Donna Ulisse,
Hard Cry Moon
(Hadley Music Group, 2015)

Donna Ulisse is settling into what is likely to be an extended career as a popular bluegrass vocalist and songwriter. Her early albums were bluegrass more in instrumental arrangement than in spirit, the songs shaped by the adult-pop sensibility of present-day mainstream Nashville country. Over time, as she has matured as an artist, she has embraced the rural sound of traditional bluegrass. Hard Cry Moon, which consists with a single exception of songs she wrote or co-wrote, is her most robustly successful recording yet.

There can be no question, I should perhaps point out here, that Dolly Parton has flavored Ulisse's approach. Her voice and phrasing are unmistakably Parton-inflected. With only modest expenditure of imagination, one can hear a Parton-Porter Wagoner duet of "As Long As We're Together," and "We're Gonna Find a Preacher" is a cheery country love song of the sort that recalls Parton at her sunniest. Nothing wrong with that, of course; Parton is as worthy model as Hank Williams and Bill Monroe have been for others. With a talent like hers, Ulisse's debt to Parton amounts to nothing of critical consequence. The songs and performances still stand steadfastly on their own.

The originals also illuminate the reason other bluegrass acts (e.g., Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson) are covering Ulisse compositions in accelerating numbers. She's captured the sensibility of 21st-century 'grass, smooth but with just enough Appalachian vitality to keep the proceedings warm and grounded. I'm pleased to see that the one cover is the tuneful pseudo-folksong "Whispering Pines," written by Howard Hausey and cut by Johnny Horton in the late 1950s. (The Band later stole the title for their "Whisperin' Pines," a different song altogether.) Hausey also wrote Horton's mega-hit "Honky Tonk Man," later revived by Dwight Yoakam.

Expertly produced by Bryan Sutton, an acoustic guitar wizard with a keen ear for all aspects of bluegrass in the studio, Hard Cry Moon boasts a band whose ranks include notable figures Scott Vestal (banjo), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Sutton himself. No doubt about it, Ulisse is well on her way to the front ranks of bluegrass.

music review by
Jerome Clark

17 October 2015

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