The Grass is Bluer for Donna Ulisse
Like so many other aspiring country music artists, Ulisse followed her dream to Nashville where she first found work as a back-up and session singer, working with the likes of Jerry Reed. She finally got the attention of record executives and in 1991, Atlantic Records released the album Trouble at the Door. The album had three singles released off it, along with a music video. None of the singles cracked the Top 50 and Atlantic cut ties with Ulisse shortly thereafter.
For many artists, that would be the end of the story. Somewhere along the way, however, Ulisse fell in love and got married to a gentleman named Rick Stanley. The same Stanley moniker made so famous by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. And because Rick and Ralph are cousins, Ulisse became immersed in a generational family legacy and musical genre she would come to love. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, her songwriting would take on an increasingly bluegrassy feel. By 2007, her publisher decided that this collection of songs being written needed a release on its own. Keith Sewell was brought in and When I Look Back was released to critical acclaim. Three additional albums have been released since and Ulisse has become a key artist in the bluegrass field. Her most recent release, An Easy Climb, was an Engine 145 top ten album for 2011. Ulisse took some time to talk with Engine 145 about that journey to bluegrass, her most recent album, and what’s ahead.
Ken Morton, Jr.: You followed country music to Atlantic Records in 1991 and returned to the bluegrass genre in 2007. Walk us through the change of genres.
Donna Ulisse: From my earliest memories, bluegrass was always in those memories. My father always loved it. But he loved country music, too. I always gravitated to the country thing as a young girl. I wanted to be Crystal Gayle or Emmylou Harris. So when I was growing up and then in the first few years of my career, I was really into the country world. I commuted into Nashville a few times and then met a producer named Chip Young. He said, “If you’re really going to do this, you really should move here.” So, I married my man and we moved here that first year of our marriage.
I did country demos for a long time and that’s what landed me my Atlantic deal. I signed with Atlantic and Dale Morris Management at the same time. Dale is the guy that found Kenny Chesney and he was Alabama’s one and only manager their whole career. I signed on with some pretty good people but still had a pretty tough ride there at Atlantic. I got signed right before Rick Blackburn took over. As it goes usually when a new record executive takes over, things get turned upside down and I kind of got put on the back burner. I don’t think I really got a good shot at it before I was off the label. It gave me a taste just enough to want it really bad. It broke my heart when all of that fell apart. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be after that. Arista Records took a really close look at me, but they signed another act just about that same time. But they told my manager that I ought to try my hand at being a songwriter. They thought I’d really find my voice that way. And I really thought I had died. I had to mourn my artistry like a death because I thought he was saying, “You’re not good enough to be an artist.”
I took that on as my second choice. It was by default. At that time, I didn’t want it. I grieved until I wrote my first song. My very first song was written with Kerry Chater who has had tons of number one and hit records like “I.O.U.” and “You Look So Good in Love.” Anyways, we wrote a really great song with he and his team and instantly, I was like, “Well, I’m not going to let anyone else cut that!” Then I had to mourn a whole new thing. I had to write these great songs and other artists are going to cut them and the whole thought was just devastating.
When I started writing with the Chaters, I was a pretty commercial country writer. But in my off time, when I was writing by myself, I was always writing Appalachian. It always sounded like mountain music. It was probably from my husband’s influence on my music. It was a slow transition.
My publisher suggested that we make a songwriter CD for my songwriter’s rounds here in Nashville. She said, “And since you seem to write in that mountain music style just naturally, let’s cut the stuff that you’re just writing by yourself. And let’s see what happens.” And that’s what happened. We wrote it, recorded it and played it back. And I had found my way.
KMJ: You found your course almost by accident.
DU: It was. It was sort of by designed accident in my head. It sort of forced me to be myself. And that’s something I never thought I was back on Atlantic Records.
KMJ: How much of that first experience in Nashville influences the music that you’re putting out today?
DU: I’ve been married to a really great guy for a really long time. And from that regard, I really haven’t experienced a heartache. And what I can draw from that experience is that feeling of heartache. If I need to draw on something sad to write about, I can pull on those feelings I had back then. Those were dark days for me. Losing my deal. Trying to find a new role for me. That’s really where I draw my melancholy stuff. (Laughter) Pain. That’s what I gained from that whole experience. (Laughter) And a happy therapist.
KMJ: You’ve also drawn on those Appalachian Mountains surrounding your husband’s family home as an inspiration as well, haven’t you?
DU: You know, I went up to my mother in law’s house this past Thanksgiving. She said, “Honey, you’d hardly have a career without this place.” (Laughter) But as an observer, they live it. They live it and they’re there. And my husband’s from there and sorts of takes it for granted. But I’m a city girl looking at it from a whole different view. For me, I call it song scrap.
I get to look at it all with a set of fresh eyes. I see stories in all of it that they all don’t see or just take for granted.
KMJ: On your last album, you have a song called “Hand Me Down Home” that describes a family home like that. How autobiographical is it?
DU: If you closed your eyes and I sang that song, that description nails it. I was looking around up there lately and my husband’s great-grandmother Maddie loved to plant flowers. So the place has tons of old flowers growing everywhere. They give us clippings for us to replant some of these old plants that generations past have planted for us to use at our own home. It’s pretty accurate.
KMJ: You just released a couple new Christmas songs, but I wanted to talk about what’s next. Are you busy writing and recording your next project yet?
DU: I’ve got a pretty good well of songs to always draw on. I probably have a collection of 500 to 600 songs I’ve written. So, bluegrass album number five is just sitting there waiting to be recorded. But what I’ve really been inspired to write is Christmas songs. We did the two singles this fall. Back in mid-October, we were helping the CMA Christmas television special that just recently aired. I was hired to do the pilot vocals for it. I went in there totally unprepared for Christmas and had to do a bunch of Christmas songs. I even did the pilots for the male stuff.
When I left there, I just felt like I needed to tell that story through a Christmas song the way I would say it. As a songwriter, I’m always critiquing other people’s work and thinking about how I would say it or change how it’s been said. I came home and wrote two songs on the 25th of October. I called Kathy at my record label and told her that I though I had something special with one of them. I asked if they’d consider letting me go in and cut them. I sent them the songs and she called right back and said, “Let’s find out if Keith is available and let’s do it.” We recorded them on the 27th and she shipped them out like a day later. It was, “Boom. Boom.”
I finally got a clear vision of what I want on my Christmas album. I know what I want it to be. I want it to be the real story of Christ, but I want it to be told by all the characters that were there. That’s where I’ll be coming from on that album. I’ve written one from the perspective of Gabriel. Mary’s will be her having a baby. I’ve written one about the innkeeper. I’ve even written a really cool one about the star. I’m really excited. I’m into this now.
KMJ: That’ll be a 2012 release for sure?
DU: Definitely. We’ve already made plans to record it in April and May. That’ll allow us to take some time to get the artwork together. Then, it’ll be all ready!
KMJ: That’s a unique theme compared to some other, more lighthearted Christmas albums.
DU: I don’t know how unique it is, but my record girl has been on me for four years to get some Christmas songs written. “We need to put an album together.” I wrote a few and they were cute little ditties, but they just didn’t appeal to me for whatever reason. Nothing against a ditty, however. I like a ditty sometimes.
KMJ: Talk to me about what it’s like to work with a producer like Keith Sewell and the importance of that in the process.
DU: I’ve tried to analyze that myself sometimes. He’s just so talented. It’s such a lucky thing that we chose him to go in and do that first songwriter CD that we did. He took what I consider raw material and took the songs to a far greater level that I ever envisioned when I wrote them. His way of working is so different from any other producer that I’ve worked with over the years. I just don’t get in his way. He’s just magic that way. He gives me room to breath on the vocals. Every other person I’ve worked with really worked on my vocals. They put my voice in a higher key than I was comfortable in. It was at the top of my range. Keith is more like Owen Bradley, who I got to work with a little early in my career. He said, “Don’t go to the top of your range, your voice thins out up there. Stay in your mid to low range and that’s where your dollars are going to be.” Keith is exactly the same way. He puts my voice where it’s naturally comfortable. I don’t know, it’s just magic when we work together. And he’s fast. That first Atlantic Records album cost as much as my house. My records with Keith cost as much as my two dogs’ doghouses. (Laughter)
KMJ: How was your experience taking bluegrass to Russia this past year?
DU: It was life changing. I’d never been out of the country. I’ve never been anywhere. It’s such a small world after all. My publisher also deals in Russian art. I’ve been exposed to Russian art through him. And because of that relationship with Russian art, he’d gone over there and heard a little bluegrass group in a Mexican restaurant in Moscow. He wanted to help them and brought them over here and they became Bering Strait. Once he got them over here, he decided he needed to help them further so he formed a publishing company around Bering Strait and myself. Because I write with them, I’ve been exposed to a lot of things about Russia. But I never dreamed I’d be going over there because of bluegrass music. When I met Bering Strait, they were bluegrass and I was country. And I would have never of guessed that now things have switched and I’m bluegrass and they’re country. And there you have it.
So when we went over there, the US Government brought us over there as a form of diplomacy. The first place we played, I actually cried as much as they cried. It was such a feel-good experience. They were starved for it. We were so happy to expose them to this kind of music. Songs of mine like “Hand Me Down Home” and “Child of Great Depression” had such a connection with them. They had a really good grasp of the English language. Plus, they gave us a really good interpreter that came with us. It was amazing, the connection. I write their lives.
KMJ: Music does really transcend languages.
DU: It sure does.
KMJ: Any specific performances or experiences that stand out?
DU: We did four different venues. The first show we did, there was a horrible tragic boating or fishing accident the same day where a whole bunch of people died. In Russia, they would normally cancel the performance and everyone in the country would mourn. But because they brought us all the way over there, they let us perform our show. When I did the song “Who Will Sing For Me?,” I dedicated it to those that had lost their lives. And that was a real standout moment. They were just precious. They were so moved that we would recognize their disaster. They talked about it afterwards for a long time. But all of them had standout moments. And because they don’t have anything else to give you, they’re taking their jewelry off and giving it to you as a thank-you for moving them so much. They’re giving me jewelry and I’m turning around and giving away all my jewelry. (Laughter)
KMJ: What is bluegrass to Donna Ulisse?
DU: Bluegrass is a second chance at being an artist and a music that I honestly connect with down to my toes. It has become my life saver.
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