes twelve songs by Ulisse herself and one entry by Carter Stanley, her husband and band mate Rick Stanley's uncle. Ulisse's rich voice projects warmth and conviction without every becoming cloying or overly fervant. The content is clearly Christian but easily acceptable to searchers and believers alike. This album is a more than worthy companion to the last few years of Ulisse's work.
The CD opens with an up tempo and encouraging song called "Caney Creek to Canaan Land" in which Ulisse suggests the road to faith and fulfillment is right where you are and doesn't require a huge and difficult journey, merely a step of faith. You don't have to walk from Caney Creek to Canaan land/To Find the Lord/Well, you don't have to walk that far no more/If it's the Lord you're lookin' for/ You don't have to walk that far no more. The tune is catchy and listenable, the message clear. Harmony vocals by Sewell and Stanley are delightfully supportive and understated, perfectly complementing Ulisse's supple voice which easily communicates emotion without ever over reaching. I had a question for Donna about what and where Caney Creek is and whether it was, perhaps, a biblical reference I had missed. Her response says so much about the internal world of a particular song writer and the way she constructs a song I thought I'd include a lightly edited version. "Caney Creek runs in the Clinch mountains where Carter and Ralph Stanley are from. Rick's mom and dad's place is still there and we visit quite often. In fact, Caney Creek is not too far from Ralph's house."
"The reference is not about a biblical Caney...it's really about the mountains as are a lot of my songs. There are some folks there that have radical beliefs. They have a group that call themselves 'no hellers.' It's funny but I don't find middle ground in the mountains. They are either staunch believers or NOT....moonshine still reigns there. This song is about a righteous person who decides there is too much sin on the mountain top and feels she cannot find God/Jesus there through the cloud of evil. The singer sees it more clearly and sees the Hand of God across the whole ridge but much more importantly knows that you don't have to look past your own heart to find your Redeemer. It's a bit like what Dorothy from the Wizard Of Oz figures out when she awakens from her dreams and says she really had it all in her own backyard. The real truth is that I loved the words together....Caney Creek and Caanan Land. They sounded cool in a line and I worked the story around that. I have stood on the banks of Caney Creek and I absolutely see the work of God there...it's so peaceful and perfect!" Finding the story and the words to make the song work is one of Ulisse's great strengths. Her ability to connect her deepest feelings to a vocal impression and a tune is what good song writing is about.
Ulisse is particularly strong at reflecting the sense of doubt we all feel and the restorative powers of a faith that, while Jesus-based, leaves room for searchers to find alternatives. In "He Will" she sings: Clouds of doubt/Roll across the bitter sky/Crowds love out/Leaves you high and dry/Leaves you lonely.... Images of loss, loneliness, and doubt nearly overwhelm the singer, yet she asserts the power of allowing the individual to find assurance in the sense of support to be found in walking with Jesus. There's an element of resting in the arms of one stronger than the individual without giving up one's own sense of self. Rest assured He'll walk with you, because you know He will.
In "Crazy World" she sings: My soul is an empty cup/Going back to the well/My heart needs to fill back up/And quench this weary broken girl until/I take this crazy world back on again. The voice picture of the singer walking alone in the woods finding refreshment in the soul restoring environment provided by smells, sounds, and the restorative quality of clean air is filled with a sense of oneness seldom found in this sub-genre of bluegrass music. Scott Vestal's rippling banjo captures the stream and Ulisse's voice finds both the world weariness and new strength of a real person seeking, and finding, hope and renewed strength.
"To My Soul I Do" is an expressive testimony to belief that there is a God to help keep faith and hope alive. Sounding almost like a chant at times with a haunting minor key melody supported by lovely banjo and fiddle work, the song reaches out to those seeking a spiritual idea to cling to.
"Who You Need to Know" gives testimony to the "Houses are big Mansion and Streets are paved with gold" vision of eternity. The song offers an alternative to the fire and brimstone through the only solution, Jesus. The song has a lilting melody and Ulisse's strong voice supporting it. Her recording band for this project is as able as any that could be assembled. Harmony vocals are provided by Rick Stanley and producer Keith Sewell. Sewell also contributes on the guitar. Scott Vestal on banjo, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, Rob Ickes on Dobro, and Byron House on bass are all experienced live performers as well as studio musicians. The entire project communicates a sense of liveliness and immediacy not often present in many studio recordings. Of the last entry, "My Jesus," Donna says, "The last track "My Jesus" was recorded at Keith's studio live and I have to say, I was so moved by the beauty of what these two talented musicians created. Keith and Rob were thinking as one and it was something special. I was choked with emotion and could hardly sing."
"Who Will Sing for Me?" is the only song on this marvelous collection not written by Donna Ulisse. It's a Carter Stanley standard, which asks a singer's question. Singers, musicians in general, often sing at the funerals of others. The question of whether anyone will be available to sing for them is real and always immediate. In addition to including the Stanley song, Ulisse has co-written with a variety of song writers on this project: Rick Stanley, Kerry & Lynn Chaler, Marc Rossi, and Brian Bush. Donna herself is, nevertheless, the obvious core of this impressive project.
What I like best about this all-gospel album is the range of spiritual experience presented in it. Her sensitivity to the spiritual forces of nature, embrace of more traditional Christian inspiration, and use of a range of powerful symbols, especially water, all combine to create a powerful and moving testimony of faith and searching. Donna herself refers to the work as a "soul journey." The songs range from praise through a variety of heartfelt human experiences of loss and doubt, but always return to the promise of redemption. Musically, the collection is so strong that it is worth owning and treasuring by not only those who share its inspiration, but those who love good music regardless of subject matter. Holy Waters is available on line or from your favorite music source.
Like its predecessors, Holy Waters is on the contemporary side of the bluegrass divide. Even so, it's the most traditional in feeling and, in addition, the warmest and most readily accessible. As with the other two (which I reviewed here on 10 May 2008 and 9 January 2009), its songs deal overwhelmingly with relationships, except that this time the relationship is with the divine.
One doesn't have to be a believer to sing, or even to write, gospel persuasively, but I'm sure it helps. Nashvillean Donna Ulisse's sincere devotion is apparent all over the place, even in the liner notes' mini-sermon by her uncle, the Rev. Dr. Henry D. Butler. Though there is a vast catalogue of bluegrass gospel songs stretching back to the genre's foundation, Ulisse chooses to write or co-write all of the material except for the Carter Stanley classic "Who Will Sing for Me," which she does in impressive fashion. It is not one a less confident artist would dare.
If her own compositions lack the for-the-ages aura of the canon's sacred anthems, they're solidly crafted and more than capably performed. Ulisse has a crystalline sort of voice, the very sound of which gratifies the ear even when it is not focused specifically on word and message. It isn't always the sort of bluegrass singing one would anticipate from a more hard-core practitioner of the music in its more specifically Appalachian definition. I wonder, though, if it's heading that way. Consider, for example, the appealing "High in the Sky," written with her husband Rick Stanley (a younger cousin to the Stanley Brothers), which pushes her singing into a pleasingly personal take on the mountain tradition.
Again, Nashville studio veteran Keith Sewell produces, creating a warm, sparkling ambience. He has recruited some of the current generation's finest bluegrass pickers, among them Andy Leftwich (fiddle, mandolin), Rob Ickes (dobro) and Scott Vestal (banjo). Meantime, Ulisse, never short of intelligence, talent and heart, keeps getting better. One of these days, I expect, everybody will be paying attention.