Donna Ulisse,
Walk This Mountain Down
(Hadley, 2009)

On her second bluegrass disc -- I reviewed the first here on 10 May 2008 -- Donna Ulisse grows more confident in her showcasing of various aspects of the genre. Mostly, though, she's a modernist. As I hear her, I am led to reflect that bluegrass might have become something like this if it had taken a toehold in the Nashville mainstream -- in other words, found a way to keep a large, ever less rural mass audience and to get played on country-music radio -- and moved in parallel evolution even as it kept its own distinct identity. One thinks, too, of Alison Krauss and of Dolly Parton in her trio of bluegrass albums on Sugar Hill a few years ago.

Ulisse, who is married to Ralph Stanley's younger cousin Rick Stanley, is as much a practitioner of acoustic country as of bluegrass. Scruggs-style banjo is not a consistent presence, in other words, in the arrangements of these all-original songs (most of them co-writes with her husband or others). The lyrics occasionally bow to bluegrass's Appalachian roots, as in "Poor Mountain Boy" -- set, however, to a melody that has little in common with "Little Cabin Home on the Hill" and other bluegrass classics placed in the appropriate geography and sounding like it. Most of these are straight-ahead relationship songs that recount emotions experienced anywhere and everywhere.

What will make Walk This Mountain Down move even those who prefer their bluegrass more traditional is that Ulisse is so good at what she does that she forces even reluctant listeners to accept her on her own terms. A strong singer in the Parton mold, she has a sensitive producer in Nashville veteran Keith Sewell. The songs are more interesting than the generic country-pop exercises in which some of Ulisse's female bluegrass contemporaries traffic. They also have the capacity to surprise. Though Ulisse is a decent gospel vocalist and composer, her "Dust to Dust" (written with Marc Rossi) is everything but a simplistically pious statement; to the contrary, it has multiple levels of meaning, not every one of them a comfortable fit with evangelical Christianity.

On the other hand, "Everything Has Changed" (written with Stanley) is pure gospel, the kind of anthem any bluegrass band, including one of the hard-core mountain brand, could perform in the confident expectation of thrilling an audience. It's a terrific tune. If she keeps getting better at this -- and she's pretty good at it already -- Donna Ulisse is surely on her way to the front ranks.

review by
Jerome Clark

9 January 2009

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