Larry Stephenson,
(Pinecastle, 2007)

Donna Ulisse,
When I Look Back
(Hadley, 2007)

Bluegrass and gospel, natural cultural partners, have traveled the same hillbilly highway since bluegrass took its first breath in the latter 1940s. The number of bluegrass-gospel albums far transcends my puny ability to count them. Rare, however, are the bands that fail to highlight religious songs in their repertoire or at some point haven't released an all-gospel disc or two or three. Some bands play nothing but gospel. Much of the audience responds to the theology, of course, but even those indifferent to it are moved by the sincerity and the expressive performance. If you don't like gospel, you aren't going to like bluegrass, any more than someone who can't stand to hear about barrooms and extramarital affairs is going to enjoy traditional country.

Bluegrass lifer Larry Stephenson has been playing professionally since 1979, when he joined Bill Harrell & the Virginians (among my favorite all-time bluegrass outfits) as mandolin player and high-tenor vocalist. In due course (incorporating a stint in the fondly recalled Bluegrass Cardinals), he formed his own band and has toured and recorded ever since.

I can't claim to have heard all of Stephenson's albums, but I can state confidently that Thankful is the most perfectly realized to end up under my roof. An often thrilling exercise in hard-core 'grass, it features his phenomenal lead singing, his and his band's razor-sharp harmonies and a solid line-up of hymns and sacred material. To my delight, it features a song I fell in love with the first time I heard it on a long-ago Bill Clifton album and which still can reduce me to near-tears, the plaintively titled "I Need the Prayers." Whether you hear it as a Christian's plea or as a celebration of our common need for love of family and friends, you may find yourself thinking as I do: that Stephenson's reading is lovelier than any mere song has any business being.

While a bluegrass record with many gospel elements, When I Look Back comes from a different musical place. Though she grew up in Virginia, Donna Ulisse listened to the mainstream country music of the 1970s -- Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris -- and has no history in bluegrass. In her adult life, however, she married Rick Stanley, a young relative of mountain-music patriarch Ralph Stanley, and through her husband's family fell under its charms. This is her first recording in the genre, and in common with many women entering it, the influence of bluegrass-popster Alison Krauss -- Parton likewise, in this instance -- would be inaudible only to persons without ear drums.

I'm not criticizing -- the history of bluegrass is in many senses the history of who influenced whom (in Larry Stephenson's case, the influence was and is Bobby Osborne) -- I simply observe. Ulisse's modern take on bluegrass contains some of the flavor of the contemporary Nashville mainstream, though she's dishing up something more nutritious. I shudder to think what Nashville's factory-issue production could do to schmaltz up her "Gone," done here in a spare setting awash in intelligence and emotional truth.

Overwhelmingly, the songs are Ulisse co-writes (variously with her husband, Marc Rossi, Claire Davidson and others), and they're uniformly strong. No reasonable listener could, or would want to, deny her multiple gifts. If she stays in bluegrass -- in other words, if this isn't a side project as Ulisse, who harbors the fashion-model looks Nashville demands in its female stars these days, stares ahead seeking entry into greener commercial pastures -- she ought to do well. Her take on contemporary bluegrass is one easily accessible even to traditionalists.

Keep your ears open in particular for the opening cut, Ulisse and Rossi's "I'm Calling Heaven Down." On my first half-dozen listenings, mostly semi-attentive, I complacently took it to be just another gospel song with a pleasant melody, nicely performed. On at last giving a close listen to the lyrics, I heard a whole new layer of meaning. Suffice it to say it is unlikely Ulisse voted for George W. Bush.

[ visit Larry Stephenson's website ]

[ visit Donna Ulisse's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

10 May 2008

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