My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘All The Way To Bethlehem’

donna ulisse - all the way to bethlehemMost Christmas records lead towards celebrating secular cheer, generally recycling the same songs every other Christmas album includes. It makes a refreshing change when someone starts from scratch. Country artist turned bluegrass singer-songwriter Donna Ulisse has done it now, with a collection of songs she wrote herself to retell the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus, each exploring the emotions of a different character. Everything is brought to life by Donna’s pure, crystalline vocals, backed up by sensitive, almost completely acoustic, arrangements which really defy genre.

The opening ‘I See The Light Of The World’ has a pretty melody and a hopeful feel which sets the mood for the story to be retold.

In the delicately pretty ‘You Will Be Delivered’ Donna plays the part of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, gently soothing Mary’s fears. Marc Rossi composed a beautiful tune for Donna’s lyric on this song, and also co-wrote the joyful ‘Elisabeth’ (about Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, during their respective pregnancies, with Donna playing the part of Mary). Andy Leftwich’s liquid fiddle is particularly notable here.

‘He’s Not Mine’ offers the point of view of Joseph, tenderly anticipating raising the child of God; this was written by Donna with husband and wife team Kerry and Lynn Chater, and is another beautiful track. Donna then duets with her husband Rick Stanley to represent Mary and Joseph on their journey ‘All The Way To Bethlehem’, also written with the Chaters. Rick is an unexceptional vocalist, but he is convincing enough here.

It is of course the innkeeper who declare ‘You Cannot Stay Here’, but offers them the stable instead. Donna’s reading of the innkeeper’s personality is a kindly one, and this pretty song was the inspiration for the whole project.

‘Let The World Wait For A Little While’ is a tender lullaby for the newborn baby Jesus, with a more classical feel to the accompaniment. Donna wrote it with her husband. ‘He Is Here’ is Gabriel again, announcing the birth to the shepherds.

‘I’m Gonna Shine’ is an ambitious attempt at interpreting the role of the star guiding the wise men to Bethlehem, which is unfortunately rather boring. Stars, being nonhuman, might lack personality, but I doubt that was the intent of what is the only track on this album that doesn’t really work for me, although the instrumentation is attractive.

The magi unwisely declare ‘We’ve Come to Worship Him’ to Herod – this song, written with Marc Rossi, has the drama and energy of the original story.

She closes with the shepherds celebrating ‘Morning In Bethlehem’ with a faint Celtic feel courtesy of Jon Mock’s penny whistle and concertina. It serves as a suitable reflection on the aftermath of the birth of Jesus, and a satisfying closing track.

The fairly slow pacing doesn’t vary much from song to song. The acoustic accompaniments provide a subtle backdrop for what is more of a series of religious meditations on the Christmas story than a conventional “Christmas album”. This is not the record to play at a Christmas party, or to get you in a festive mood. It is for quiet contemplation of the Christmas story and message, and it is entirely successful.

Grade: A

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