Donna Ulisse Shows Her Roots
2013 was a busy year for Donna Ulisse; early in the year she released I Am a Child of God, an album of gospel songs, and released Showin’ My Roots later that year. On Roots, Ulisse honors the men and women whose music and writing are so much a part of what has created her. In the album’s title track, co-written with husband Rick Stanley, Ulisse proclaims in her warm and supple voice that Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens, and others’ “singin’ and writin’ lit a fire in me.” Ulisse’s golden throat wraps its beauty around songs ranging from Lynn’s feisty “Fist City,” Carter Stanley’s rangy “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and Hank Lochlin’s poignant ballad “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” on this album of loving tributes.
Engine 145 caught up with Ulisse before the holidays at her home in Nashville; she was getting ready for a writing session, but took some time to talk about her most recent albums and her plans for 2014.
Why did you decide to make Showin’ My Roots now?
Well, these songs have been part of my show for a while now, and people have been asking if I had an album of them. Honestly, these songs are so much of what created me that I feel like I’ve been working on this for a lifetime. Rick Stanley and I wrote the title song, and it opens the album and honors the ones that have touched me. On this album, as the song says, “my past is shinin’ like a beacon.”
How did you record the album? How long did it take you to make it?
Well, my gospel album—Child of God—came out earlier in 2013, so I was still working some on that, but we mostly plucked songs off previous albums for that one. So, I wasn’t working on this one as a whole we finished Child of God. I had a great group of musicians—Scott Vestal on banjo, Andy Leftwich on mandolin and fiddle, Bryan Sutton, who also co-produced the album, on banjo and guitar, Viktor Krauss and Byron House on upright bass—backing me on this album; I was so fortunate to have a host of great singers joining me on the album, too: Fayssoux McLean, John Cowan, Larry Cordle, Larry Stephenson, Frank Solivan, Jerry Salley, Carl Jackson, and Rick Stanley. We recorded most of this album live with the live version of me singing rather than doing scratch vocals.
How did you come to select this set of songs on the album?
I had to include a song by Loretta Lynn since her singing is what put a fire in me to sing and write songs. She’s the very first person I mention in “Showin’ My Roots”: “Me and Loretta, we go way back/To the days of my Fisher Price record player/She sang to me like a bird, she did/She gave me a fever for pen and paper.” There had to be a Merle Haggard song on the album, too, since I always chose to include at least one Haggard song to sing when I was a young singer. Bonnie Owens, the harmony voice on Haggard’s early records, has always moved me, too, and she gave me the platform to do harmony. Rick and I have always sung the Stanley Brothers’ “If That’s the Way You Feel” when we’re sitting on our patio, and I included “Wait a Little Longer, Please Jesus” because it’s the only song I ever heard my Daddy sing. Rick and I wrote the album’s final song, “I’ve Always Had a Song I Can Lean On”—for me that song is “Jesus Loves Me”—to express the deep and lasting ways that music has touched and woven its way into my life.
Who are your musical influences?
Gosh, everybody on this album is an influence in one way or another. Loretta for the way she writes and delivers a song, but also Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Carter Stanley. I was thrilled to have Fayssoux McClean singing harmony with me on two songs on this album—”"Showin’ My Roots” and “I Hope You Have Learned”—since I’ve always admired her work since I first heard her with Emmylou. When Dixie Hall asked me if there was anyone I’d like to have sing harmony with me on my album, and I told her “yes, but she’s someone you probably don’t know.” When I told her I would love to have Fayssoux Starling—I didn’t know about her new last name—sing harmony, Dixie laughed and told me they were good friends. In a few days, Fayssoux and I were singing together. It was like a dream come true.
When did you start playing guitar and singing?
Well, my dad has wanted this for me my whole life, and he was the one who brought an old pink upright piano into the house, and I started on that. I got a guitar when I was 10, but the action on it was so high that it hurt my fingers to press down the strings; I thought that if it’s this hard to play guitar, I don’t want to learn it, so I stuck with the piano. A few years ago, my husband taught me to play the guitar on his Martin. When I found out how easy it was with the right action, I started playing, but Rick told me I’d have to get my own Martin and couldn’t have his. (laughs) When I was about three years old I found out I could sing harmony naturally—though I wouldn’t have called it that back then—when I’d follow my grandmother around and sing with her. The first time I sang in public was about the same time. During a band’s break at a family BBQ, I sneaked up on stage and started “Take This Hammer.” The band quietly joined me up there on the stage and started playing the music behind me, but I got scared when I opened my eyes and saw the crowd staring at me. I also did a lot of singing with my daddy when we would take drives and go flying down the highway, singing loud.
Tell me a little about your approach to writing a song.
I found my path into bluegrass writing on the guitar rather than the piano. For me, if a subject—whether it’s something I see or an idea I’ve read about—is on my heart that day, the song about it will just start writing itself naturally. I discovered myself in 2007 when I found that I was able to write on a mountain theme rather than a country theme. I felt a warm blanket falling on me then and have since embraced the really personal aspects of writing. You know, writing gospel music is so much a part of me. Gospel came as easy to me as breathing. I try to keep myself in an attitude of grace and gratitude. With songs, as with life, I know that when I live in this attitude I can quit questioning where the song comes from and accept it as a gift.
What are the elements of a good song?
Honesty—if a song’s not honest, then people will not believe it—and melody. If you can match up a great melody with an honest lyric, you have a great song. When I sing gospel, I sing it to honor God. Since getting into bluegrass, I’ve found the complete joy of connecting with the audience and discovering that it’s truly about the music.
What’s next for you?
2013 was a busy year putting out albums, so I’d like to slow down on that for the coming year. I just discovered Stageit—where you can connect with audiences over the internet in real time—and I love it. So many of my fans are not in this country, and Stageit is a great way to connect with them. I’d like to do a Stageit show once a month. This next year is all about my writing, though. I want to be known as a great writer, for that’s what will be known about me after my last breath.
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