january 2009

Faith & Love, Those Tricky Little Devils

By David McGee

Donna Ulisse
Hadley Music Group

If anyone is poised for a breakout year in bluegrass in '09 it's Donna Ulisse, who could hardly have helped herself more than she does on the Keith Sewell-produced Walk This Mountain Down. For starters she's got a baker's dozen of finely crafted songs to present her, all of which she either wrote or co-wrote, her main collaborators on the co-writes being Marti Rossi and Rick Stanley. Next, take a look at her backing band: Sewell himself is handling acoustic guitar chores; Andy Leftwich is on fiddle and mandolin; Scott Vestal is on banjo; Byron House on upright bass; and Rob Ickes on dobro. The New York Yankees should be so lucky as to afford a team like this, equivalent as it is of the famed Murderer's Row lineup of pinstripe lore. Fans will hear echoes of Rhonda Vincent in Ulisse's keening high lonesome attack and especially in her sturdy belting and crooning, but that's mere coloration; the heart pumping vitality and emotional commitment through her every phrase is that of a singular artist on her way to putting some distance between herself and her contemporaries.

You don't have to wait long to realize you're breathing rare air in Ulisse's presence. The album kicks off with a brisk affirmation of the power of imagination and will, "In My Wildest Dreams," which in and of itself is a seldom-voiced topic in contemporary music anymore. As the band sprints along behind her, Ulisse lays out a scenario in which she envisions all things possible, all dreams achieved, freedom at hand, for however long she stays in her dream state, as Leftwich fashions a delicate, open-hearted mandolin solo around her vivid, poetic images, all rendered with palpable feeling by way of Ulisse using her full vocal range to shade the lyrics with extra feeling. It's one of those sit-up-and-take-notice moments, and Ulisse runs with it, never coasting as the record unfolds with dramatic conviction and a panoramic worldview. A disappointing love affair, recounted in the foreboding "Dust to Dust," is seen not as an isolated event but rather in the context of human history, likening she and her lover's failure to Adam and Eve being "thrown out of paradise," and finally accepting her fate in full knowledge that, ultimately, "we're made out of dust/and to dust we shall return"—although she does take a moment to allow herself a flash of anger at the man who spurned her love. In this context, the beautiful heartache of "Love's Crazy Train," a song acknowledging—and accepting—the unpredictable nature of love, seems like a postscript to "Dust to Dust," in the singer's willingness to get on board again, even knowing the ultimate destination may be inaccessible. The gentle thump and insouciant swagger of "The Trouble With You" is a nice bit of word play on Ulisse's part, the title referring not to any deficiency on her paramour's part, but instead to his irresistible good looks, which other women have a habit of noticing. Ulisse plays up the humor in the song, puts on an attitude of mock-outrage, and as Ickes constructs a flashy, discursive dobro solo at fadeout, she re-enters to add, "The trouble with you/is you play the dobro." Well put, indeed. Later, in "Lovin' Every Minute," she will melt a listener's heart with the tenderness of her expressions of love for one who "believed in me/and never once lost faith/and helped me live with my mistakes." This one has the hallmarks of a classic country love song in its taut, economical lyrics and plainspoken sentiments of devotion and personal fulfillment, and the music supporting these utterances is similarly restrained but soulful, with a beautiful balance in textures as the dobro, banjo and mandolin rise up from the ensemble mix to curl around the melody, adding precisely the right dollop of extra emotional shading as a backdrop to Ulisse's heartfelt musings.

However much Ulisse may view love as a roll of the dice, she never wavers in her trust in God's love. In her gospel numbers she extols the strength and peace of mind her faith has brought to her in this world, in her day to day life, rather than focusing on the promise of eternal life once her time on earth is through-before you can anticipate the great beyond you have to make it right on terra firma, y'know. The high strutting gospel number, "Walk This Mountain Down," which happens to offer another of many spectacular showcases for Rob Ickes's expressive dobro commentary on this album, finds Ulisse recounting her mother's wisdom in counseling her to put her faith in God as the solid foundation on which you can lean in hard times. "The Key" sings of the earthly rewards accruing to those who are strong in faith and in their love of Jesus—"the door to Heaven is not hidden in a dark and secret place...open up your heart and find amazing Grace/the door to Heaven's never locked up to anyone/all it takes is faith to keep the gates wide open" pretty much sums up Ulisse's philosophy on this matter, and she sings it with the certainty of one whose experience has confirmed its certainty; out of the ensemble mix pulsating behind Ulisse, both Leftwich and Vestal, on mandolin and banjo, respectively, make striking instrumental statements of their own. A rustic banjo lick from Vestal kicks off "Everything Has Changed," a prelude to Ulisse entering to proclaim the change that's come over her since accepting Jesus into her life. In the choruses Ulisse is joined in southern gospel quartet harmony by Sewell, Curtis Wright and Rick Stanley, their voices swelling and finally breaking into a hallelujah moment as the song, which seems even shorter than its listed 2:49 length, trots to a buoyant climax.

The album ends on a spectacular note, in the dark, haunting, four-minute story song, "Levi Stone." A man who "lived by the gospel" and "taught his son the same," Levi refuses to seek medical help when his son falls ill, certain that the Lord will provide and thus oblivious to his wife's pleas to call for a doctor. When the dying boy speaks from his deathbed, in the chorus, Ulisse, with Keith Sewell and Claire Lynch providing a silky background chorus, sings in a soft, pleading voice: "Papa, please, a drink of water/wipe the fever from my brown/tell these angels all around me/they need to put me down/papa, you tell them I'm in God's hands now." Sixteen years later Levi is alone, first his son, then his wife, having gone to the grave, leaving him alone and haunted by the memory of his son's final plea as he himself becomes a living corpse. And so Donna Ulisse leaves us to puzzle out this matter of faith and when our reliance on it becomes destructive. She's told us, in three other songs here, of the bountiful wonders faith can work in a person's life. Is "Levi Stone," then, meant as a cautionary tale, another reminder that the practical application of faith must not overrule common sense? What if common sense, as most of us would define it, is something different for men like Levi Stone? Or, for that matter, for men like Job? Who or what is at fault then? One question begets another, and so does each answer. Some may feel Ulisse has sucker-punched them with "Levi Stone," that it undermines the convictions of her other gospel songs, but others may view it from the larger perspective of faith not being reduced to simple homilies but being a complex undertaking as a day-to-day matter, a constant questioning and testing process. Levi Stone seems not to have come out whole from blindly trusting in the Word. When you walk this mountain down, what will you find at the end of your own journey? — David McGee 

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024