Prime Cuts: Papa's Garden, It Could Have Been the Mandolin, As Long As We're Together
Listening to Donna Ulisse's new album "Hard Cry Moon" is like stepping into a 3-D diary. As soon as the music starts with "Black Train," we find ourselves waiting by the railway tracks with a forlorn wife bidding farewell to her erring husband, leaving behind the lights of home to begin life again in another zip code. Then we get to step into the thrilling pages of a blossoming romance ("We're Gonna Find a Preacher") and then spend an idyllic afternoon sitting under the shade of Papa's tree ("Papa's Garden"). Never one who can be faulted for writing two dimensional narratives, Ulisse has a way of engaging our ears, our eyes, and our hearts conterminously with her tales, often spun with utmost perspicuity and with heartfelt realism. After a series of bluegrass Gospel records and a country covers album, Ulisse has returned to her first love: bluegrass music. As she succinctly puts it best in the song "It Could Have Been the Mandolin:" "It could have been the mandolin, 'cause bluegrass always stirs my soul."
Though Ulisse is bluegrass music's treasure, she did not start off singing bluegrass. In 1991, her first dabble in commercial music was with country when Atlantic Nashville Records released one of the most criminally overlooked efforts "Trouble at the Door." Though now out of print, the record contains some of country music's finest gems including "Things Are Mostly Fine," "Legend in My Heart" and "My Broken Heart's Breaking All Over Town." Six years after being disillusioned by Nashville, Ulisse decided to listen to her heart's calling. Teaming up with her husband Rick Stanley, they began dabbling in their first foray into bluegrass music with the release of 2007's "When I Look Back." And when the bluegrass community heard of Stanley's involvement, they began warming up to Ulisse. This is because Rick Stanley is the cousin of bluegrass immortals Ralph and Carter Stanley. Ever since, Ulisse has been a bluegrass music's mainstay, perennially churning out some of the finest music for the genre.
Save for the traditional "Whispering Pines," all of the tracks on "Hard Cry Moon," come by way of Ulisse's pen, which she sometimes shares with her hubby Stanley, Marc Rossi, and Jerry Salley. While many bluegrass records pay too much attention to the virtuoso playings at the expense of the songs' melodic structures, this is not the case here. "It Could Have Been the Mandolin" and "Ain't that a Pity" are ear-grabbing masterpieces. They are catchy romps with infectious choruses that make us want to sing along to and tap our feet to their incessant and driving rhythms. "The River's Runnin' Free" is to be singled out for Rossi and Ulisse's attention paid to details. With picturesque words that doesn't just describe but paints with vivid images, "The River's Running Free" describes a baptism service by a river. Though it recalls Carrie Underwood's #1 smash "Something in the Water," Ulisse's vivid depictions win by a wide margin.
The ballads here are soul churners and they are not to be missed. The title cut "Hard Cry Moon" is an emotionally tortured piece about a broken heart. While "As Long You're Together" is not an airy-eyed fairy tale romantic flick. Rather, it's about a love that still chooses to persevere after all the warts and pains. In "Papa's Garden," Ulisse not only takes us for a tour around her papa's orchard, she draws out from the garden heart enriching metaphors. Don't let the gentle strums of "I'll Sleep in Peace Tonight" side track us from the song's mammoth message of how Jesus Christ renews us each day with His grace. In short, do your soul, your ears, and your eyes some good by giving this disc a spin. Our souls and our imaginations are so much richer as a result of "Hard Cry Moon."