Donna Ulisse
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Donna Ulisse

Nashville, Tennessee, United States | INDIE

Nashville, Tennessee, United States | INDIE
Band Americana Bluegrass


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"Walk This Mountain Down CD Review"

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.

By Jerome Clark -

"Walk This Mountain Down CD Review"

Faith & Love, Those Tricky Little Devils
If anyone is poised for a breakout year in bluegrass in '09 it's Donna Ulisse, who could hardly have helped herself more than she does on the Keith Sewell-produced Walk This Mountain Down. For starters she's got a baker's dozen of finely crafted songs to present her, all of which she either wrote or co-wrote, her main collaborators on the co-writes being Marti Rossi and Rick Stanley. Next, take a look at her backing band: Sewell himself is handling acoustic guitar chores; Andy Leftwich is on fiddle and mandolin; Scott Vestal is on banjo; Byron House on upright bass; and Rob Ickes on dobro. The New York Yankees should be so lucky as to afford a team like this, equivalent as it is of the famed Murderer's Row lineup of pinstripe lore. Fans will hear echoes of Rhonda Vincent in Ulisse's keening high lonesome attack and especially in her sturdy belting and crooning, but that's mere coloration; the heart pumping vitality and emotional commitment through her every phrase is that of a singular artist on her way to putting some distance between herself and her contemporaries.

You don't have to wait long to realize you're breathing rare air in Ulisse's presence. The album kicks off with a brisk affirmation of the power of imagination and will, "In My Wildest Dreams," which in and of itself is a seldom-voiced topic in contemporary music anymore. As the band sprints along behind her, Ulisse lays out a scenario in which she envisions all things possible, all dreams achieved, freedom at hand, for however long she stays in her dream state, as Leftwich fashions a delicate, open-hearted mandolin solo around her vivid, poetic images, all rendered with palpable feeling by way of Ulisse using her full vocal range to shade the lyrics with extra feeling. It's one of those sit-up-and-take-notice moments, and Ulisse runs with it, never coasting as the record unfolds with dramatic conviction and a panoramic worldview. A disappointing love affair, recounted in the foreboding "Dust to Dust," is seen not as an isolated event but rather in the context of human history, likening she and her lover's failure to Adam and Eve being "thrown out of paradise," and finally accepting her fate in full knowledge that, ultimately, "we're made out of dust/and to dust we shall return"--although she does take a moment to allow herself a flash of anger at the man who spurned her love. In this context, the beautiful heartache of "Love's Crazy Train," a song acknowledging--and accepting--the unpredictable nature of love, seems like a postscript to "Dust to Dust," in the singer's willingness to get on board again, even knowing the ultimate destination may be inaccessible. The gentle thump and insouciant swagger of "The Trouble With You" is a nice bit of word play on Ulisse's part, the title referring not to any deficiency on her paramour's part, but instead to his irresistible good looks, which other women have a habit of noticing. Ulisse plays up the humor in the song, puts on an attitude of mock-outrage, and as Ickes constructs a flashy, discursive dobro solo at fadeout, she re-enters to add, "The trouble with you/is you play the dobro." Well put, indeed. Later, in "Lovin' Every Minute," she will melt a listener's heart with the tenderness of her expressions of love for one who "believed in me/and never once lost faith/and helped me live with my mistakes." This one has the hallmarks of a classic country love song in its taut, economical lyrics and plainspoken sentiments of devotion and personal fulfillment, and the music supporting these utterances is similarly restrained but soulful, with a beautiful balance in textures as the dobro, banjo and mandolin rise up from the ensemble mix to curl around the melody, adding precisely the right dollop of extra emotional shading as a backdrop to Ulisse's heartfelt musings.

However much Ulisse may view love as a roll of the dice, she never wavers in her trust in God's love. In her gospel numbers she extols the strength and peace of mind her faith has brought to her in this world, in her day to day life, rather than focusing on the promise of eternal life once her time on earth is through-before you can anticipate the great beyond you have to make it right on terra firma, y'know. The high strutting gospel number, "Walk This Mountain Down," which happens to offer another of many spectacular showcases for Rob Ickes's expressive dobro commentary on this album, finds Ulisse recounting her mother's wisdom in counseling her to put her faith in God as the solid foundation on which you can lean in hard times. "The Key" sings of the earthly rewards accruing to those who are strong in faith and in their love of Jesus--"the door to Heaven is not hidden in a dark and secret up your heart and find amazing Grace/the door to Heaven's never locked up to anyone/all it takes is faith to keep the gates wide open" pretty much sums up Ulisse's philosophy on this matter, and she sings it with the certainty of one whose experience has confirmed its certainty; out of the ensemble mix pulsating behind Ulisse, both Leftwich and Vestal, on mandolin and banjo, respectively, make striking instrumental statements of their own. A rustic banjo lick from Vestal kicks off "Everything Has Changed," a prelude to Ulisse entering to proclaim the change that's come over her since accepting Jesus into her life. In the choruses Ulisse is joined in southern gospel quartet harmony by Sewell, Curtis Wright and Rick Stanley, their voices swelling and finally breaking into a hallelujah moment as the song, which seems even shorter than its listed 2:49 length, trots to a buoyant climax.

The album ends on a spectacular note, in the dark, haunting, four-minute story song, "Levi Stone." A man who "lived by the gospel" and "taught his son the same," Levi refuses to seek medical help when his son falls ill, certain that the Lord will provide and thus oblivious to his wife's pleas to call for a doctor. When the dying boy speaks from his deathbed, in the chorus, Ulisse, with Keith Sewell and Claire Lynch providing a silky background chorus, sings in a soft, pleading voice: "Papa, please, a drink of water/wipe the fever from my brown/tell these angels all around me/they need to put me down/papa, you tell them I'm in God's hands now." Sixteen years later Levi is alone, first his son, then his wife, having gone to the grave, leaving him alone and haunted by the memory of his son's final plea as he himself becomes a living corpse. And so Donna Ulisse leaves us to puzzle out this matter of faith and when our reliance on it becomes destructive. She's told us, in three other songs here, of the bountiful wonders faith can work in a person's life. Is "Levi Stone," then, meant as a cautionary tale, another reminder that the practical application of faith must not overrule common sense? What if common sense, as most of us would define it, is something different for men like Levi Stone? Or, for that matter, for men like Job? Who or what is at fault then? One question begets another, and so does each answer. Some may feel Ulisse has sucker-punched them with "Levi Stone," that it undermines the convictions of her other gospel songs, but others may view it from the larger perspective of faith not being reduced to simple homilies but being a complex undertaking as a day-to-day matter, a constant questioning and testing process. Levi Stone seems not to have come out whole from blindly trusting in the Word. When you walk this mountain down, what will you find at the end of your own journey? --

– David McGee
- The Bluegrass Special

"Walk This Mountain Down CD Review"

Donna apparently doesn't know the meaning of the dreaded "sophomore slump," because she's hit this one out of the park and into the next county. Her voice is lush, compelling, full of emotion and never fails to drop the listener dead in his or her tracks. Her songs are thoughtful, tough and hard-hitting. "Levi Stone" is as haunting, true to life and backwoodsy as they come. Her gospel songs are hopeful, buoyant and full of joy. "Everything Has Changed," "The Key" and "Walk This Mountain Down" are destined to become gospel classics. The arrangements, augmented by some superlative pickin', really do her material justice, giving it a real punchy bluegrass sound with just a hint of country every now and then. I also especially enjoyed "Dust to Dust," "Lovin' Every Minute," "In My Wildest Dreams" and catchy "Trouble With You." If this project doesn't elevate Donna into bluegrass super-stardom, I don't know what will. It's a "10" on the high lonesome Richter scale!"

- Dave Higgs/NPR Radio, Nashville

"Walk This Mountain Down CD Review"

With WALK THIS MOUNTAIN DOWN, Donna Ulisse establishes herself as one of the most commanding voices in bluegrass music. She wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. (a bravura performance in its own right), and she sings them with a wistful, otherworldly beuaty that rolls back time.

- Edward Morris/

"Classic bluegrass-flavoured country with an Appalachian slant"

Virginia-born Donna Ulisse is back with her second acoustic-based bluegrass flavoured country album, and I have to say that she’s topped WHEN I LOOK BACK her superb 2007 album that saw her return to recording following a fifteen year break. Not surprisingly, WALK THIS MOUNTAIN DOWN is an excellent traditional-styled country album with songs that span gospel, country and bluegrass. Donna’s vocal performance makes this album, as she sings beautifully, heartfelt, and with such purity, reminiscent of early Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson. Roughly, this is a collection of songs about the real-world and based on reflections of life, love and emotional intricacies.

The arrangements are diverse, keeping with the traditional bluegrass sound with such pickers as Andy Leftwich (mandolin, fiddle), Rob Ickes (Dobro), Scott Vestal (banjo), Byron House (upright bass), and producer Keith Sewell on acoustic guitar and harmony vocals. All songs are self-penned by Donna, some co-written with her husband Rick Stanley, others with Marc Rossi, and the excellent Love’s Crazy Train with Richard Leigh (writer of Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue). A sad-edged ballad with fiddle and softly-stroked banjo to the fore, this is traditionally done, with a clean and beautiful vocal performance and nice vocal harmonies on the chorus. Claire Lynch joins in on the background vocals on the evocative mid-tempo Dust To Dust about grieving and death—the arrangement has an eerie feel to it.

The past twelve months has been quite a year for me, lots of great music, but this record really has moved me with its thirteen original songs. It is well-produced though not over-produced, so it maintains that great raw country sound. If you enjoy female singer-songwriters and relevant, real-world, and emotional lyrics, give this CD a try. AC

-Alan Cackett - Maverick Music Magazine

"The Elements of Bliss"

There are so many vivid situations and characters in Donna Ulisse's first bluegrass album that listening to it is as illuminating as reading a book of great short stories. Those of us who have loved her voice since it blossomed on Atlantic Records in the early '90s are not surprised that she sings bluegrass with such knowledge and conviction. She can sing anything exquisitely, a point she made clear to the toughest audience in the world when she performed in 1999 at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremonies. The crowd adored her. And the next day, Terry Choate, who was then in charge of the event, was still shaking his head in amazement. "She's scary good," he marveled.

What is surprising-and delightful-is Donna's grasp of what authentic bluegrass music is all about. Keep in mind that she wrote or co-wrote every song here. Each one is about an Eden lost or a Heaven aspired to. This is precisely as it should be. At its heart, bluegrass is the soundtrack of people who are weary of the here and now. They yearn for a life so uncluttered and simple that it can exist only in the imagination, whether it's that "little cabin home on the hill" or a "cabin in the corner of Gloryland." Donna doesn't succumb to cabin cliches. Her metaphors are fresher and more startling. But all that old-time yearning for better days is still there in her lyrics.

In choosing Keith Sewell as her producer, Donna tapped into one of the most fertile talents in music. His facility for weaving just the right instruments and vocal harmonies together-and his ability to achieve those sounds-is astounding. The supporting musicians-most of who are already big names in bluegrass-are unparalleled in their versatility and inventiveness.

So here we have the elements of bliss-impeccable bluegrass music and Donna Ulisse's irresistible voice. It's better than a trip to the old homeplace.

- Edward Morris/

"When I Look Back CD review"

Virginia- born Donna Ulisse had a brief brush with fame and the major labels back in the early 1990s when she was signed to Atlantic Records in Nashville. A couple of singles made the lower reaches of the country charts and an album gained positive reviews but little in terms of sales. Seemingly out of the blue comes this album on a small indie label and it is quite a peach of a record. Co-produced by Donna and the underrated Keith Sewell, it is a much more personal record than her past efforts with all fourteen songs being self-penned. The musical arrangements are steeped in bluegrass, but in no way is this a strictly bluegrass album. For the most part it is full of mellow, acoustic songs that are just very well done.

Listening to Donna Ulisse is like smelling sweet honeysuckle or listening to the sound of a clear mountain stream. She has a beautiful vocal range with the best back up singers around---Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Rick Stanley, Curtis Wright, Keith Sewell, and Wendy Buckner Sewell. By the way, Sewell is an awesome guitar picker, really has a style all his own, never had the privelage to listen to him in depth, he plays effortlessly and does runs that make you just say "wow." Then Randy Kohrs is a Dobro player that is every bit as good as Jerry Douglas and a pleasure to listen to. Scott Vestal plays banjo and fits in well. Oh yeah, cannot forget Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, another great player in his own right. Then there are the songs. They are classic old-time country. You know the deal; a good human story, memorable melody, an instantly remembered chorus. A highlight is "She Needs Time", an emotive tale of an elegant mountain lady of vintage years. Another is 'She Goes Sailing," inspired by Donna's Italian grandparents. The rest of the material is of a uniformly high standard with the songs coming mostly from the partnership of Donna and her husband Rick Stanley (cousin of Dr. Ralph Stanley). An exquisite disc that should give discerning listeners hours of pleasure for years to come.

-Alan Cackett
- Maverick Music Magazine

"Wlk This Mountain Down CD review"

Music is an amazing thing- at once a treasure, a healer and sometimes, a connector between generations. A close friend of mine lost her father recently. It was a loss that was predetermined by doctors over a terrible illness. With only a few months left with her dad, she spent hours upon hours with him in his final weeks and developed an amazing and deeper connection with him with his love of bluegrass music. It was a style of music that she had flirted with liking (she's a big fan of Alison Krauss & Union Station), but in those final days, bluegrass became the blanket of memories that by which will carry on her father's memories and legacy forever. It was the soundtrack of his life, the soundtrack at his service- and most importantly, will trigger an emotional trigger in my friend for all of her days each time she hears a mandolin, dobro or fiddle picked.

It was with this mindset that I sat down to listen to the new Donna Ulisse album Walk This Mountain Down being released today- January 20, 2008. This second album for Ulisse is a star-studded bluegrass effort. Produced by Keith Sewell. it includes an all-star cast of players including, Andy Leftwitch, Byron House and Rob Ickes. Walk the Mountain Down is a gorgeous effort from start to finish and should establish Ulisse as a key player in the bluegrass genre.

It is the final song on this album that is easily worth the purchase price of the album, however. "Levi Stone" is the darkest, most equally eloquent haunting and stirring bluegrass story song that I have heard in many years- possibly ever. Its lyrics are moving and it is set to a sound that makes the listener shut out the world and turn an ear to the speaker with concern that you might miss something. It's an exceptional song that rises above everything else on a good album:

"Levi Stone lived by the gospel

He taught his child to do the same

So when his son took sick that winter

He knew he'd be fine once springtime came

The boy grew weaker by the hour

But Levi Stone never lost faith

He told his wife no county doctor

Quit your cryin' woman, kneel down and pray

Papa, please, a drink of water

Wipe the fever from my brow

Tell these angels all around me

They need to put me down

Papa, you tell them I'm in God's hands now"

And so it goes with the sound of bluegrass. The beauty of music- and most certainly bluegrass- is that it speaks from the heart and whispers to the soul. Any album can wow you with amazing pickin', and great harmonies- but it's the really great ones that transport you to another place and time and deliver a flood of emotion. Donna Ulisse's Walk This Mountain Down moved me- if you have a heart and a soul- it will move you too.

-Ken Morton, Jr
- That Nashville Sound


album releases:
1.Trouble At The Door/Atlantic Records in 1991 had three radio singles and two videos that played on CMT
2. When I Look Back/Hadley Music Group was released in 2007 consisting of fourteen original songs. It was promoted to Americana and bluegrass radio and "I'm Calling Heaven Down" went to #2 on the XM Radio Bluegrass Junction chart while "I Want To Grow Old With You" went to the top ten on Sirius Radio's bluegrass Channel 65 show.
3. Walk This Mountain Down/Hadley Music Group released in January of 2009 and went Top 30 on the Americana Music Chart & was #4 in the Euro-Americana chart for March and April 2009. WSM Radio has also added two songs to their playlist. "I Lied" was #1 on Sirius XM's bluegrass channel 65 the first week of June 2009 while 9 other songs off the album were in the top 40. Ulisse was also the #1 artist on Sirius XM's bluegrass channel 65 that week with 66 spins total.
#4: Holy Waters/Hadley Music Group/2010 promoted to bluegrass radio and some gospel radio as well as through Airplay Direct.



Country music fans remember Donna Ulisse from her time as a traditional country artist on Atlantic Records in the 1990’s with national television appearances on “Hee Haw”, NBC’s “Hot Country Nights”, “Nashville Now” and “Crook and Chase.

Bluegrass fans are getting to know her for her songwriter driven brand of bluegrass, often called “bluegrass without borders” after enthusiastically receiving her 2007 release “When I Look Back” and then her 2009 CD “Walk This Mountain Down”, both produced by guitarist Keith Sewell and both self-penned collections of songs. “Walk This Mountain Down” was a Top 30 Americana chart record while the title track spent six months on the Bluegrass Unlimited chart and the song "I Lied" was #1 five times on SiriusXM's Bluegrass Junction in 2009.
Her song "I'm Calling Heaven Down" won the 2009 Just Plain Folks Award for Best Bluegrass Song.

In April 2010 she released her third bluegrass project titled "Holy Waters". Some might call it a gospel CD while others are labeling it a spiritual endeavor. Ulisse calls it her own "soul journey."

Ulisse is touring more in 2010 and a show with her band The Poor Mountain Boys offers the audience a unique insight into the stories behind many of the songs she has written as well as some great picking.