The first thing you’re likely to notice when you listen to Donna Ulisse – whether live or on a recording – is the voice. Variously described as “rapturous and angelic,” strong, supple, warm, rich, companionable and crystalline, that voice commands your attention, adapting readily to whatever song she is singing, wrapping itself around the lyrics and imbuing them with just the right emotion needed to bring the song home.
UlisseÂ (pronounced You-liss-ee)Â also has been called “one of the best singer-songwriters in bluegrass.” Which leads us to the pen. Nominated as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Songwriter of the year for two years running, Ulisse has been blessed to have her songs recorded by the Del McCoury Band, Claire Lynch, Darin and Brooke Aldridge, The Bankesters and Nu-Blu, among others.
Interestingly enough, Ulisse’s latest album,Â Showin’ My Roots, is one in which her own songwriting takes a back seat to the compositions of some of her greatest influences. And that brings us to the heart and soul (more on the new album in a moment).
Throughout the various phases of her career, Donna Ulisse has remained true to who she is, and that musical integrity comes across in every note she sings. Born into a musical family in Hampton, Virginia, she grew up surrounded by traditional sounds and from an early age was drawn to performing. She later married Rick Stanley, a cousin of bluegrass legends Ralph and Carter Stanley, and was further influenced by his family’s Clinch Mountain roots. As a teenager, she sang in a western swing band.
After moving to Nashville in the 1980s, she quickly became an in-demand demo singer and background vocalist, lending her voice to recordings by legends such as Jerry Reed. A production deal with Dale Morris, manager of the supergroup Alabama, led to her signing a recording deal with Atlantic Records, which in 1991 released her well-received traditional country album,Â Trouble At The Door, and two singles that cracked the Billboard country charts. Despite critical acclaim, however, the album failed to generate widespread attention, though it remains a worldwide favorite today among discerning fans of fine traditional country music.
After her Atlantic Records deal ended, she turned her focus to songwriting, amassing a high-quality catalog that often leaned toward bluegrass and mountain music, especially when she wrote alone. That observation by her publisher, Hadley Music Group, led to the recording of her albumÂ When I Look Back, the inaugural release of Hadley’s own independent record label.
Since then, she has released six more well-received albums for Hadley Music Group, each incorporating traditional and contemporary bluegrass, gospel and country:Â Walk This Mountain DownÂ (2009),Â Holy WatersÂ (2010),Â An Easy ClimbÂ (2011),Â All The Way To Bethlehem(2012), the gospel compilationÂ I Am A Child of GodÂ (2013) andÂ Showin’ My Roots(2013). Her 2012 release, a stunningly original song cycle relating the story of Christ’s birth, drew rave reviews, including: “may be the best Christmas story-related country album of 2012” (Country Standard Time) … “a work of art” (The Bluegrass Special) … “a masterpiece” (Bluegrass Unlimited) … “a grand adventure told in song” (CMT.com).
She continues her series of stellar efforts withÂ Showin’ My Roots, which pays tribute to the giants who have influenced her journey. Those who judge artists by the company they keep will note that Ulisse co-produced the album with acoustic guitar virtuoso Bryan Sutton, and that her supporting cast includes Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on Dobro, Andy Leftwich on mandolin and fiddle, and Viktor Krauss and Byron House on upright bass. Sam Bush duets on the traditional work song “Take This Hammer” – the song with which she made her impromptu public debut in Virginia as a precocious 3-year-old, spontaneously fronting a bluegrass band- and harmony vocalists include John Cowan, Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Fayssoux McLean, Larry Stephenson, Frank Solivan, Jerry Salley and Rick Stanley, Ulisse’s husband and band mate.
Ulisse’s previous bluegrass albums were produced by multi-instrumentalist Keith Sewell (Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks, Ricky Skaggs) and featured many of the same musicians who backed her onÂ Showin’ My Roots.
With her able touring band, The Poor Mountain Boys, Ulisse regularly hits the road, playing festivals, concert venues and churches, and gaining new fans at every stop.
The voice. The pen. The heart and soul. Whether she is singing her own songs or those that have helped to shape her as a singer and a writer, Donna Ulisse continues to make her mark as a uniquely talented artist who gets better with each new release.