It all started with a conversation around the fire. Donna Ulisse and her bluegrass troupe, the Poor Mountain Boys, were in Arkansas to perform when the promoter shared an intriguing story about the land in Bethlehem where Jesus was born on Christmas night. Inspired by the events of the evening, Donna quickly gave voice to the Virgin Mary and the reluctant innkeeper with a song detailing the storied exchange.
Full of gorgeous acoustic melodies and an engaging narrative, “You Can Not Stay Here,” became the first song written for Donna’s Christmas album, All the Way to Bethlehem. The project, produced by Keith Sewell and in stores now, delivers a fine collection of traditional bluegrass bringing the nativity scene to life over the course of eleven songs. Playing out as a concept album telling the story of Mary, Joseph and the birth of Christ, All the Way to Bethlehem works hard to reveal the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters behind the Christmas holiday.
All the Way to Bethlehem is an acoustic album, full of pure tones that allow plenty of room for Donna’s voice to transform during the story. Backed by a seasoned group of musicians that include Viktor Krauss (Lyle Lovett), Byron House (Robert Plant’s Band of Joy) and John Mock (James Taylor, Kathy Mattea), the exquisite musicianship eases through each turn to match Donna’s natural delivery.
Donna wrote or co-wrote every song on the project and her connection to the material runs deep. With the ability to take on each song’s individual feeling, Donna oftentimes moves between gentle and dramatic. On the ¾-time, “You Will Be Delivered,” her command is strong in the voice of the Angel Gabriel reassuring Mary. What you can’t understand, Mary / Leave this in God’s hands, sung over a comforting Appalachian folk melody. On the mysterious, “Let The World Wait For A Little While,” which uses rich acoustic guitars surrounded by warm fiddle, Donna strikes a vulnerable note, singing, Let your mother hold you close until morning, knowing that she must give her newborn son to the world. With a pensive tone from Joseph’s perspective, “He’s Not Mine,” is delicate and thoughtful as the lines, I want to honor you / I want to stand by you / so you don’t go through this alone, come through with profound understanding.
Though most songs are conversational, Donna includes only one duet. Rick Stanley, who provides backup vocals and harmonies throughout the project, takes the role of Joseph on the bouncing title-track. The dynamic is nice, though it does bring attention to the overall lack of duets despite the number of characters in the story. However, the decision to include a single duet seems to be the right move as we’re left to wonder just how chaotic the stories would become if the characters were all voiced by different singers.
The magic of All the Way to Bethlehem lies in its intuitive storytelling and ability to change perspectives. On the back third of the album, “He Is Here,” opens with a peaceful guitar line that traces Donna’s gentle vocal before the next song, “I’m Gonna Shine,” forms from the thought of a star relishing the opportunity to light the way to a new king. “We’ve Come To Worship Him” then vividly details the three kings’ journey with a rambling banjo line.
It’s not only the individual songs, but how the overall story unfolds that makes this project so special. On All the Way to Bethlehem, Donna creates a rich and lasting collection that started with a story and ends after a journey.
Key Tracks – “He Is Here,” “I’m Gonna Shine,” “You Will Be Delivered,” “He’s Not Mine”