Donna Ulisse,
Holy Waters
(Hadley, 2010)

Like its predecessors, Holy Waters is on the contemporary side of the bluegrass divide. Even so, it's the most traditional in feeling and, in addition, the warmest and most readily accessible. As with the other two (which I reviewed here on 10 May 2008 and 9 January 2009), its songs deal overwhelmingly with relationships, except that this time the relationship is with the divine.

One doesn't have to be a believer to sing, or even to write, gospel persuasively, but I'm sure it helps. Nashvillean Donna Ulisse's sincere devotion is apparent all over the place, even in the liner notes' mini-sermon by her uncle, the Rev. Dr. Henry D. Butler. Though there is a vast catalogue of bluegrass gospel songs stretching back to the genre's foundation, Ulisse chooses to write or co-write all of the material except for the Carter Stanley classic "Who Will Sing for Me," which she does in impressive fashion. It is not one a less confident artist would dare.

If her own compositions lack the for-the-ages aura of the canon's sacred anthems, they're solidly crafted and more than capably performed. Ulisse has a crystalline sort of voice, the very sound of which gratifies the ear even when it is not focused specifically on word and message. It isn't always the sort of bluegrass singing one would anticipate from a more hard-core practitioner of the music in its more specifically Appalachian definition. I wonder, though, if it's heading that way. Consider, for example, the appealing "High in the Sky," written with her husband Rick Stanley (a younger cousin to the Stanley Brothers), which pushes her singing into a pleasingly personal take on the mountain tradition.

Again, Nashville studio veteran Keith Sewell produces, creating a warm, sparkling ambience. He has recruited some of the current generation's finest bluegrass pickers, among them Andy Leftwich (fiddle, mandolin), Rob Ickes (dobro) and Scott Vestal (banjo). Meantime, Ulisse, never short of intelligence, talent and heart, keeps getting better. One of these days, I expect, everybody will be paying attention.

review by
Jerome Clark

3 July 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new