march 2011

donna hughes
Donna Hughes: ‘I’m not your typical bluegrass writer.’ (Photo: Don Mears Photography)

The Promise Fulfilled

With Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies, Donna Hughes bridges the gap between traditional and contemporary bluegrass and casts a glow that shines beyond it

By David McGee

Since releasing her first album of original songs, Somewhere In Time, in 2001, Donna Hughes has been surfacing with electoral efficiency, every two or four years. With each new campaign she picks up more supporters and by now she’s a consensus candidate for the title of Most Likely To Succeed at Being An Important Roots Songwriter. Her latest album, Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies (her second for Rounder following two self-released CDs including the aforementioned 2001 title and 2003’s 21-song Same Old Me), justifies the widespread acclaim for 2007’s Rounder debut, Gaining Wisdom, and then some.

The animating conceit of Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies is expressed early on, in the bustling, minor key bluegrass epistle titled “Nothing Easy,” in which the Tiffany, North Carolina-native (she still lives in her home town, too) wearily laments yet another untenable romance, sighing lowly, “there’s nothing easy about love.” Thus the theme Hughes explores with devastating precision and unsparing detail in most of the 14 ensuing numbers. With some of the top bluegrass musicians of our time at her disposal--the likes of Rob Ickes, Andy Steffey, Aubrey Haynie, Barry Bales, Scott Vestal, et al.--Hughes offers 15 new original songs howling at the pain of betrayal (“Mid-life Crisis”), examining the epic ache of irreconcilable differences (“Longing For You”), mourning the dearly departed (a father, in “Saying Hello”) and in a way even linking the rapacious pirate Blackbeard to the rogues’ gallery of men whose woeful behavior has laid her low (in the pulsating, banjo- and mandolin-fired story-song “Blackbeard”). Hughes’s warm, mountain voice has the right blend of certitude and vulnerability to add vivid dimension to her lyrics, and producer J.D. Crowe puts it front and center of a big, clean ensemble soundscape that, like Hughes’s stories, is marvelously shaded in light and dark hues to suggest a conflicted interior soliloquy.

donna hughes hellosSinging with greater confidence and subtlety than she’s ever displayed on disc before, Hughes invests her performances with a personal stamp that brings a highly individual flair to her music. Her smooth, soothing voice betrays only a bit of the Carolina twang in her speaking voice but enough so that at times she approaches Rhonda Vincent territory in terms of sounding like anyone else out there. Though she’s supported by some of the finest bluegrass musicians on the planet on Hellos, and a certified bluegrass legend in producer Crowe, the intimate nature of her songs, the craft evident in their structure, and the very feel of her voice telling her stories places her squarely in a singer-songwriter mold, as the astute bluegrass scribe and songwriter Jon Weisberg points out in his liner notes for the new album.

Observes Weisberger: “…when you hear Donna Hughes, when you listen to the fifteen songs that make up this generous collection, what you’re hearing is nothing more—and nothing less—than a singer/songwriter fronting a bluegrass band.”

Weisberger goes on to place this phenomenon in proper historical perspective: “In one respect, of course, that’s nothing new. Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, was himself a singer and a songwriter, as were Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley and Jesse McReynolds, and the music’s history is peppered with the names of singers who wrote much (though rarely all) of their own material. But it’s equally true that over the past several decades, the term 'singer/songwriter' has taken on a kind of life of its own, denoting something more than simply an artist who sings what he or she has written. These days, it implies a kind of style, or family of styles, shaped by the folk revival of the 1960s and greats like Gordon Lightfoot and James Taylor, who combined a grounding in traditional forms with a myriad of more artful influences and a kind of direct emotionalism—and it’s in this other way, too, that it makes sense to speak of Donna Hughes as a singer/songwriter.

“This approach to understanding Hughes’ music is easiest to grasp when applied to her songs. One might go no further than the fact that this is one of those rare instances where a bluegrass album is wholly self-written to get the point, but dig deeper—look at the way her lyrics are framed, or at the rumination of songs like ‘Autumn Leaves,’ or at the construction of songs like ‘Butterfly,’ ‘If I Had You’ or ‘Longing for You’—and it becomes clear why producer J.D. Crowe offers up the laconically profound observation, ‘they’re different.’”

Donna Hughes performs ‘What I’m Lookin’ For,’ from her first Rounder album, Gaining Wisdom, at a CD release party at Nashville’s Station Inn, March 1, 2007. The band includes Wayne Benson (mandolin), Rebecca Frazier (guitar, vocals), Mike Bub (bass), Thomas Wywrot (banjo).

This is not something Donna Hughes needs to be told. Coming from a musical family (her grandfather played multiple instruments and ran his own music conservatory), the now-39-year-old artist grew up absorbing the classical music her mother loved and the hymns her choir-leader deacon father sang in church (he also loved bluegrass and country, and broke out in song so much in one of his other endeavors that he became know as the “Singing Auctioneer”), plus all the popular music around her as she was coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It shows in her writing.

“I’m not your typical bluegrass writer,” the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hughes admitted in an interview from her home in Tiffany, NC, on a day when she wasn’t pursuing her favorite non-musical activity, teaching and coaching gymnastics (at Southwestern Randolph High School she was also a member of the eighth-ranked NCA Nationals cheerleading squad). “Most of the bluegrass songs are three chords and that’s it, real easy to catch on to--you can catch on to just about any one of them in a jam circle--but my songs go all over the place. There’s quite a few chords, maybe two or three more chords than the average song--different structure, I guess you could say. That probably came from the classical music that I was exposed to by mom. Didn’t like it so much growing up. At times I would and at times I wouldn’t--teenagers can be funny like that. And when I was a teen in high school l listened to rock ‘n’ roll and, well, I’ve enjoyed just about every kind of music there is. Tony Rice, who produced my album Gaining Wisdom, gets annoyed with musicians that try to copy what someone else has done and elaborate on it. He’s not impressed if he hears a 12-year-old or 25-year-old or a 40-year-old man playing guitar and hitting his Tony Rice licks note for note. He’s only impressed if someone can actually take an instrument and create something that has never been done. He thinks you need to create your own path and your own journey as opposed to trying to copy and elaborate on what someone else has done. And that goes along with the path I made when I started writing songs, but it wasn’t for that reason. It was to avoid being compared to those other singers. That’s all.”

As per “those other singers," Hughes is referring to her first professional gigs—a fairly recent event, starting in 1996—when she would sit in with house bands at various local venues around Tiffany but would have to sing “really popular cover songs. Those would normally be either Alison Krauss or Dolly Parton songs, and I just felt like I didn’t need to be singing their songs because I could never do a better job than they did. I felt inadequate to do those songs on stage, so I started writing. My logic behind that was, well, if they’ve never heard it, then they’re not going to say, ‘She’s no Dolly Parton!’ You know? Or something like that. My logic was if I wrote it and nobody had ever heard it, they would be entertained by the song without making a painful comparison. Now that I look back, it wasn’t as much of a deal as I made it out to be, but again, I was painfully shy. I just didn’t like to try to live up to those gals, not feeling confident like I did, so I started writing on that basis.”

donna hughes wisdom“Donna’s songs are a wonderful breath of fresh air in the world of bluegrass today,” writes Union Station bassist Barry Bales in the liner notes for Gaining Wisdom. “She has the rare ability to take song topics that others have overdone and write about them from a new perspective. Even songs about lost love are given new life at her hand. Donna also has a particular gift for writing songs that bridge the gap between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ content. Very few bluegrass listeners of today were born in a cabin or were raised plowing with mules, but a lot of our parents and grandparents were. A number of the songs Donna writes speak of a young, modern generation with close ties to rural life of the past. This is a particular segment of the modern bluegrass listener/performer population that Donna represents well. You may reasonably expect find CDs from Coldplay and Brad Paisley in their collection next to one from Larry Sparks.”

This world of Donna Hughes’s, thoroughly modern with deep roots in traditional values espoused by an older generation, was shaped, as noted above, by all the music swirling around her as she was growing up and in later years by the well-crafted songs Alison Krauss introduced on her albums and by the literate folk-flavored country of Mary-Chapin Carpenter. She began playing piano, by ear, at age three, teaching herself bit of “You Light Up My Life” as her first song. One of her father’s favorite artists was Elvis Presley, and when he would put one of the King’s records on the family record player, it was almost more than Donna could handle—she was as entranced by the machine as she was by the music, and the machine led her deeper into the music.

“I was fascinated with the record player. So in playing with the record player I fell in love with the music it was playing, and it was mostly Elvis records that we had. So I remember my favorite song at age six was ‘Burnin’ Love,’ I do remember that. My mom thought it was either ghastly or hilarious that I would go around singing that song.”

Leading up to that pivotal 1996 public performance before an audience of her fellow churchgoers, Hughes says she was in the midst of “a very shy spell” that had come on as she got older. “I wasn’t shy about singing when I was a child. I went through a period when I didn’t really want to sing in front of people and it wasn’t until I sang in church that I actually broke that spell.”

Donna Hughes and band at IBMA 2008: ‘Sad Old Train,’ from her first Rounder album, Gaining Wisdom

With the “spell” broken, she began playing out more. However, other priorities superseded music, such as college. Attending High Point University in High Point, NC, she graduated cum laude with a degree in history (later she would get a real estate license and work as an agent for five years), and then began a more serious effort at making something happen in music, including playing with two bands, Wildwood and Different Directions, about twelve years ago.

“I was just riding on their coattails,” she says with a laugh when recalling those days. “They were just local guys. Wildwood was the first band I ever participated in and they were already a band that I begged my way into. We entered some fiddle conventions. And the band disbanded. At every fiddler’s convention you enter with two songs. Most people are kind of set in their ways around here, these country folk, and they believe you should do a band instrumental and a singing song. I was in the group all of a sudden and the lead singer didn’t really want another singer in the band, let’s say, but the other guys wanted me to be in it. So they said, ‘Let’s let Donna sing one and then you sing one,’ and I was going to go with whatever they said. So we all agreed to do that, and of course I won the whole competition in the vocal category, and our band sort of dismembered after that. It was weird.

“Then I joined another group and they were just a lot of fun. They were more my age and we just picked and cut up and laughed, had a crazy, great time. Then I got away from playing with that group. What happened was, they don’t want to learn a bunch of new songs because it takes a lot of homework and a lot of bluegrass crowds love these traditional standard bluegrass tunes and that’s what they want to mainly do. And all this new music I was writing was just kind of keeping everybody scratching their heads and giving everyone migraine headaches, and they couldn’t keep up with the songs as fast as I was writing them.”

Her first self-financed CD, Somewhere In Time, came out in June 2001, and caught the attention of the bluegrass press, radio stations and fans. She attended the Bass Mountain bluegrass festival, near her home in North Carolina, as a spectator but sold enough CDs the first day to pay her way in for the week. At the festival site she walked by a group of pickers jamming on what sounded like a familiar song to her, and then she realized it was one of her songs. The music was getting around.

For her second album, 2003’s Same Old Me, she was accompanied by some top-flight players she had hired for the sessions, including Adam Steffey, Clay Jones, Kevin Richardson, Alan Perdue and Scott Vestal.

donna hughes same“I hired musicians that were of the top caliber to record my record and I didn’t realize how it easy it was to pick up the phone and ask these guys to come in and play on a record,” she says, still with a trace of wonder in her voice. “I didn’t realize you could actually do it; I thought they were above and beyond any such thing. But, you know, I recorded two records with well-known people and I realized at that point it wasn’t that I didn’t want to call my local friends that I had started out with. It was more like the guys that recorded it really knew it, note for note; they were the ones that created it. So I would call them to do shows and that’s how I graduated from the local scene to doing national shows.”

In between her first two albums, Hughes attended an IBMA convention and nearly had a fateful meeting with Barry Bales. She was standing behind him while waiting for the doors to open, and happened to have some copies of her first CD with her.

“I had just been to an Alison Krauss concert and it was sold out. I was like, ‘Wow, here’s Barry Bales and oh, my! I have to talk to this man.’ But I could never get my courage up. I would put my hand up to tap his shoulder, then I would pull it back, then I would get ready to tap his shoulder again and, oh--I couldn’t do it. So finally I was going to hand him the first CD I recorded, and just as I decided I was going to do it, they opened the doors and he took off. But I think it would have messed up my whole journey if I had handed that CD to him because it wasn’t very good. Everything happens for a reason and that would be one example of it from my own experience.”

‘Too many teardrops/too many heartaches/too many pieces on the floor’: Donna Hughes and band, ‘Too Many,’ from her first Rounder album, Gaining Wisdom. Performance at the Ruritan Club in Galax, VA, posted on YouTube by TheWebMagician

But Barry Bales got wind of Donna Hughes not long after, when he was listening to “Goin’ Across the Mountain,” a bluegrass show emanating from WNCW in Spindale, NC. Suddenly a song stopped him in his tracks—“this was something fresh, sung by a voice I hadn’t heard before,” he writes in the liner notes to Gaining Wisdom. Calling the station, he found out the artist was a native North Carolinian named Donna Hughes and that the song he heard was on an album she had released herself. With a new Alison Krauss album on the horizon, and his boss needing some new songs, Bales got Hughes’s phone number and left a message asking her to send him “all the material she had.”

“I wasn’t prepared for what I received,” he recalls. “Not one, but three CDs full of great new songs written by Donna.”

“I sent him a whole bunch of stuff,” Hughes says. “I did not mention to him that I had already mailed him several CDs through the years! I just acted surprised and went along with it.”

Next thing Donna knew, Alison was recording her song “My Poor Old Heart,” from Same Old Me, for her Lonely Runs Both Ways album.

Then, another serendipitous event: while visiting his friends Steve and Kathi Fox, Tony Rice became intrigued by the album the couple had on the stereo. It was Hughes’s Same Old Me. As Rice recalls in his liner notes to Gaining Wisdom: “The more I listened to her music that day, the more I heard in it.

“In Donna I heard something that was down to earth, with a definite Southern flavor to it. There was something different about her voice and the way she structured her music that implied a broader, more adventurous approach.”

‘Everything she owned was scattered to the wind/sold at auction on a sunny Autumn day’: Donna Hughes and band at IBMA 2008, ‘Scattered To The Wind,’ from her first Rounder album, Gaining Wisdom, a song about a dispossessed family. Posted on YouTube by FocusOnBG.

After signing with Rounder, Hughes went into the studio with Rice as her producer. Rice had a vision of the record he wanted to make with her—one that “would not pigeonhole Donna into a pre-existing genre,” as he wrote in the liner notes—but getting there was a whole other challenge. “While the decision was an easy one,” Rice writes, “the mechanics of implementing it were not always easy to execute.”

“I think the label really wanted to push me in a bluegrass direction, and he really wanted it to be just music,” Hughes says by way of explaining Rice’s sentiment. “I never understood any of it, so I kind of just did what they said. (laughs) I wrote the songs and I was happy to do that, and I just kind of let them help me pick which ones they liked.”

Working with Rice, Hughes came to appreciate his serenity in the midst of a pressurized situation. “He’s such a calm person and he does not judge anyone. I was kind of scared and intimidated. After getting in there and seeing him just sit down like it was brushing teeth or putting on socks, just to sit down and play and make music, it led me to believe, Why not? Why should you sit and worry and worry and fret over this or over that? Just sit down and do the job.”

It worked. With vocal support from Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Sonya Isaacs, and the backing of a formidable band featuring Rice (lead guitar), Rob Ickes (dobro), Sam Bush (mandolin), Mike Bub (bass) and Ron Stewart (fiddle), among others, Hughes dominated the spotlight. Singing in her sturdy contralto with the slightest of nasal twangs, she hit the heart of each song dead on. Her filigreed piano stylings betrayed an intimate knowledge of the Baptist hymns she learned in her youth. As a writer, her lyrics cut deep into the marrow of the human experience, whether she was engaged in a tender, winsome reminiscence of her grandmother's instructive letters to her (the gentle shuffle "Letters") or torching an ex in a withering post-breakup reality check, "Not Anymore," with its title declaration hammered home with dry, searing finality. Amidst these songs to family, home and ne'er do wells comes a powerful account, sung so folksy but with palpable outrage, about the treatment of Native Americans in North Carolina, "Talking To the Wind," a memorable piano-and-guitar-dominated communiqué. Slipping neatly into this potent mix was a shuffling bluegrass treatment of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," with Hughes giving it a discreet Appalachian tint that felt right. All in all, Gaining Wisdom was something special.

Though Gaining Wisdom received rave reviews, Hughes had an unsettling experience when she tried to get on the festival circuit: because her album had piano on it, she claims she was “blackballed” from a number of bluegrass festivals because hers wasn't a pure bluegrass album. “They didn’t even care that Tony Rice had produced it.”

donna hughes
‘I just feel so sorry for people that can’t deal with it when they’ve been wealthy or even famous and it fades. It’s so sad when people will just prize material things so much more than what is really important.’ (Photo: Don Mears Photography)

Piano is absent from Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies’ instrumental lineup—nothing but strings, of all kinds. As a producer, J.D. Crowe, Hughes says, is cut from different cloth than Tony Rice. For starters, “he pushed me vocally much, much harder than I thought I could do. I set up a little mini-bar and it had orange juice, water, Diet Coke, coffee, cough drops, lemons--I was pushed to the hilt. Vocally I had to do my best for him. He was just determined to have my voice do more than it had done before and did. I’m very pleased with the vocals on the whole album and am actually surprised I can listen to the whole thing without getting too annoyed. Most people can’t stand to listen to themselves, you know. I just remember thinking I was gonna pass out (laughs)--I mean it was just rough! Now Tony, on the other hand, is so laid back and I’d say, ‘Eww, I don’t like the way that sounded,’ and he’d say, ‘It sounds great.’ He likes to go with the first inspiration, whatever happens initially he likes to stick to that because of the dynamics of the performance are there more so than if you keep repeating and repeating. By about the fifth time you record a lyric line or an instrument break, you’re very aggravated at that point and sweating bullets, and the dynamics tend to go downhill. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know sometimes people get stuck. They want to get it perfect and they wear themselves completely out. Tony likes to go with the first inspiration no matter how imperfect, and J.D., on the other hand, doesn’t care if we just recorded it twenty times. He’ll say, ‘You can do it better.’

“I remember sitting there, I had the headphones on in the box and I was waiting every moment that I finished something thinking, Oh, no, what’s he gonna say? And I’d hear, ‘I think you can do it better,’ and I’d go, ‘Oh, no! That’s the best I’ve ever done!’ So J.D. is quite the slavedriver, but he’s also a jokester, so it was fun working with him. We had a great time.”

The title of the album, Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies, encapsulates the themes of the 15 new songs—couplings, uncouplings, renewal, second chances at love. “Saying Hello” is a moving song written for her late father (“losing him was devastating,” Hughes admits) and like several other songs on the new album and its predecessor the subject of time crops up again and again. On Gaining Wisdom, Hughes dealt with time as more of an abstract concept in “Father Time,” in the cover version of Lauper’s “Time After Time,” in “One More Time,” and in her Native American treatise, “Scattered To the Wind.” By contrast, on Hellos, Goodbyes and Butterflies time is for the most part in the present tense—she speaks in the moment about what’s happening right now, not what might become of her or someone else if things don’t change. In fact in many instances things have already changed.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the passing of time and the concept of that,” Hughes explains. “I remember when I was in my late 20s…for some reason people in their late 20s are somewhat fragile people. I think I was more of a fragile person at that time because it’s when everyone has finished college and they’re starting to build a life, and then you’re still not old enough to have done anything much. So in my late 20s, every Sunday night I would get depressed because it was like, ‘Oh, another week has flown by. Where did it go?’ I don’t know why, but Sunday nights at that time in my life I would be by myself. Whoever was in my life at that time would be busy--I don’t know exactly what it was. I just know that I would get really depressed. In my late 20s I feared aging more than I do now.

“Some of my favorite lines that I’ve ever written would be in the song ‘Autumn Leaves.’ This is one song on the new album that does address the passing of time and it includes these lines. This was the only song on the album that I remade from an earlier album. It was on my first album. We did such a poor job on it that I thought it would be worth revisiting the song. What inspired that song, I would just be marveling at these old cemeteries out in the middle of nowhere, the dates on them would be from 1600s, 1700s, 1800s. And I’d just stand there and think, Gosh, last week flew by and look how fast this person’s life flew by and look how many years it’s been since they were alive. So that was where I was coming from when I wrote ‘Autumn Leaves,’ but the lines are--about a graveyard--“If they were ever in a hurry/it didn’t do them any good/rich or poor, they’re all the same now/resting in these old forgotten woods.” And even on this album, the way J.D. had us record it was fast and upbeat, and I did want more of a slow version of it but that’s okay. I can sing it slow on a piano. But “If they were ever in a hurry/it didn’t do them any good/rich or poor, they’re all the same now”--that’s so. Every time you get in a hurry and you get angry because you’re late, that is so true. Time is something I’m fascinated with for sure.”

Donna Hughes and band, ‘Never Gonna Change,’ from her self-released Same Old Me album. Performance at IBMA 2009 posted on YouTube by FocusOnBG.

Both Gaining Wisdom and Hellos contain interesting story-songs that typify what Barry Bales commented on as Hughes’s ability as a writer to bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary content. On Gaining Wisdom’s “Bottom of a Glass” and Hellos’ “Jesse” Hughes relate stories of young men who seemingly had everything going for them; in “Bottom of a Glass” one is undone by alcohol, could find comfort only in what he could get from drinking because he didn’t get it from people in his life; and in “Jesse” the fellow becomes a big star, accumulates all kinds of material wealth but lacks any spiritual underpinning because he has turned his back on his family’s love. Then when he’s lost his family and his star has faded, he’s reduced to working a menial job, goes home and puts a gun to his head--as surely as the fellow in the other song put the glass to his mouth. In neither song is Hughes’s tone judgmental; in fact it’s sympathetic.

“Those songs are about having sympathy and compassion for the people out there who cannot seem to get a grip, so to speak,” Hughes says when asked what she wanted to communicate in the songs. “I just feel so sorry for people that can’t deal with it when they’ve been wealthy or even famous and it fades. It’s so sad when people will just prize material things so much more than what is really important. On the Same Old Me record, there is a song called ‘Lost’ that I wrote about a homeless man. Seeing a homeless person on the side of the street, I get sad and it makes me want to cry. Some people get angry and want to criticize and judge, and I just can’t do that. I feel sorry for them--this might have actually been someone who went to Sunday School as a child and was brought up right, maybe had a really good job and some things happened to them. I think the first time I ever was impacted greatly by a homeless person, I went to New York City, it was about twenty or twenty-one years old and I was surrounded by homeless people. It just really hit me that I’m so glad I have someone to go home to--my mom and dad were still down here on the farm. It’s so great to have someone to go home to when there’s so many people that don’t have that.”

Donna Hughes, ‘Lonesome Highway,’ from her self-released album Same Old Me. Performance at Atlanta’s Redlight Café posted at YouTube by moiTuby

Revealing that she has enough songs written for another album, Hughes says she’s hoping she can release new music in a more timely fashion than has been the case thus far in her career, if only because “it’s hard to go out and tour and convince people in this economy to book you when your album is like three years old.” Now that she has satisfied purists with an unadulterated bluegrass album, the artist says she knows where she wants to go next. Surprise, surprise: “I’d like to do a singer-songwriter album. I really picture it being piano, cello, violin, like that. Piano is my main instrument, after all.”

Jon Weisberger, from his liner notes, has the last word: “For those who have been watching Donna’s progress since she first began to write and sing—not that long ago, at least in the measured way the traditional world tends to count these things—[Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies] is the fulfillment of a promise, bringing the best of her work to light in a way that does justice to both of the streams on which she’s drawn. To those who haven’t heard her before, it will serve as an introduction to one of the most interesting and distinctive artists working in the world of bluegrass, yet casting a glow that shines beyond it—and how often does one like that come along?

Donna Hughes’s Hellos, Goodbyes & Butterflies is available at

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