Born in Hampton Virginia and surrounded by a musical family, Donna made her first appearance singing at the tender age of three when she wandered onto the stage with a bluegrass band and broke out into “Take This Hammer”. From that moment until now, there has never been any doubt that she would be creating music. She worked in a local western swing band where she met and married Rick Stanley, being fully indoctrinated into a bluegrass family when Rick’s cousin Ralph Stanley, along with the Clinch Mountain Boys performed at their wedding reception.
In the 1980’s Donna moved to Nashville and stayed busy singing demos for publishers and writers. She has had a busy life as a respected vocalist behind the scenes with her first session as a young background singer on a Jerry Reed album and finding out at the last minute that Reed preferred to sing around the mic with the singers. It was a wonderfully unnerving experience for the young Ulisse. When renowned country songwriter and producer Glenn Sutton was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, it was Ulisse who was called upon to sing some of his hits recorded by Tammy Wynette and Lynn Anderson for the who’s who of the music industry and she brought the house down. Fans still remember her as an artist on Atlantic Records where she was signed and released the album “Trouble At The Door” in 1991. The album had three singles and two videos. During this time she appeared on the network TV show “Hot Country Nights,” was a guest on “Hee Haw,” “Nashville Now” and “Crook and Chase”.
After Donna’s deal on Atlantic Records ended, she turned her attention to songwriting. In time her publisher noticed that when she wrote alone, the songs generally took on a bluegrass feel that was vocally authentic when she sang the demos. The company decided to record a project of these tunes and start a label around this effort which became her 2007 CD release, “When I Look Back.” The CD has been enthusiastically received by radio and fans. As her first bluegrass release was gaining momentum, Ulisse stayed busy doing some select dates and focused on making sure she was writing enough new tunes for a follow-up CD at the request of her label. She went back in the studio with producer Keith Sewell in March of 2008 to start the recording process once again with the final result being “Walk This Mountain Down,” a new collection of self-penned tunes with an all-star cast of players and guests.
Acoustic Guitar: Keith Sewell
Dobro: Rob Ickes
Mandolin & Fiddle:Andy Leftwich
Upright Bass: Byron House
Banjo: Scott Vestal
Claire Lynch, Rick Stanley, Curtis Wright, Jerry Salley, Wendy Buckner Sewell and Keith Sewell
1.“With Walk This Mountain Down, Donna Ulisse establishes herself as one of the most commanding voices in bluegrass music. She wrote or co-wrote every song on the album (a bravura performance in its own right), and she sings them with a wistful, otherworldly beauty that rolls back time.”
—Edward Morris, CMT.com
2.“Donna apparently doesn't know the meaning of the dreaded "sophomore slump," because she's hit this one out of the park and into the next county. Her voice is lush, compelling, full of emotion and never fails to drop the listener dead in his or her tracks. Her songs are thoughtful, tough and hard-hitting. "Levi Stone" is as haunting, true to life and backwoodsy as they come. Her gospel songs are hopeful, buoyant and full of joy. "Everything Has Changed," "The Key" and "Walk This Mountain Down" are destined to become gospel classics. The arrangements, augmented by some superlative pickin', really do her material justice, giving it a real punchy bluegrass sound with just a hint of country every now and then. I also especially enjoyed "Dust to Dust," "Lovin' Every Minute," "In My Wildest Dreams" and catchy "Trouble With You." If this project doesn't elevate Donna into bluegrass super-stardom, I don't know what will. It's a "10" on the high lonesome Richter scale!”
―Dave Higgs, National Public Radio, Nashville, TN
host of nationally syndicated show “Bluegrass Breakdown”
3. "Music is an amazing thing- at once a treasure, a healer and sometimes, a connector between generations. A close friend of mine lost her father recently. It was a loss that was predetermined by doctors over a terrible illness. With only a few months left with her dad, she spent hours upon hours with him in his final weeks and developed an amazing and deeper connection with him with his love of bluegrass music. It was a style of music that she had flirted with liking (she's a big fan of Alison Krauss & Union Station), but in those final days, bluegrass became the blanket of memories that by which will carry on her father's memories and legacy forever. It was the soundtrack of his life, the soundtrack at his service- and most importantly, will trigger an emotional trigger in my friend for all of her days each time she hears a mandolin, dobro or fiddle picked.
It was with this mindset that I sat down to listen to the new Donna Ulisse album Walk This Mountain Down being released today- January 20, 2008. This second album for Ulisse is a star-studded bluegrass effort. Produced by Keith Sewell. it includes an all-star cast of players including, Andy Leftwitch, Byron House and Rob Ickes. Walk the Mountain Down is a gorgeous effort from start to finish and should establish Ulisse as a key player in the bluegrass genre.
It is the final song on this album that is easily worth the purchase price of the album, however. "Levi Stone" is the darkest, most equally eloquent haunting and stirring bluegrass story song that I have heard in many years- possibly ever. Its lyrics are moving and it is set to a sound that makes the listener shut out the world and turn an ear to the speaker with concern that you might miss something. It's an exceptional song that rises above everything else on a good album:
"Levi Stone lived by the gospel
He taught his child to do the same
So when his son took sick that winter
He knew he'd be fine once springtime came
The boy grew weaker by the hour
But Levi Stone never lost faith
He told his wife no county doctor
Quit your cryin' woman, kneel down and pray
Papa, please, a drink of water
Wipe the fever from my brow
Tell these angels all around me
They need to put me down
Papa, you tell them I'm in God's hands now"
And so it goes with the sound of bluegrass. The beauty of music- and most certainly bluegrass- is that it speaks from the heart and whispers to the soul. Any album can wow you with amazing pickin', and great harmonies- but it's the really great ones that transport you to another place and time and deliver a flood of emotion. Donna Ulisse's Walk This Mountain Down moved me- if you have a heart and a soul- it will move you too."
-Ken Morton, Jr.
4. Faith & Love, Those Tricky Little Devils
"If anyone is poised for a breakout year in bluegrass in '09 it's Donna Ulisse, who could hardly have helped herself more than she does on the Keith Sewell-produced Walk This Mountain Down. For starters she's got a baker's dozen of finely crafted songs to present her, all of which she either wrote or co-wrote, her main collaborators on the co-writes being Marti Rossi and Rick Stanley. Next, take a look at her backing band: Sewell himself is handling acoustic guitar chores; Andy Leftwich is on fiddle and mandolin; Scott Vestal is on banjo; Byron House on upright bass; and Rob Ickes on dobro. The New York Yankees should be so lucky as to afford a team like this, equivalent as it is of the famed Murderer's Row lineup of pinstripe lore. Fans will hear echoes of Rhonda Vincent in Ulisse's keening high lonesome attack and especially in her sturdy belting and crooning, but that's mere coloration; the heart pumping vitality and emotional commitment through her every phrase is that of a singular artist on her way to putting some distance between herself and her contemporaries.
You don't have to wait long to realize you're breathing rare air in Ulisse's presence. The album kicks off with a brisk affirmation of the power of imagination and will, "In My Wildest Dreams," which in and of itself is a seldom-voiced topic in contemporary music anymore. As the band sprints along behind her, Ulisse lays out a scenario in which she envisions all things possible, all dreams achieved, freedom at hand, for however long she stays in her dream state, as Leftwich fashions a delicate, open-hearted mandolin solo around her vivid, poetic images, all rendered with palpable feeling by way of Ulisse using her full vocal range to shade the lyrics with extra feeling. It's one of those sit-up-and-take-notice moments, and Ulisse runs with it, never coasting as the record unfolds with dramatic conviction and a panoramic worldview. A disappointing love affair, recounted in the foreboding "Dust to Dust," is seen not as an isolated event but rather in the context of human history, likening she and her lover's failure to Adam and Eve being "thrown out of paradise," and finally accepting her fate in full knowledge that, ultimately, "we're made out of dust/and to dust we shall return"--although she does take a moment to allow herself a flash of anger at the man who spurned her love. In this context, the beautiful heartache of "Love's Crazy Train," a song acknowledging--and accepting--the unpredictable nature of love, seems like a postscript to "Dust to Dust," in the singer's willingness to get on board again, even knowing the ultimate destination may be inaccessible. The gentle thump and insouciant swagger of "The Trouble With You" is a nice bit of word play on Ulisse's part, the title referring not to any deficiency on her paramour's part, but instead to his irresistible good looks, which other women have a habit of noticing. Ulisse plays up the humor in the song, puts on an attitude of mock-outrage, and as Ickes constructs a flashy, discursive dobro solo at fadeout, she re-enters to add, "The trouble with you/is you play the dobro." Well put, indeed. Later, in "Lovin' Every Minute," she will melt a listener's heart with the tenderness of her expressions of love for one who "believed in me/and never once lost faith/and helped me live with my mistakes." This one has the hallmarks of a classic country love song in its taut, economical lyrics and plainspoken sentiments of devotion and personal fulfillment, and the music supporting these utterances is similarly restrained but soulful, with a beautiful balance in textures as the dobro, banjo and mandolin rise up from the ensemble mix to curl around the melody, adding precisely the right dollop of extra emotional shading as a backdrop to Ulisse's heartfelt musings.
However much Ulisse may view love as a roll of the dice, she never wavers in her trust in God's love. In her gospel numbers she extols the strength and peace of mind her faith has brought to her in this world, in her day to day life, rather than focusing on the promise of eternal life once her time on earth is through-before you can anticipate the great beyond you have to make it right on terra firma, y'know. The high strutting gospel number, "Walk This Mountain Down," which happens to offer another of many spectacular showcases for Rob Ickes's expressive dobro commentary on this album, finds Ulisse recounting her mother's wisdom in counseling her to put her faith in God as the solid foundation on which you can lean in hard times. "The Key" sings of the earthly rewards accruing to those who are strong in faith and in their love of Jesus--"the door to Heaven is not hidden in a dark and secret place...open up your heart and find amazing Grace/the door to Heaven's never locked up to anyone/all it takes is faith to keep the gates wide open" pretty much sums up Ulisse's philosophy on this matter, and she sings it with the certainty of one whose experience has confirmed its certainty; out of the ensemble mix pulsating behind Ulisse, both Leftwich and Vestal, on mandolin and banjo, respectively, make striking instrumental statements of their own. A rustic banjo lick from Vestal kicks off "Everything Has Changed," a prelude to Ulisse entering to proclaim the change that's come over her since accepting Jesus into her life. In the choruses Ulisse is joined in southern gospel quartet harmony by Sewell, Curtis Wright and Rick Stanley, their voices swelling and finally breaking into a hallelujah moment as the song, which seems even shorter than its listed 2:49 length, trots to a buoyant climax.
The album ends on a spectacular note, in the dark, haunting, four-minute story song, "Levi Stone." A man who "lived by the gospel" and "taught his son the same," Levi refuses to seek medical help when his son falls ill, certain that the Lord will provide and thus oblivious to his wife's pleas to call for a doctor. When the dying boy speaks from his deathbed, in the chorus, Ulisse, with Keith Sewell and Claire Lynch providing a silky background chorus, sings in a soft, pleading voice: "Papa, please, a drink of water/wipe the fever from my brown/tell these angels all around me/they need to put me down/papa, you tell them I'm in God's hands now." Sixteen years later Levi is alone, first his son, then his wife, having gone to the grave, leaving him alone and haunted by the memory of his son's final plea as he himself becomes a living corpse. And so Donna Ulisse leaves us to puzzle out this matter of faith and when our reliance on it becomes destructive. She's told us, in three other songs here, of the bountiful wonders faith can work in a person's life. Is "Levi Stone," then, meant as a cautionary tale, another reminder that the practical application of faith must not overrule common sense? What if common sense, as most of us would define it, is something different for men like Levi Stone? Or, for that matter, for men like Job? Who or what is at fault then? One question begets another, and so does each answer. Some may feel Ulisse has sucker-punched them with "Levi Stone," that it undermines the convictions of her other gospel songs, but others may view it from the larger perspective of faith not being reduced to simple homilies but being a complex undertaking as a day-to-day matter, a constant questioning and testing process. Levi Stone seems not to have come out whole from blindly trusting in the Word. When you walk this mountain down, what will you find at the end of your own journey?" --