Donna Ulisse hs just released her brand new bluegrass album Hard Cry Moon. We are so honored to be able to catch up with her for this exclusive interview where she shares her thoughts about her brand new release, bluegrass and Christian bluegrass music.
Signed to Atlantic Records in 1991, she released her debut album, Trouble at the Door, that year and two singles which charted on the Billboard [Hot Country Singles & Tracks] chart. She appeared on national TV shows Hee Haw, Nashville Now. Crook & Chase, and NBC's Hot Country Nights. In 2007, Ulisse returned to recording, and released her ninth bluegrass album in September of 2015 on the independent label Hadley Music Group. Her bluegrass albums have all charted impressively in the Folk DJ charts, Bluegrass Unlimited Charts, Bluegrass Today chart and Euro Americana chart.
Ulisse's songwriting has earned her 4 IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Songwriter Of The Year nominations and in 2014 she published her first book titled "The Songwriter in Me: Snapshots of My Creative Process". As a songwriter, she has had songs recorded by Claire Lynch, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Larry Stephenson Band, Nu-Blu, Louise Mosrie, Natasha Borzilova, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, The Bankesters, The Larry Stephenson Band, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers to name a few . She also co-wrote the song "Butler Brothers" which was on the 2014 Grammy winning bluegrass album by Del McCoury Band
Hallels: Thanks Donna for taking the time to answer these questions. You started first as a country artist in the 90s. How were you signed to Atlantic Nashville Records?
Well, this is an interesting story. I was busy doing demo recordings for songwriters here in Nashville. One morning as I was frantically trying to get out the door for a 10:00 a.m. recording session my home phone started ringing. I almost didn't pick the phone up as I was running a little late. At the last minute I did and a voice on the other end said, "You don't know me, my name is Dale Morris and I'm listening to a demo you did for one of my writers. I would like for you to come to my office today, I want to talk with you about something."
My husband Rick came around the corner as I was talking and mouthed, "Who is it?"...I mouthed back, "Dale Morris". Rick put one hand on his heart and the other hand was waving in the air as he mouthed, "do NOT hang that phone up!" Rick knew what I did not, that Dale was the manager of country super-group Alabama! After telling Dale we would be right over I sheepishly called the studio I was supposed to be at to tell them that I couldn't make it and we made the trip downtown to music row.
After a very short introduction and meeting Dale came right to the point. He said if I would sign management with him he would have me a major record deal the same day. Part of me thought it was just too good to be true but the truth was that I had nothing to lose so I shook his hand and we had a deal. Rick and I got back in our car and heading back down interstate 65 on our way to Goodlettsville where we lived. We walked in the door and our phone was ringing and again it was Dale at the other end telling me that he just talked with the head of Atlantic Records and I was being signed immediately and just like that, I was! It was a fairytale beginning for me.
Hallels: Though I have lost my copy, but I used to love your country album "Trouble at the Door." I used to listen to the CD alot. Do you still listen to that album from time to time? What do you of that album now?
You know, I haven't heard it in years. I have some sadness about how it all ended for me and it makes revisiting that time a little tough for me. I know that you can still get a used copy on eBay from time to time but it's been out of print for years. With my success in the bluegrass world my old Atlantic CDs are becoming scarce as folks are snapping them up.
Hallels: Then you took some time off, before you re-emerged as a bluegrass artist. Why bluegrass music?
These days I'm wondering what took me so long to get to the bluegrass arena. I am so happy and at home here where my voice can rest against acoustic instrumentation. My husband comes from a very famous bluegrass family, The Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph. So I married into bluegrass royalty so to speak. After my deal ended on Atlantic Records, I was offered a publishing deal as a songwriter at Hadley Music Group and I turned my focus to becoming the best songwriter I can possibly become. My publisher noticed that when I wrote alone, I naturally wrote with a very Appalachian/grassy influence and with her suggestion, I recorded an album of my songs with a bluegrass group of musicians, including guitarist Keith Sewell who ended up producing my first several records. Between my husband's love for this music and my father-in-law's dogged determination that I give it I try, I caved in and started singing it live. My publisher decided to ship that first album, When I Look Back, to radio (it was originally recorded for me to sell at songwriting in the round nights here in Nashville) and the rest is history!
Hallels: You also released some bluegrass Christian music too. Tell us more about your Christian releases?
I write a lot of spiritual music, it's part of what makes up my world. I love God and I love writing about my love for God. My hopes are that I write in a universal enough way to include lots of believers. When I perform my gospel music live I feel a real connection to my Savior and my audience and they in turn feel the same thing. It's a miracle every time. The album Holy Waters is an album I have described as my own spiritual journey. The album I Am a Child of God is a gospel compilation of gospel songs I had included on other CDs besides Holy Waters that I felt were often overlooked as the gospel track on the album so my label put out a compilation of those songs. I added one new song and that is the old hymn "This is My Father's World" and was thrilled to have The Isaacs sing harmonies with me.
Probably what I am proudest of writing is my Christmas album All The Way To Bethlehem. I had this vision of writing the greatest story ever told, the story of Christ's birth, from the point of view of all the characters involved in the story; Mary's cousin Elisabeth, Joseph, a duet with Mary and Joseph, the innkeeper, even the star! Each song came from reading a particular scripture, I did a lot of research. My uncle is a theologian and I was on the phone with him multiple times during the writing sessions with my co-writers. My record label also did a companion songbook to go with the album which thrilled me. When the band and I do the Christmas show live, we perform the album from top to bottom in the order it is on the album and the band members share the scripture that inspired each song and then I talk a bit about what I was thinking and feeling as the lyric came to be. It's a very special show. I have many people tell me they listen to the album on Christmas Eve from start to finish because it is as if they are going on the journey with Mary and Joseph. That just warms my heart when I hear that.
Hallels: What prompted you to return to a bluegrass album now with "Hard Cry Moon"?
Bluegrass is my home now and I plan on contributing to this genre until I'm too old to sing anymore. Hard Cry Moon is my 9th CD in bluegrass and each time I feel like we raise the bar. This is a great project produced by guitar virtuoso Bryan Sutton and I am thrilled to be able to share it with everyone.
Hallels: One of my favorite songs off the new record is "Papa's Garden." Is the song autobiographical of your dad? From your liner notes, it's obvious your dad and granddad were very important to you, tell us more about them.
Papa's Garden is actually about my father's father. I called my grandfather "Papa". He was the sweetest little Italian man and unfortunately he died when I was only 7 years old. He packed so many fond memories into my 7 years, enough to carry me through adulthood. The days spent running through his beautiful garden with all my cousins are some of my sweetest memories. There is another song on the album I wrote about my maternal grandfather who worked for the C & O Railroad all of his life. The song is titled "Workin' On The C & O". Family is so important to me and I have been blessed with many loving figures who had such an influence on who I am today and it gives me a deep well of material to draw from when writing songs.
Hallels: What were some of the highlights in the making of "Hard Cry Moon"?
One of my favorite parts was that the owner of our publishing company flew into Nashville from Minnesota and got to be in the studio for part of the recording of this project. His name is Doug Johnson and his constant support has allowed me this career. I will forever be grateful. Another highlight was getting to once again work with the talents of Bryan Sutton. He is a joy to make music with. Working with Stuart Duncan on fiddle was a real treat also. Stuart and I used to work many demo sessions when I was singing demo sessions for publishers around town so it was a real treat to record with him again. He has gone on to do some amazing things like the Goat Rodeo Sessions which included cellist Yo-Yo Ma. I would be remiss if I didn't mention my husband and his gorgeous voice. I feel like Rick Stanley helped create the sound that has become Donna Ulisse. He is my hero.
Hallels: What's next on your agenda? Any thoughts of recording a country album again?
Actually, I feel like I have the best of all worlds right where I am. By writing the way that I write and singing the way that I sing I feel like I get to present my brand of country/bluegrass. It's a kinder market and the only place you can find the country music I love.
Hallels: For our readers who would like to find out more about you or your new music, where can they go?
I hope you will all come visit my website at donnaulisse.com. You can find my music at Amazon.com, iTunes.com, CDBaby, County Sales and my website. I also have written a book about songwriting called The Songwriter In Me: Snapshops of My Creative Process which is available on iBooks, Kindle Books and Amazon.com.