Bluegrass singer/songwriter Donna Ulisse’s latest album, Hard Cry Moon is a wonderfully down-home piece of work. Dedicated to her grandfathers, one Italian, one American, she sings about her memories of these men on several of the songs here while the remainder are effectively tinted with nostalgia. Conjuring up a more innocent time Ulisse and her players (Casey Campbell, mandolin; Dennis Crouch, upright bass; Stuart Duncan, fiddle and Scott Vestal on banjo) weave together a wonderfully delicate tapestry of sounds with her voice evocative and warm. Assisting her on harmonies is husband Rick Stanley, cousin of the famed duo Carter and Ralph.
The album opens with the spritely Black Train which positively belts along in true bluegrass style with some scintillating instrumental breaks. Ulisse then delivers the first of her eulogies here with Working On the C&O describing her grandfather’s 50 years working on the railroad, initially as a “gandy dancer.” She explains this term in the liner notes and the song is a fine example of honouring and remembering a generation who worked harder than most of us could ever imagine. Her liner notes also explain her ode to her Italian “papa” who died when she was aged just seven, her abiding memories of him belonging to time spent in his well tended garden. The song, Papa’s Garden is a heart tugging piece which one could well imagine Dolly Parton singing sharing as it does Parton’s love of family narrative. In between there’s a fine song, We’re Gonna Find A Preacher which one imagines is Ulisse’s idea of romance around her grandparents’ time and which is delivered with a fine patina evoking old times, the fiddle sawing away over plinking guitar and banjo as the couple “with his daddy’s suit and my mama’s gown” plan to elope.
There’s more memories on It Could have Been The Mandolin where Ulisse sings about the joys of hearing Bluegrass on the radio while she covers Whispering Pines, a song she has long loved. Elsewhere she just delivers some excellent songs such as the very fine title song which has the makings of a classic heartbreak song. Away from the comfort of the majority of the album there’s a sense of danger on the spooky The River’s Running Free while Ain’t That A Pity is a rapid fire bluegrass workout. The album ends with the very gentle I’ll Sleep In Peace at Night with Ulisse joined on harmonies by Fayssoux McLean, a veteran of Emmylou Harris sessions.
While Hard Cry Moon is a fine example of the bluegrass Ulisse there’s space here to mention an album she slipped out earlier this year called The Songwriter In Me. Issued in conjunction with a book she’s written about her song writing it consists of demos which are in stark contrast to her fully realised projects. It’s a riveting listen and places Ulisse firmly in the tradition of singers and writers such as Diana Jones and is well worth checking out.