Donna Ulisse - Mountain Lily

Billy Blue Records


While there are many fine female vocalists in bluegrass music, few can hold a candle to Donna Ulisse. Her Virginia upbringing seeps into every note she sings, making her music instantly recognisable. Working with producers Doyle Lawson and Jerry Salley, Donna continues to celebrate her love for traditional mountain bluegrass with an emotional varied set of songs that explores the tenacity of the human spirit while creating a timeless nostalgia for the rugged beauty of her homeplace. I was fortunate to be invited into Doyle Lawson’s studio last April to see him working with Donna on mixing some of these tracks. It was quite an experience and to hear the finished result demonstrates that they all did a great job. The perfect showcase for Donna’s long-honed writing skills and crystal-clear, raw-boned vocals, it would be a mistake to consider Donna just a bluegrass performer, since she veers with aplomb into country, swing and torch-song modes, whilst maintaining her mountain-song authenticity. 

Plucky banjo picking and mournful fiddle open Ain’t No Sleepin’ In This House, the album’s first track, creating somnolent layers of sparkling sound over which Donna twines her soulful vocals as she bemoans her heartbreaking life following her partners departure. Blazing fiddles work their way into the mix as the drama builds and her emotional voice outlines her grief and rage. That’s all it needs to amaze. In contrast, the one outside song, Boudleaux Bryant’s It’s A Lovely, Lovely World, is a joy-filled love song that’s been a top 5 country hit twice over for Carl Smith (1952) and Gail Davies (1981). Donna gives the song a refreshing bluegrass-flavour that works nicely in bringing the song back to delight new audiences. She maintains the positivity with the invigorating Rollin’, which is both moving and clearly invested with some powerful memories of when her father handed her the keys to her first car, enabling the freedom she craved. With banjo and fiddle driving her down the road, we’re all along for the ride here as she follows her youthful dreams. 

With an unflinchingly honest perspective, Nothing Between You And Me has Donna grappling with dark, desolate truths of a disintegrating relationship. Donna shows off her raw emotional vocal chops to a bluesy fiddle shuffle. This is so bluntly fatalistic—in idea and execution—that it feels life-affirming to experience, as cleansing as scalding waterDespite her first-person songwriting safety zone, Donna also shows that she’s adept at singing about other people, as in the story of undying love in Where The Mountain Lillies Grow. Set to a Celtic-flavoured soundscape and despite its peppy melody, it’s filled with wistfulness and longing as a husband pines for his late wife and their wild, yet beautiful Appalachia homeplace.

Donna always features excellent religious tunes on her albums, filled with earnestness and passion, and this record is no different. A homage to her beliefs, Safe affirms Donna’s gift for writing the just-right lyrics and for delivering them in emotion-drenched vocals that float on the sonically spacious acoustic instrumentation. Indeed, a song such as this could be easily interpreted as a secular love song, or simply a paean to devotion, no matter what form it may take. She is even more direct with the glorious hymn-like My Constant Saviour, which sounds like a church favourite of many decades standing, yet is a new creation co-written with Taylor Amos and is the perfect way to close this enticing album.


February 2024