A celebrated songwriter with multiple International Bluegrass Music Association nominations in recent years, Virginian Donna Ulisse mixes it up on her new project with a collection of covers pulled from her favorite songs. Showin’ My Roots, Donna’s sixth album in seven years, digs deep into the catalogs of Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and others while serving up recast versions of classic songs.
Though Donna did write the title-track as well as the autobiographical closer “I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On,” Showin’ My Roots is all about honoring those that came before her and offering fans a firsthand look at her influences. Name-checking Dolly and Merle in the title track, Showin’ My Roots does an excellent job delivering on the promise of its title. The Dolly/Hag-hybrid “In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad” (Dolly wrote it, but Donna does Haggard’s version) and the Rodney Crowell-penned “One Way Rider” offer different perspectives on country and bluegrass. While the former is a ¾-time ballad, the latter moves at breakneck speed with racing banjo and a vocal cadence designed to increase the urgency. Donna sings in the moment and with conviction while relishing the chance to portray characters like those in a pair of Loretta Lynn classics: 1968’s tough-girl “Fist City” and 1976’s “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight).” Better move your feet if you don’t wanna eat a meal that’s called Fist City, she sings with a hint of glee at the entertaining bad-girl persona. While selections like this and the biting Tammy Wynette tune “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” go down well with the help of a strong traditional bluegrass arrangement, the project’s gems are those with family ties.
With album notes that describe the significance of each song, works like “Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus” and “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On” take on substantial meaning. The mid-tempo prayer “Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus” is the only song Donna ever heard her father sing while the other is one her family often sang together. Including these, as well as the dark and seedy “I Hope You Have Learned” (a 1954 Bill Monroe duet Donna’s uncle Gene “Curly” Butler co-wrote), weaves an even deeper connection into the project. Choices like these offer Donna the chance to showcase the music in her blood as well as the standards she heard growing up.
An excellent cast of musicians joins Donna for the project. In addition to her husband, Rick Stanley, providing harmony vocals throughout, players include Viktor Krauss on upright bass and album co-producer Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar. The chemistry is strong and songs like “How Mountain Girls Can Love” show off a band that knows how to play off each other. Noted bluegrass musician Sam Bush joins Donna in harmony on the traditional working class number “Take This Hammer.”
Showin’ My Roots, available now, continues a prolific stretch for the bluegrass artist as Donna has released one new project per year since 2009. However, by picking to cover some of her favorites in addition to sharing those that are the most personal, Donna gives fans a rare opportunity to learn more about her past and musical loves with a meaningful and unique set.
Key Tracks – “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight),” “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” “I Hope You Have Learned,” “Wait A Little Longer Please Jesus”