Songwriter’s Back Story – Wilma Walker

donna_rickThis month’s Songwriter’s Back Story features the song Wilma Walker, written by husband and wife writing and recording duo, Donna Ulisse and Rick Stanley, recorded by the legendary Doyle Lawson and Quick Silver on their 2015 Mountain Home Music Company album, In Session.

I caught up with Donna and Rick at their home in Nashville to talk about their journey through the creative process on this catchy number of professed love and an endearing marriage proposal.

As touring musicians, Donna and Rick, along with their band, The Poor Mountain Boys, often find themselves on Interstate 81 going to and from gigs. So often that they’ve nicknamed the route, the “81-bluegrass highway.” Somewhere near Knoxville, along the 81, a sign advertising fireworks is standing tall. On it reads, “Wild Wilma Walker’s Fireworks.”  Rick said he had been seeing that for years and was convinced there was a song in that colorful alliteration and unlimited imagery.

While at his turn as tour bus driver, Rick began giving the song idea real consideration. Donna was in the shotgun seat and wondering what was keeping Rick so deep in thought. He is a quiet man by nature, so that in itself would not be so unusual. Perhaps the look on his face and the fact that Donna can read him after all of these years, she knew something was “going on up there.”

She could not stay silent any longer and when they arrived home, Donna asked Rick what was up. She says with a good natured laugh, “Come to find out, he was thinking of that woman, Wilma Walker. When Rick said ‘I got a song idea. It’s Wild Wilma Walker,’ I said ‘honey, we can’t write ‘Wild Wilma Walker’ I can’t even say it.’

Rick got insulted and left the room. He said, ‘I was just giving you an idea!’ We went on to sleep that night and I laid there and thought about it, cause I liked the idea…I liked the 3 W’s. So I changed it to: “Wilma Walker will you marry me” and the “will” is easier to say on the W than the “wild” on the beginning. I put in “hey” instead of “wild,” and woke him up at midnight.”

Rick says he was thinking of Wilma as this wild, crafty mountain woman. Donna knew this already in the back of her mind, but was considering whether the alliterations and cadence would flow or not. “Working this out loud I kept repeating, ‘stalker’, ‘chalker’, ‘talker’… then I got onto the soft rhymes like ‘daughter’ and ‘offer’.” When she woke Rick up, she had the fully edited lines: “Hey Wilma Walker Will you marry me, I don’t have much to offer thank God love is free.” Bam! This would set the meter for the melody to come and verse lyrics.

Rick said this is pretty much how they collaborate on songs. Donna sets up the melody and meter, and Rick wood sheds on it a bit. I had to ask Rick if he was OK to be awakened at midnight. He said, “Well, I’m never happy about that!” He is, however, pleased with the finished results and Donna’s tenacity getting it to the finish line.

Donna said she had plenty of characters to model the lyric from. The men in her life like her brother whom she calls “the bubba romantic,” and how he might approach a marriage proposal. Also, her father-in-law and the stories of his shyness she heard told to her by her mother-in-law. “I’ve got a front porch needing flowers” image came straight from the image of their cabin. Another stand out line,” I promised your daddy I’ll take care of you”…what girl could resist?! Real life images personified.


Doyle Lawson was equally charmed by the song and its story and had this to say: “The thing that drew me to Wilma Walker was the positive message encased in somewhat humorous tones, and yet it’s all about a boy and girl, and also a world away from pick-up trucks, six packs and scantily clothed lasses!”

Doyle omitted the last verse and instead returned to the first verse on his recording. But here are the lyrics as the writers originally created them:

Wilma Walker

written by Rick Stanley and Donna Ulisse

Let’s have us a talk
Sit down Wilma Walker

I’ve got some land
And a cabin with a front yard needing’ flowers
I’m a good man
I’ll give you everything within my power
It don’t sound like very much but I own it all
And I’ll share it all with you, Darlin, it’s your call

Hey Wilma Walker, will you marry me?
I ain’t got much to offer, thank God love is free
Wilma Walker, will you marry me?

I’ll work hard
But I tell you there is more to life than money
Here’s my heart
Could that be enough for you honey?
I promised your daddy I’ll take care of you
And I’ll swear it on a Bible if you want me to

Hey Wilma Walker, will you marry me?
Let’s have some sons and daughters, start a family
Wilma Walker, will you marry me?

We can help each other get around in our old age
But it all depends on how you answer me today

Hey Wilma Walker, will you marry me?
I ain’t no fancy talker but I’m on my knee
I love you and you ought answer yes indeed
Wilma Walker, will you marry me?

Donna Ulisse & the Poor Mountain Boys at the Country Music Hall of Fame & MuseumAs it turns out, Donna’s mother-in-law’s front porch was a host for many a famous jam session and gathering. Since Rick’s late-father, Richard, was a 2nd cousin to Ralph and Carter Stanley, bluegrass music was just a part of the fabric of their lives, as anyone can imagine. Richard was a fiddle player. Rick was just 15 years old when he wrote the bluegrass standard, Home In the Mountains, all by himself. This song appears on many recordings and not the least of which is The Stanley Tradition that was nominated for a Grammy in 1996 with Charlie Sizemore on lead vocals. It was also recorded by Keith Whitely on the Ralph Stanley Old Home Place album in ’76.

Donna Ulisse-Stanley had a very different path to bluegrass. While she had a prominent songwriter as kin, Uncle Curly Gene Butler (I Hope You Have Learned), she got her start in western swing and later traditional country. After moving from Hampton, Virginia to Nashville, Tennessee, Donna signed a record deal with Atlantic in 1991 and released Trouble At the Door to country radio, which produced two charted singles.

The album was critically acclaimed but not the commercial success she had hoped for. This was the time Donna got some great advice from industry heavy weights and did some soul searching. She found she had a talent and passion for songwriting. In addition to being sought out as a demo singer and background vocalist, she was creating songs and loving it. She signed to Hadley Music Group 1998 and enjoys a great partnership and support from them to present day.

When Donna and Rick married in 1983, it was those trips to visit his family and the front porch picking sessions that really got to her and put the bluegrass chops and songs in her wheelhouse. She has since recorded 6 bluegrass/Gospel albums for Hadley Music Group and been nominated for the prestigious Songwriter of the Year IBMA award for two years running. Donna has had her songs recorded by Claire Lynch, Del McCoury, and Darin and Brooke Aldridge, and co-wrote the new single Drifter with Marc Rossi for Volume Five on Mountain Fever Records.

Rick and Donna as a writing team also co-wrote Come To Jesus, recorded by Larry Stephenson. This creative couple gets to spend a lot of time together touring and just doing life, and that affords quality co-writing time on a regular basis. The results are stunning, be they playing a show with the Donna Ulisse & the Poor Mountain Boys band, hearing Rick’s boyhood stories about Ralph and Carter, or hearing a bluegrass legend cover something they have penned.

There is a lot to discover with these folks. And we look forward to what else they come up with. So if you see Rick Stanley driving the tour bus with a serious look on his face, he’s probably simmering a new song idea, and rest assured Donna will be there to help him bring it to fruition.

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About the Author

Irene Kelley

Irene Kelley’s signature mix of Bluegrass, Country and Americana appeals to music lovers across all genres. A native of Latrobe, PA, Irene Kelley discovered her flair for songwriting as a teenager and soon found her way to Nashville, TN where her songs were quickly noticed and recorded by Carl Jackson, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White. While recording an album for MCA and independently releasing 3 more critically acclaimed records and touring worldwide. Her new bluegrass album, These Hills was released on Mountain Fever Records in May of 2016 to critical acclaim. Irene raised two daughters and scored cuts with Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Loretta Lynn, Pat Green, Brother Phelps, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Darrell Scott, The Whites, the Osborne Brothers and others.