The latest Mountain Home Music CD from Donna Ulisse is one of those “on the one hand, on the other hand” propositions.
On the one hand, Ulisse’s Breakin’ Easy is a textbook example of top-notch traditional bluegrass songwriting. Every listen unveils a new little gem, a turn of a phrase or a couplet that calls to mind home, faith and other cornerstones of the genre.
Right off the bat, in Without Trouble Please, she’s “hopin’ for a blue sky…a sweet 24 hours without trouble please.” We’ve all had that thought countless times. Ulisse turned it into a singable petition.
Elsewhere, she tells of being “a little past lonely,” of having “that back home feelin’ again,” and being “in a hurry to go nowhere” There are “rows of unplowed peas” and nods to deep roots, lasting love and strong wills.
On the other hand, the arrangements push the boundaries, in fresh creative ways. That’s largely the influence of her regular co-writers, Marc Rossi and Rick Stanley – a relative of those Stanleys and Donna’s musical partner and husband. But the instrumentation on the Doyle Lawson-produced project add a layer of newness, too. There are tenor guitars and a little steel here and there, even drums and percussion on some tracks. None of that is shocking, given Ulisse’s country music roots.
One of the beauties of Breakin’ Easy is that the outside-the-box instruments are subtly folded into the mix by engineer Van Atkins. Nothing seems out of place or forced, the way drums, especially, come across on many bluegrass projects.
Another beauty comes in the form of Ulisse’s underappreciated, heart-tugging voice. She’s smooth and precise. Even in a few places that would test the range of many singers, her approach is seemingly effortless.
But the true heart of the record is the songwriting. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who pays attention to IBMA nominations and awards. In 2016, after a long string of nominations but no wins, Ulisse was named songwriter of the year. And this year, she won the song of the year trophy for I Am Drifter, written with Rossi and recorded by Volume Five.
Ulisse, alone and with Rossi or Stanley, is credited with writing 10 of the 12 songs. Among the highlights are Back Home Feelin’ Again, written with Rossi and already a staple on bluegrass radio; Whatever Winter Brings, a masterful solo write; and Where My Mind Can Find Some Rest, an ode to second chances penned with Stanley.
Another strong entry is I’m in a Hurry to Go Nowhere, written by Kimberly Fox and Brandon Rickman. But my personal favorite – not an easy decision by any stretch – is Here Comes My Baby Back Again, from Will West and the groundbreaking Dottie West.
It’s not easy to record a song that a country legend nailed, but Ulisse sells the story with a sense of tenderness and vulnerability that stands up to any version of the oft-recorded song.
Donna Ulisse is a double threat any time she starts a project, as a writer and as a vocalist. And she remains at the top of her game. The CD is Breakin’ Easy, but she’s clearly not takin’ it easy.