Now that November is upon us, it seems like fair game to start talking about Christmas, and the new Christmas-themed project from Donna Ulisse.
All The Way To Bethlehem, recently released by Hadley Music Group, is quite a departure from the typical Christmas album. There’s not an old familiar song to be found; in fact the record consists entirely of new songs that Ulisse has written, based on the various characters in the nativity story.
Donna worked once again with Keith Sewell producing, and co-wrote with her husband, Rick Stanley, as well as Rick Lang, Jerry Salley, Mark Rossi, and Lynn and Kerry Chater. Though written as the inspirations occurred, the 11 tracks are sequenced in chronological order, based on the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus.
All of the songs are conveyed in the first person, with the various characters’ experiences of this momentous story presented through Ulisse’s voice.
The project begins with a sort of overture, I Can See The Light Of The World, and then proceeds with what will be familiar to Christians as the Annunciation, where Mary is told of her role as the mother of Jesus, and the Visitation, where her much older cousin, Elizabeth, also recently and miraculously pregnant, recognizes the baby Mary is carrying.
You Will Be Delivered is told in the voice of the angel Gabriel in a lovely ballad, and Elizabeth is recalled by Mary in a rousing bluegrass anthem.
So it goes throughout, with Joseph telling his part in He’s Not Mine, Mary and Joseph discussing what is about to happen on the title track, and on in this fashion through the familiar tale.
Donna told us that she hadn’t planned on turning this album into a story cycle project.
A pair of songs, You Can Not Stay Here and You Will Be Delivered, had been written last year and released as singles for Christmas 2011.
“It was a real God thing… I was preparing to tape the CMA Christmas special last year, when I got a call from two of the vocalists we were counting on for the show saying that they had to pull out. While I was wondering how I could be ready in time, I got to thinking about these characters involved in the nativity story.
I sat down and wrote You Can Not Stay Here, and I felt a huge connection with the people involved in the story. I saw them as individuals who were unprepared for what was going to happen in their lives.
Then, writing He’s Not Mine as Joseph with Kerry and Lynn, we imagined Joseph as just a good guy, not prepared for the situation where his betrothed turns up pregnant before they are married. Not wanting to cause her embarrassment, he puts her up in the mountains with her cousin, away from public view.
Over the course of writing the songs, I fell in love with all these people. I just wanted to have them all over and fix dinner.”
She also shared a touching moment that occurred as the tracking sessions were about to begin. In the studio that day were Keith Sewell on guitar, Byron House on bass, Andy Leftwich on mandolin, and Donna singing.
“Everyone’s nerves were rubbed raw. Our band had just been through an auto accident, Earl Scruggs had recently died, and I had just received a scary mammogram. Keith and Earl were very close, and while no one else knew about what I was going through, I sure did.
Keith asked Byron to start the session with a prayer. We were all in a circle with our heads bowed.
We started with a song I had written, He Is Here, which is the Angel Gabriel announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, and Keith started crying. So I started crying. We were a mess.”
The emotion and passion she described is clear throughout All The Way To Bethlehem. Its impact is sure to be felt most powerfully by Donna’s fellow Christians, but the music is sure to speak to anyone who enjoys hearing a story well told.
As Ulisse put it…
“In some ways, the record isn’t so much seasonal, just reverent.”
Look for All The Way To Bethlehem wherever bluegrass and Christian music is sold, and in iTunes and Amazon.