Donna Ulisse,
An Easy Climb
(Hadley, 2011)

One of a growing number of women to join the genre's once nearly all-male ranks, the Nashville-based Donna Ulisse brought an adult-pop sensibility to the music in her three previous bluegrass discs. Adult pop now defines mainstream "country" music, and it has crept into bluegrass through the evidently inescapable influences of Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent. In Ulisse's relatively inexperienced treatment, the marriage of styles, while producing consistently listenable music, on occasion made for a degree of stiffness. Except for the periodic gospel number, the songs were focused, as pop songs nearly always are, on romantic relationships.

On An Easy Climb Ulisse, already an exceptional singer and capable songwriter (often co-composing with Marc Rossi or husband Rick Stanley), has an album that feels entirely comfortable in the bluegrass idiom. This is the result, I'm sure, of a lot of road and festival time, and beyond that, a conscious decision to embrace bluegrass's rural, storytelling tradition. Some of the titles -- "Hand Me Down Home," "Black Snake," "Banks of Roane River" and others -- attest as much. If the result isn't Cousin Emmy (banjo-driven jam-kicking) or Hazel Dickens (raw emotion sufficient to curdle milk), it's still a decent modern album that nods appealingly and intelligently to bluegrass's roots.

Even with strong competition, though, the track that immediately stands out is not so much a bluegrass-derived one as the folk ballad-like "Where the Cold Wind Blows," a military-themed number that is significantly more thoughtful and heartfelt than the jingoistic junk that Music City ordinarily spews. The closer, "Shady Glen" (written with Stanley), is another narrative song, this one recounting an episode from the Civil War. It is the sort of dark, uncompromising piece I would not have thought Ulisse would ever get close to. Good for her, and here's a cheer for the gorgeous old-time, Irish-tinged fiddle arrangement.

All in all, An Easy Climb is Ulisse's most impressive outing so far. Now that she's found her footing, we may look forward to seeing the mark she makes.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 October 2011

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