september 2011

Donna Ulisse: The result is nigh on to timeless

When Hearts Are Trumps

Donna Ulisse takes it inside on An Easy Climb

By David McGee

ulisse-easyAN EASY CLIMB
Donna Ulisse
Hadley Music Group

In the two years separating An Easy Climb from Walk This Mountain Down (with a gospel album, Holy Waters, surfacing in 2010), Donna Ulisse has made some hay. Media types in the bluegrass world surely have noted the increasing number of song credits bearing her name on other country and bluegrass artists’ discs. Small wonder—Ulisse, primarily a lyricist whose collaborators most often are either Rick Stanley (he’s the person she refers to in her liner notes as “my honey”) or Marc Rossi, likely throws away songs other artists would drool over; at any rate, what she lets us hear is always choice fare. Furthermore, her country voice is blessed with beautiful colors (on previous albums I thought she sounded a bit like Rhonda Vincent; now I hear more of an irresistible Pam Tillis kind of cry in her voice); add in the emotional component heightened by her phrasing and general vocal attack, and her stories pack an even greater punch. Put the good songs and the savvy singer in front of mostly the same heavyweight musicians she employed last time out—the likes of fiddler/mandolinist Andy Leftwich, banjo man Scott Vestal, producer Keith Sewell on guitar, the omnipresent Rob Ickes on dobro, with Viktor Krauss supplanting Byron House on upright bass—and the result is nigh on to timeless music.

Walk This Mountain Down, though not a concept album, delved deep into matters of faith and its practical application in daily lives—even to the point of raising doubts about an overreliance on it in the sad story of “Levi Stone”—while having some flirty fun in “The Trouble With You,” chronicling a pair of lovers’ missteps in “Dust to Dust,” and sharing tender, romantic feelings in “Lovin’ Every Minute.” On An Easy Climb she’s left the theology to theologians and, as her own song notes indicate, crafted a batch of songs inspired by real events in her life, or in those of her friends and family. Arguably her most personal album, An Easy Climb is indisputably the most impressive showcase yet of Ms. Ulisse’s continuing development as a first-rank contemporary songwriter and singer.

A terrific in-studio performance by Donna Ulisse and her band of one of the key tracks on An Easy Climb, ‘Her Heart Is A Stone Hard Ground.’ Musicians: Keith Sewell (acoustic guitar), Andy Leftwich (mandolin), Scott Vestal (bass), Viktor Krauss (upright bass) and Rob Ickes (dobro). Harmony vocalists are Tony King and Rick Stanley. Recorded at Ocean Way Nashville, video production by String Theory Media.

In what is a close call, the artist’s most affecting performances/songs here are the more introspective numbers. As an example of the degree to which she elevates the commonplace to the transcendet, consider a song inspired by her niece’s marriage to a young man who was being deployed to Afghanistan. Which in turn got Ms. Ulisse to pondering the burdens military families accept as part of the deal. This yields the affecting poetry of “Where the Cold Wind Blows,” a partner’s keening cry for her significant other who has fallen in “the desert land,” dead on sand stained with his own blood. Over a solemn instrumental backdrop—Sewell’s spare, lonely acoustic guitar fills sound like teardrops falling—Ulisse renders no judgments about her protagonist’s plight, but simply, movingly, reaffirms her commitment to the one she loves in a voice both plaintive and strong. In “Her Heart Is a Stone Cold Ground,” a co-write with Rossi and Irish singer-songwriter Ben Glover, Ulisse, verse by terse verse, describes the growing isolation of a woman who simply refuses to feel much for anyone, the wall around her growing more impenetrable with each day (“time keeps dragging her down/midnight’s always comin’ around/and her heart is a stone hard ground”). Ickes fashions an exquisite dobro solo that suggests the magnitude of her withdrawal, a prelude to the surprising final verse in which the gal vanishes into the night, but not before the full moon reveals “the faintest glow of softness on her cheek,” a turn of events that not only suggests some life worming its way into the ice queen but also explains the pronounced undercurrent of hope informing Ulisse’s emotional reading throughout. Another gem in this grouping comes by way of a Ulisse-Stanley collaboration, “Banks of Roane River,” a quiet, gospel-inflected bluegrass ballad centered on the inner life of a woman based on Ulisses’s great grandmother, who raised 14 kids while also working the land and being her brood’s chief caretaker. Stanley adds his rough-hewn voice to Ulisse’s sweeter cry, Andy Leftwich summons a rustic ambience with his delicate, solemn mandolin incursions, as Ulisse fully embodies her character’s unspoken anticipation of the day when she can “lay down my sorrows, and all my tomorrows/till this worrisome  world quits pulling on me.” Like most of the songs on An Easy Climb, the emotionally resonant “Banks of Roane River” is not about a beginning, a middle and an end, but rather documents a moment in time--the events leading up to it, not necessarily what comes after it, but rather the revelatory instant when her characters are most human.

Appearing at the historic Dalton Freight Depot in Dalton, GA, this past January, in a concert sponsored by the Woodsongs Coffee House Dalton Chapter, Donna Ulise and her Poor Mountain Boys band are joined onstage by Pam Gadd, who was in the audience and came up to duet with Donna on an unrehearsed version of Kitty Wells’s classic 1955 chart topping country hit, ‘Making Believe.’ Captured on video by Mary Jo Austin, posted at YouTube by sa30707.

Which is not to suggest the whole album is drowning in sorrow and morbidity. Far from it. With a band like this behind her, how could she not step it up and go? In fact the first sounds on the album are those of the studio musicians laughing before they kick off the driving “Let It Rain,” a track replete with feisty fiddling and mandolin from Leftwich; a breathtaking banjo sprint on Vestal’s part; some impressive fleet-fingered guitar soloing by Sewell; and the assembled multitude’s shouted exhortations to Ulisse as she revels in what the skies have let loose on her. After her brother’s girlfriend dumped him just before she and her band were heading to Arkansas to play a bluegrass festival, sister Donna turned the unfortunate experience into an uplifting, midtempo assertion of undaunted will in “Flat Broke in Arkansas,” accentuating the positive of an exceedingly negative experience with a sweet vocal and buoyant soloing from Sewell, Vestal, Leftwich (on mandolin) and Ickes to energize the upbeat attitude (“let this gypsy spirit start to roam/I don’t need his money to be happy/it sure feels good/my freedom sure feels like home”). And if I were Ulisse’s honey I would sure feel good about our prospects if I heard her appraisal of the state of our union in one of the most beautiful backwoods ballads she’s ever written (and it is a Ulisse copyright alone), “An Easy Climb,” a gentle, soaring affirmation of hard times overcome by the sheer strength of love. Vestal puts the rustic flavor to it with his steady banjo plunking and Sewell supports Ulisse with a heartfelt harmony vocal. The two voices blend with immaculate precision as the singers’ feelings intertwine and the emotions take hold. Hearts, you see, are trumps. Witness An Easy Climb.

Donna Ulisse’s An Easy Climb is available at

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