Donna Ulisse,
Showin' My Roots
(Hadley, 2013)

Donna Ulisse, who has the voice of somebody you might hear on current country radio, migrated into bluegrass after landing a major-label deal some years ago but then failing to score radio hits and achieve mainstream stardom. No disgrace in that; plenty of talented performers don't make Nashville's big time, and given what Nashville has come to over the past couple of decades, it's just as well. It means that individuals like Ulisse are freed to pursue music that is at least artistically more rewarding.

Her early indie albums, consisting almost entirely of original material, felt as much like commercial country in acoustic settings as bluegrass. An Easy Climb (which I reviewed here on 15 October 2011) marked a turn toward a more rural sound. It bears noting, incidentally, that she is married to Rick Stanley, younger cousin to mountain-music giants Carter & Ralph Stanley. In other words, bluegrass has never been exactly an alien musical form in her life.

On Showin' My Roots Ulisse takes acoustic guitar wizard Bryan Sutton as her co-producer, joins forces with bluegrass notables such as Andy Leftwich, Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes, Sam Bush and others, and revisits some superior songs, most of them from country's 1960s/'70s golden age. They include a couple of Loretta Lynn hits ("Somebody Somewhere" and "Fist City," the latter also composed by Lynn) and one each associated with Dolly Parton (her own "In the Good Old Days When Times Were Bad") and Tammy Wynette (Sherrill/Sutton's "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad"). These women's influence on Ulisse is manifest, as for that matter it is on practically any worthwhile female country singer who came after them. Their songs are done in thoughtfully restrained (as opposed to hard-driving) bluegrass style.

I am always pleased to hear "Send Me the Pillow You Dream On," one of country's tenderly romantic songs, done lovingly here. A small correction, however: it was Hank Locklin, not "Lochlin," who wrote it. "How Mountain Girls Can Love" by the late Carter Stanley is among the most-covered songs in the bluegrass songbook, though it is not often sung from a woman's perspective. Ulisse pairs up with the celebrated mandolinist Sam Bush for the folksong "Take This Hammer," a highlight on an album aglow with them.

Over time Ulisse, whose abundant gifts have never been at issue, has grown ever more assured as a bluegrass artist. Showin' My Roots is her most satisfying effort so far.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 November 2013

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