My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Donna Ulisse

Classic Rewind: Donna Ulisse – I Am A Child Of God’

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Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Trouble At The Door’

There was a lot of great music in 1991, and the debut album by Virginia-born Donna Ulisse fell through the cracks. Produced by Ray Baker, Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee and released on Atlantic Records, which was dipping its toes into country music, it showcased Donna’s beautiful alto voice.

Lead single ‘Things Are Mostly Fine’ is an understated mournful ballad about not getting over an ex, which Donna sings beautifully. It is one of four songs written by John Adrian, whose other writing credits appear to be for Billy ‘Crash’ Craddock. Sadly it peaked in the 70s on the country charts. Also gorgeous is his tender steel-laced ‘Fall Apart With You’, about seeking consolation in a one night stand with some guy who a looks a little like her true love. The gentle waltz ‘My Broken Hearts Breaking All Over Again’ has lovely fiddle and an exquisite vocal. ‘Legend In My Heart’ is another ballad, a tender tribute to a real life hero who is better than fictional characters, with a beautiful melody.

The bright fiddle-led up-tempo ‘When Was The Last Time’ did a little better as the second single, with its #66 peak making it Donna’s most successful stab at radio. The Buck Moore/Frank D Myers song urges the protagonist’s husband to keep their love life fresh despite struggling through hard times. It is a really nice song which deserved to be a hit.

The title track failed to chart. Written by husband and wife team Kerry and Lynn Gillespie Chater, it is an emotionally intense but subtly sung story about a wife who answers the door to her husband’s secret lover:

She says she knows you
And she’s got the right address
She’s talkin’ crazy
So I didn’t catch the rest
She wouldn’t tell me
Just what her name is
There’s one thing for sure
Boy, you’ve got trouble at the door

I tried to tell her
That you’ve been out of town
She seems to know that
But she still won’t calm down
I even mentioned that it was business
She tells me it was more
Boy, you’ve got trouble at the door

Tell me she’s crazy
Tell me she’s wrong
Say that she’s mistaken
Say that you were strong
Tell me she’s lyin’
Then tell me one thing more
Tell me that’s not trouble at the door

This is a great song which should have been a career making record.

Bob McDill and Jim Weatherly contributed ‘Fire In An Old Flame’s Eyes’, a fine ballad about yearning for an ex, with regret for the path not taken replaced by a rekindling of that early passion. ‘Guess Who’s Back In Town’, written by Ernie Rowell and Dave Lindsey, is an up-tempo tune bewailing an on-and-off relationship. ‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’ is a determinedly positive song about moving on after a breakup.

‘You Always Take Her Memory Out On Me’, written by R C Bannon, is another excellent emotional ballad, about dealing with the overpowering shadow of her partner’s ex:

I’m not the one who lied to you
Made you fall apart
I didn’t find someone else
And leave you in the dark
I’ve tried my best to heal the wounds and ease your misery
Then you turn around and take her memory out on me

How long before you let go of who let go of you?
How can you be blind to all her faults,
Then find fault in everything I do?

This album should have made Donna a star. Perhaps being on Atlantic was the problem, and a label with greater influence would have helped. Donna retired into obscurity, only emerging years later as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I like her current work, but this is still my favorite of her albums. It does not appear to be available on iTunes, but used copies of the CD can be found cheaply. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Donna Ulisse – ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’

Spotlight Artists : Overlooked Women of the 90s

After our look back at three male artists who emerged in 1996 (Daryle Singletary and Wade Hayes) we’re widening the net a little with our current spotlight. As we all now, it’s often harder for women to make it in country music, and that was the case even in the 1990s which might be regarded as the high point for female artists’ commercial success. For the next two months we will be talking about several female singers who tried to make an impact in the 1990s, and didn’t receive as much attention as they deserved. We hope you enjoy our selection.

Jann Browne was born in Indiana in 1954. She began performing in California in the 1970s, before joining stellar Western Swing band Asleep At The Wheel in 1981. Her heart was in more traditional styles of country music, and in 1989, with the neotraditional movement in full swing, she signed a solo deal with Curb Records. Perhaps she was just a little too late to the party, perhaps she was curbed by her label, or the fact that she continued to base herself on the West Coast, but a pair of top 20 country hits and two underrated albums were all she had to celebrate. A couple of independent albums followed later. She continues to tour locally in California, and her most recent recorded work was a Buck Owens tribute album in 2007. She is planning a new record for release this year.

Linda Davis was born in Texas in 1962. She moved to Nashville in the early 1980, and formed a duo called Skip & Linda with Skip Eaton, which released a few independent singles. Regular work singing advertising jingles and song demos got her noticed, and she secured a deal with Epic Records in 1988. After failing to make a breakthrough, she temporarily gave up her solo aspirations and joined Reba McEntire’s road outfit as a backing vocalist. That put her in the right place at the right time when Reba needed a strong female duet partner for the song ‘Does He Need You’. The song was a #1 hit and won a Grammy for the pair, and it allowed Linda another shot at solo success when she signed to Arista. While she never matched the success of the Reba duet, she has continued to tour and record, releasing several albums on different labels. She returned to prominence recently when she teamed up with her husband Lang Scott and daughter Hillary (known for her band Lady Antebellum) for a very successful country gospel project, billed as the Scott Family.

Dawn Sears was born in Minnesota in 1961. In her late 20s she was signed to Warner Brothers, releasing her critically acclaimed debut album in 1991. When this failed to launch her to superstardom, she became a backing singer for Vince Gill. Decca then picked her up in 1994, again with no lasting success, and she returned to working for Gill. She achieved non-mainstream success late in her career thanks to her role as one of the lead singers of The Time Jumpers. Tragically, she died of cancer in 2014.

Ronna Reeves was born in Texas in 1968. She was on Mercury in the early 1990s, but enjoyed limited radio success despite regular appearance on the Statler Brothers’ TNN TV show which helped her to sell enough records to stay on the label for several releases. Virginia’s Donna Ulisse released a single, excellent album on Atlantic Records in 1991. When her singles failed to gain traction despite her beautiful voice, she gave up on performing and began to concentrate on songwriting. She re-emerged 10 years ago as a bluegrass singer-songwriter, and has been forging a successful career in that vein ever since. Singer-songwriter Bobbie Cryner was born in California in 1961. She released two albums for Epic, and despite stellar vocals and material she too failed to appeal to country radio. She continued writing songs for other artists for a while but has not been active lately.

Ohio-born Kim Richey is an acclaimed singer songwriter who spent the second half of the 1990s as a semi-mainstream country artist on Mercury. She is still actively wriing and recording, and has just released a new album.
Mandy Barnett
, born in 1975 in Tennessee, was a throwback to the era and style of Patsy Cline. She made an impact as a teenager lying Patsy on stage, which enabled her to get a record deal of her own. Perhaps she was too retro for mainstream success in the second half of the 1990s despite massive critical plaudits, but she returned to her stage role with more success.

Julie Reeves, born in Kentucky in 1974, was more on the pop-country side. She had a deal with the short lived country imprint of Virgin Records. Her singles gained some airplay, and perhaps another label would have capitalised on that. As it was, marriage to comedy act Cledus T Judd sidelined Julie’s music career. The marriage ended in divorce and Julie is now a radio DJ. Finally, Chalee Tennison was born in Texas in 1969. A deal with Asylum Records in 1999 saw her touring with Alan Jackson, but her singles were only modestly successful despite strong vocals and material drawing on her varied life experience (teenage motherhood, failed marriages, and work as a prison guard).

These women offered a variety of styles of country music, but they share one thing: none really achieved the level of success they deserved. We hope you enjoy exploring their music.

Album Review: Rebekah Long – ‘Here I Am’

here i amBluegrass singer and upright bass player Rebekah Long from Georgia has a sweet, light voice, and considerable ability as a songwriter. Her skills are well showcased in her new album. Singer-songwriter Donna Ulisse, who has carved out a real niche for herself in bluegrass in recent years, produced the album, and she and Rebekah wrote most of the material.

The two women co-wrote ‘He’s Never Coming Back Again’, an understated ballad about the pain of lost love, and ‘Nellie Mae’, a pretty tune about an adoptive mother’s love.

The pair were joined by Ulisse’s husband Rick Stanley to write a further three songs. My favorite of these, and possibly my favorite on the album, is the doomladen story song ‘Hairpin Hattie’, whose ghost fatally haunts cheating husbands on the dangerous mountain road she died on herself 80 years earlier outrunning the cops after murdering her own:

She never beckons innocents
The pure of heart they drive on by
Her anger’s for the cheatin’ men
The ones that have a roving eye

‘Ain’t Life Sweet’ is a bright cheerful tune lauding old fashioned rural life, which makes a promising opener to the album, while ‘Sweet Miss Dixie Deen’ is an affectionate tribute to the late wife of Tom T Hall. Rebekah spent several years working for the Halls, and also includes a nice cover of Tom T’s song ‘I Washed My Face In The Mountain Dew’.

A more unexpected cover, but one which works surprisingly well bluegrass style is the sultry ‘Somebody’s Knockin’, the sole country hit for Terri Gibbs in the early 80s. Rebekah doesn’t quite have the forcefulness required to really pull off Merle Haggard’s ‘The Fightin’ Side Of Me’ – it’s pleasant to listen to but unconvincing. The Mel Tillis-penned, and much recorded. ‘Unmitigated Gall’ is more effective, and highly enjoyable. The final cover, Cheryl Wheeler’s ‘I Know This Town’ is a fond tribute to a home town.

The title track and ‘The MapleTree And Me’ are delicately pretty Donna Ulisse songs, the former a tender love song, the latter wistful and poetic. The closing ‘December’, written by Ulisse with Dennis Duff, is atmospheric and bleak

This is a very nice bluegrass album with much to recommend it.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Fayssoux – ‘I Can’t Wait’

fayssouxFayssoux Starling McLean is best known to country fans for her gorgeous harmonies on some of Emmylou Harris’s iconic 70s recordings like ‘Green Rolling Hills Of West Viginina’. She was silent for years, but re-emerged in 2008 with a well-received solo album. The follow-up, on Red Beet Records, is a lovely country-folk confection mixing some well-chosen covers with her own new songs. Her rich, warm voice is tastefully supported by acoustic backings.

The soothing title track is a lovely inspirational song written by Kieran Kane (once of The O’Kanes) with Sean Locke and Claudia Scott. The ballad ‘When The Thought Of You Catches Up With Me’ was previously recorded by its writer David Ball, but Fayssoux brings a new delicacy and sweetness to it which works beautifully.

A lovely understated version of ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’ is a real highlight, with Fayssoux convincingly selling the story as though it was her own. Donna Ulisse’s delicate harmony is the perfect ornamentation. ‘Some Things Are Too Good To Last’, written by Jim Lauderdale, is another fine song with sweet harmonies.

‘I Made A Friend Of A Flower Today’ a very charming folky duet with Tom T Hall, who wrote it. This is another favorite track for me.

‘My Brain’ has a jazz rhythm and the vocal is a bit breathy. ‘Hell On A Poor Boy’ (written by poet R B Morris) is bluesy in a wistful way.

Fayssoux wrote a number of the songs with musician/journalist Peter Cooper and/or Thomm Jutz. ‘Golightly Creek’ is a nicely observational song about finding peace by returning to her birthplace.

‘Running out Of Lies’ is a melancholy depiction of the permanent damage caused by earlier heartbreak:
A temporary fix left a scar that’s everlasting

‘The Last Night Of The War’ has an authentic traditional folk feel with its post-Civil War setting.

She wrote ‘Find Your Own Light’ solo, and this is a deeply introspective song about finding oneself. ‘Ragged Old Heart’ is a little more upbeat with a bright tempo, although it too deals with a damaged individual.

This is a lovely record, drawing deeply from the wells of the best country and folk music.

Grade: A+

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2013

This year has seen some excellent albums released. I had to leave off my final top ten fine records by Amber Digby, Ashley Monroe, Jamie Richards, Julie Roberts and Eric Strickland. The most notable thing for me has been the resurgence in artistic terms at least, if not commercial ones, of great female voices. Last year none of my top albums was from a female artist. This year there are four solo women (all excellent writers as well as singers, although one chose to release predominantly covers this time), four male leads, and two mixed duos, and while I don’t like quotas or judging for anything other than the quality of the music, increased diversity of life experience can only be good for the variety of experiences reflected in the music.

10. Old Yellow MoonEmmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The long awaited reunion project was a delight, and well worth the wait. Seeing them live was a personal highlight of my year.
Best tracks: ‘Dreaming My Dreams’, ‘Here We Are

roots of my raising gregory9. Roots Of My RaisingThe Clinton Gregory Bluegrass Band
Another project presenting country classics with bluegrass arrangements. Clinton Gregory’s underrated tenor matches his fine fiddle playing, and his excellent vocal interpretations make this one worth hearing.
Best tracks: ‘New Patches’, ‘Roots Of My Raising’, ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’

8. Made To LastJoey + Rory
While not really groundbreaking, the latest from husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek contains some beautiful songs, tastefully produced. The couple may slow down their busy schedule next year and they are expecting their first baby together in the spring, but this (and the year’s earlier religious album) will keep fans going.
Best tracks: ‘Just A Cup Of Coffee’, ‘Now That She’s Gone’, ‘50,000 Names’ with a bonus mention for ‘The Preacher And The Stranger’ on Inspired.

showin my roots7. Showin’ My RootsDonna Ulisse
A delightful mix of country and bluegrass on a collection of the songs which inspired Donna. She’s a fine bluegrass singer and songwriter – but her majestic alto is petrfect for traditional country, and setting them against beautifully played bluegrass abackings is the best of both worlds.
Best tracks: ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, ‘Somebody Somewhere Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight’, ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’

6. Brothers Of The HighwayDailey & Vincent
The best duo in bluegrass return with their first secular album of new material since 2009. This is spectacular playing and singing, a masterclass in bluegrass.
Best tracks: ‘When I Stop Dreaming’, ‘Hills Of Caroline’, ‘Brothers Of The Highway’

i let her talk5. I Let Her TalkErin Enderlin
It only had nine tracks, which lost it a few points, but the outstanding quality of the songs and Erin’s strong voice meant this forced its way onto my top 10 list.
Best tracks: ‘I Let Her Talk’, ‘Get That At Home’, ‘Last Call’, ‘Monday Morning Church

4. The HighwayHolly Williams
Hank Jr’s daughter comes of age as an artist with this fine singer-sogwriter record. Her sultry voice, the tasteful production and excellent songs combine to make a memorable listening experience.
Best Tracks: ‘Giving Up’, ‘Drinkin’’, ‘Waiting On June

randy3. Influence Vol 1:- The Man I AmRandy Travis
Randy Travis has seemed to be on a downward spiral both personally, with well-publicised troubles with the law and an increasingly concerning alchol problem, and professionally, with his voice showing disturbing signs of deterioration. His health took a turn for the worse this year, but his Haggard-heavy album of classic covers was an unexpected highlight of the year. The man who was at the heart of the revival of more traditional styles of country music in the 1980s reveals his greatest influences, and is back in better voice than he has been for some years. the slightly lopsided selection of material may be a casualty of his health issues – perhaps more recording sessions were planned. I only hope that he recovers and a Volume 2 may be a possibility.
Best tracks: ‘What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana’, ‘I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall’, ‘Someday We’ll Look Back

2. BakersfieldVince Gill and Paul Franklin
I wouldn’t necessarily have associated Vince Gill’s honeyed tenor with the Bakersfield sound, but his labor of love collaboration with steel player Paul Franklin was a revelation. Vince’s heartfelt interpretations of these classics breathes new life into them.
Best tracks: ‘Holding Things Together’, ‘Branded Man’, ‘But I Do’, ‘Together Again

12 stories
1. 12 StoriesBrandy Clark

The songwriter has been very successful in recent years selling her songs to more mainstream acts, but it turns out she kept her best songs for her own album. She serves up a dozen believable slices of life on her debut album, a pointed reminder that at its best country music is the genre which records real lives in troubled times. Ranging from the quirky wit of single ‘Stripes’ to dark cheating songs like ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, and taking in the soothing sweetness of ‘Hold My Hand’ and ‘Just Like Him’, this is one of those rare albums without a weak track, and one which demonstrates that contemporary country can be great. Brandy also has a rich, expressive voice. Much-deserved critical acclaim has not yet been matched by sales – but this is an outstanding record.
Best tracks: ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, ‘In Some Corner’, ‘Take A Little Pill’, ‘Pray to Jesus’, ‘Just Like Him

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Showin’ My Roots’

showin my rootsFor the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I’ve enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.

Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.

A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. ‘I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On’ is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.

Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of ‘Fist City’ and ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton’s ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’ acts as Donna’s nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.

Donna’s husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna’s version of the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley’s deeply mournful ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’ is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.

Almost as good, ‘Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)’, a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.

Donna is sincere and compelling on ‘Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus’, a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On’ is delicately pretty.

‘I Hope You Have Learned’ was written in the 1950s by Donna’s great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.

The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell’s ‘One Way Rider’, which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan’s harmony providing some flavor.

This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna’s beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.

Grade: A+

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

Album Review: Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘Darin & Brooke Aldridge’

Husband and wife Darin and Brooke Aldridge style themselves the Sweethearts of Bluegrass and have recently released their second record together on the independent label Mountain Home. Recorded in North Carolina and produced by songwriter Jerry Salley (who contributes backing vocals on a number of tracks), there is a careful mixture of sacred and secular (but predominantly positive) material. The musicianship is exemplary, largely coming from the couple’s regular band (with Rob Ickes guesting on dobro on a few tracks). Multi-instrumentalist Darin plays guitar and mandolin, but the focus of the album is on wife Brooke.

She has a sweet, pure voice not dissimilar tonally to Rhonda Vincent, and a subtle interpretative ability. She takes the lead on the majority of the songs, including the charming mid-tempo opener ‘I Thought I’d Seen It All’, a positive travelog-cum-love song about the surprise love brings, written by Burton Collins and Lisa Shaffer.

Her voice has a more piercing quality on the pastoral ‘Corn’, also written by Shaffer, this time with Bill Whyte, about the joys of rural living and true love. Producer Salley and Donna Ulisse wrote ‘It Moves Me’, a thoughtful take on appreciating the beauties of nature, this time on the Gulf Coast “where I swear I can see God’s hand”. This is that rare thing, a beach song I can truthfully say I like.

The outstanding track is the religious ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’, a beautiful and moving reflection on Calvary, written by Dennis K Duff. The optimistic ‘The Light From Heaven’ (about hope), which precedes it, pales in comparison but Brooke sounds good. I really liked the pure bluegrass lament for a failing relationship, where she can’t make ‘Something Out Of Nothing’. This is the only sad-tinged song here, no doubt a reflection of their real-life relationship.

The pair both sing in close harmony with alternating solo lines on a delightful version of Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s ‘Sweetest Waste Of Time’. This couple’s version is sweeter sounding than the rawer original, although the arrangement is broadly similar (check this), and is one of my favorite tracks.

Their gorgeous close harmonies are also showcased on ‘Let’s Not Go There’, a pretty song written by Tom T Hall and his wife Dixie about not dwelling on past relationships or mistakes:

The past is all behind us now
The future’s ours to share
There’s nothing back there for us
Let’s not go there

Let’s not go there there’s nothing we can change
Let’s not go there
Let’s not relive the pain
Wondering who was to blame
Won’t get us anywhere
Everybody has a past
Let’s not go there

Listen to this live here.

‘Remind Me Again’ is another nice romantic duet, this time rekindling the flame of love in an established relationship, written by Jerry Salley (who sings harmony vocals on a number of tracks) and Tammi Kidd.

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The ones that got away

Bobbie CrynerHave you ever thought an artist was just so good they were destined for stardom, especiallly when they seemed to have a major label behind them, but then watched as … nothing actually happened? They had the voice, sometimes their own songwriting ability or musicianship, great material, a label which seemed supportive, and yet it just didn’t work out. Over the years I’ve been listening to country music that’s often happened to me. Here are a few of my favorite ‘stars in the making’ whose careers never really got going over the past 20 years, organised chronologically. I’ve limited it to artists who were signed to a major label which invested at least enough time, money and effort to release an album, but who never achieved more than one top 30 hit single.

Donna Ulisse had a beautiful alto voice and released a fine neotraditional album, Trouble At The Door, on Atlantic in 1991. None of the singles reached the top 60 on Billboard. After she lost her deal, Donna moved into bluegrass, and I reviewed her recently released second bluegrass album here earlier this year.

Joy WhiteOne of the best albums of 1992 was Between Midnight And Hindsight by Joy White on Epic – Joy’s strong, distinctive voice and intense approach was matched to some great material, but the singles (which included ‘Cold Day In July’, subsequently covered by the Dixie Chicks) all flopped. She moved to Columbia and rebranded herself as Joy Lynn White for 1994’s Wild Love, another strong set which failed to produce anything approaching a hit. She has recorded sporadically since for independent labels, but her later music is less commercial and less immediately appealing. I think she may have been a little ahead of her time, as her style would have appealed to Dixie Chicks fans.

Rhonda Vincent may seem like a strange choice for this list, but technically she qualifies. After a string of bluegrass albums for Rebel in the very early 90s, Rhonda spent several years trying to make it as a mainstream country artist. She released two excellent albums, Written In The Stars on Giant Records in 1993, and Trouble Free on Warner Bros in 1996. The singles made no impact whatsoever, and in 2000 Rhonda returned to her first love, bluegrass. She has gone from strength to strength since.

I have always been surprised that Bobbie Cryner‘s career never took off. She had a beautiful voice and wrote and picked some fine material to record, but two different labels tried and failed to make her into a star. Both her self-titled debut on Epic in 1993 and Girl Of Your Dreams on MCA in 1996 are well worth seeking out, even though none of the singles reached the top 50. She continued to write for other artists through the 90s.

Neotraditionalist Ken Mellons, had a promising start when his ‘Jukebox Junkie’ (one of the poorer songs on his self-titled debut album) was a top 10 hit in 1994. His hopes of stardom were dashed when none of the other singles from his two Epic albums hit the top 30, and he then made the serious mistake of signing to Curb. Six years later, after a handful of singles and one further album, the good but misleadingly titled The Best Of (it was actually all new material apart from a horrendous dance mix of ‘Jukebox Junkie’), he escaped. He released an independent album in 2004.

Keith PerryAnother of the 90s hat acts who I really liked was Wesley Dennis, who released a very good Keith Stegall-produced record on Mercury in 1995, which was spurned by radio. That was the last we heard of him. Keith Whitley soundalike Keith Perry had a very nice record on Curb in 1999 whose singles yet again failed to make an impact; I understand he also recorded an inspirational album for the same label a few years later, but I haven’t heard that.

Elizabeth Cook Hey Y'allElizabeth Cook‘s distinctive voice was probably too country for country radio, as she had no hit singles from her excellent Warner Bros album Hey Y’all in 2002. She has gone on to garner critical esteem from her independent releases, most recently Balls, making her another artist to do better without a major label.

Two of my favorite singles in 2004 came from artists on this list. After I heard Australian Catherine Britt‘s top 40 hit ‘The Upside Of Being Down’ I waited anxiously for her RCA debut album. And I waited. And waited. It was eventually released in 2006, I believe in Australia only, and she is now based back home in Australia. Julie Roberts‘ debut single ‘Break Down Here’ is still her only top 30 hit, although her label Mercury released two good albums, the first of which has been certified gold. She is still on the label roster, but as no new material has been released since 2006 one doubts she will stay there much longer.

Bobby Pinson Man Like MeThe last name on my list is Bobby Pinson, who had a top 20 hit with ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’ in 2005. Sadly, none of the other singles from his excellent Man Like Me on RCA did as well, and he was soon cut loose. I suspect his problem was that he was too similar to Eric Church, another new artist at the time, although I preferred Bobby’s work. He subsequently released an independent album, and seems to be doing well as a songwriter, co-writing extensively Toby Keith and the members of Sugarland.

Which artists can you think of who you expected to be stars, who never made it?

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Walk This Mountain Down’

ulisseDonna Ulisse was one of those artists who fell through the cracks when a major label deal failed to produce the commercial success her talent deserved.  Donna was signed to Atlantic Records in the early 1990s when the label was flirting with country music.  She released a fine album entitled Trouble At the Door in 1991, which showcased her strong alto and neotraditional country style with a solid set of songs, but failed to make an impact.   She is so forgotten today that she does not even merit her own entry on wikipedia.

In 2007 she re-emerged with a critically acclaimed bluegrass album, When I Look Back, and she has now followed this up with Walk This Mountain Down.   Both CDs are released by her publishing company’s own label, and Donna has written or co-written all the songs.  She is married to a cousin of Ralph Stanley (who played at her wedding), and she cites Ralph as inspiring her own love of bluegrass, although she did grow up listening to acts like the Osborne Brothers.  She says in the liner notes to When I Look Back that “the music business led me on a merry dance to find myself”, and it was only after she lost her original record deal that she started writing her own songs. 

Many of the most prominent current female bluegrass singers are notable for their pretty, even ethereal voices, and sweet sound — think Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Dale Ann Bradley, or Claire Lynch (who provides harmony vocals on two tracks on the latest album).  Donna’s voice has a slightly darker feel, and the music is also quite hard-edged bluegrass, proving that acoustic music doesn’t have to be soft or quiet to be effective.  There is a strong “band” feel to the music, as the same group of musicians play throughout: producer Keith Sewell on guitar, Andy Leftwich on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro, Scott Vestal on banjo, and Byron House on upright bass.  They deserve special mention because the playing is very high quality, but I did feel that on the first few tracks the backing slightly overwhelmed Donna’s voice in the mix.   There are, however some nice male harmonies, for instance on ‘Poor Mountain Boy’. 

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