The Story Behind the Song – I Am a Drifter

Donna Ulisse and Marc Rossi wrote the award-winning song I Am a Drifter when they got together for one of their regular song-writing sessions that, as Ulisse tells us, took place each Monday.

On Thursday, September 28 last, I Am a Drifter was named the winner of the IBMA’s Song of the Year Award for 2017.

The duo’s song-writing abilities were also recognized with I’m Calling Heaven Down, the lead track on Ulisse’s album When I Look Back, winning the Just Plain Folks Awards for Best Bluegrass Song in 2009.

I Am a Drifter started as one type of song, but was completely changed in character and message by the time that it was completed.

Donna Ulisse

Ulisse, best-known as a bluegrass singer-songwriter, started by singing in a western swing band where she grew up in Hampton, VA. It was at this time that she met and married Rick Stanley, a cousin to Carter and Ralph Stanley.

In 1980, she went to Nashville where she quickly became an in-demand demo singer and background vocalist, notably recording with Jerry Reed.

A production deal with Dale Morris, manager of the supergroup Alabama, led to Ulisse signing a recording deal with Atlantic Records for whom she recorded a traditional country music album, Trouble at the Door. Three singles from the album sold well-enough to feature on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.

Since the turn of the millennium she has eight CDs with most of the songs written by her on all except Showin’ My Roots, for which she uses compositions of some of her greatest influences.

Her songs have been recorded by the Del McCoury Band, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Claire Lynch, Darin and Brooke Aldridge, Nu-Blu and The Bankesters.

Ulisse has been nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Bluegrass Songwriter of the Year award five times, and she was the winner of the 2016 award.

Two of her songs, Butler Brothers, co-written with Jerry Salley, and Wilma Walker, written with husband Rick Stanley, have featured on Grammy nominated bluegrass music albums.

Marc Rossi

Marc Rossi, a native of Massachusetts, has been in Nashville pursuing a song-writing career for over 40 years and in 1988 he founded Marc My Words Music (ASCAP), becoming the publisher of his own songs. The catalog has more than 750 songs, embracing many genres of music; country, blues, bluegrass, Gospel, Americana, rock’n’roll and pop included.

In 1993 Rossi served two years as President of the Nashville Publishers Network (NPN). Under his leadership NPN produced a high-quality demo CD called Uncut Gems, which was widely distributed around the city. Also, he instituted the monthly business planning meetings.

His songs have been recorded by the likes of Ferlin Husky (Once in A Blue Moon); Hank Thompson (I Let My Heart Do the Talking For Me) and Buck Trent (That Rock’s Too Hard For Me to Roll). Rossi’s You Could’ve Heard a Heart Break recorded by Johnny Lee was Lee’s fifth and final #1 country music chart hit.

The Ulisse-Rossi link-up has been quite prolific with Nu-Blu recording The Abyss, That’s How I’m Supposed to Be and Guitar Case (also recorded by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver).

Not surprisingly, Ulisse has recorded the vast majority of their songs with Back Home Feelin’ Again, Heartbreak River, New Day in Heaven, A Little Past Lonely, Workin’ On The C&O, The River’s Runnin’ Free, Ain’t That a Pity, I’ll Sleep in Peace At Night, Dust to Dust, Child Of The Great Depression, These Troubles and Levi Stone being committed to various of the ten bluegrass music CDs that she has released.

Donna reveals how the writing of I Am a Drifter began ……

“The lyric started out being about our lives as traveling musicians. It dawned on me that Rick Stanley, my sweet husband, and me are kinda like drifters. I actually wrote the start of this lyric as we were rolling down the highway to some festival. We get to go to lots of cool places in our travels but never stay long enough anywhere to actually ‘see’ them.

‘I am a drifter and by tonight I’ll find a place to lay down all my burdens’ …was the original start as I looked back through my notes…lol

It’s always a miracle to see where a song is gonna take you. With the support of Marc’s sassy melody it needed to be a different story. That’s how we write…he just starts playing his melody I usually plug in a story line.”

Fast forward to more recent times …..

“As the fog lifts and the fiddle note fades in the distance my memory of writing I Am a Drifter is like this…

I write songs for my living and go about it as a business most days, booking writing appointments that fill my week and hours up. My good friend and long-time co-writer, Marc Rossi, is the other side of this tale through melody. We have been writing together for many years, and after that long we kind of start thinking alike (which I am certain scares Marc to death…lol). For a long-time Marc has been known to me as ‘Monday Marc’ because we kept a standing Monday morning writing appointment at my publishing office down on Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee. So, on a Monday morning in 2012, Marc came to the appointment with this wonderful melody. As was and is our way, he starts playing the melody for me and I search through some half-written lyrics in my notebook until we land on a marriage of topic and melody. I recall the union of his melody and my lyric being an undeniable match, and so it was born I Am a Drifter! We wrote it in about three hours and knew it was something special.

When we finish a composition we will sing it into a recording device and let it ferment for a while until it’s time to do a demo, a recorded representation of a new song. We did not demo this song right away. It was two years later when we were getting a recording session together that Marc and I decided it was time to commit this one to tape.

After it was recorded it sat on a shelf again until the right artist came along. My publisher called and said that Volume Five was looking for songs. She is going to kill me, but the truth is, she did not hear this song for Glen Harrell. We talked about it for a few minutes and I asked her to humor me and send it anyway and ..tee hee…don’t think there hasn’t been TONS of ‘I told you so’ moments since then. Kathy Anderson was the first one to do the happy dance when Glen called and put it on hold.

Glen was kind enough to send me the pre-mixed recording on it, and I remember my dad and brother being in Nashville when he sent it, because we all whooped and hollered thinking Volume Five hit it OUT OF THE PARK!

Another poignant addition to this story is Harry Clark, the mandolin player that was a member of Volume Five when this song was recorded. He nailed the mando part and was dear enough to me then, but has recently become more so by playing on my new record and becoming part of my music.

I was teaching a song-writing workshop in Strawberry Point, Iowa a couple of weeks ago [mid. July 2017] when I got the call that I Am a Drifter was up for Song of The Year. I cannot tell you how precious that moment was, to be able to share that with baby writers on fire to make a splash with their songs. It was a God thing and made the announcement so much more special. I also got the happy honor of calling Marc Rossi to tell him we were up for the award. A banner day for sure! And just to put a big ‘ol scoop of ice cream on top of an already splendid celebration, I received a sweet email from Glen Harrell congratulating me and Marc on the nomination. What a class act he is and what a voice Glen has. I will forever be grateful for his choice to record this song.”

Co-writer Marc Rossi responds with his memory of their session ……

“Usually when I have an upcoming co-writing appointment, I will have been working on a melody or two that might be a good match for the co-writer. With Drifter that was the case. I had a melody that was more or less complete. When Donna heard it she dug out the lyric fragments she had that she thought would match the mood and feel. From that point on we just whittled away at making music and lyric a good fit for each other, adjusting lyric phrasing here and there that would have it sound natural and uncluttered. Donna and I have written hundreds of songs together and are very comfortable with the mechanics of our writing process. Drifter was another of the countless examples of songs that we both felt good about at the end of the day. The fact that it has gone on to be a popular song leaves a grin on my face. Why this one and not the last one or the next one? If I had an answer I’d be living on Easy Street.”

In March 2016 Glen Harrell of Volume Five spoke glowingly about I Am A Drifter to Bluegrass Today ….

“The first thing that caught my ear was how Jerry [Salley, who sang the demo] began the song with just a guitar and I felt that was so different, and could make for a great lead off cut on an album. Once the melody and lyrics began to meld, I envisioned this as our first single immediately. It seems to have all the ingredients to stand alone as a solid song while also setting the tone for the entire album.”

I Am A Drifter
written by Donna Ulisse and Marc Rossi

I am a drifter but I’m here tonight
And if it’s alright I’ll stay until the morning
Then I’m bound to journey ‘cause that’s who I am
So understand I might leave without warning
I am, I am a drifter

I’ve met some rounders who did me wrong
I’ve written songs about the way they hurt me
I’ve held some angels who felt betrayed
‘Cause I have made a choice to be unworthy
I am, I am a drifter

There’s a gypsy voice I hear
Telling me to move on
A restless feeIing in my bones
Before I know it I’m up and gone

I’ve seen the country from shore to shore
And I’ve explored the deserts and the mountains
My homes the highway and it’s everywhere
I’m never scared of the miles, I’m not countin’
I am, I am a drifter

Uncle Hadley Music/Marc My Words (ASCAP) ©

I Am a Drifter was recorded by Volume Five for their June 2016 album, tellingly entitled Drifter (Mountain Fever MFR 160624).

In this video Donna Ulisse and Marc Rossi talk about their song-writing relationship and the song Black Snake from Donna Ulisse’s 2012 album, An Easy Climb.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.