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Donna Ulisse

Breakin' Easy – 2017 (Mountain Home)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Donna Ulisse

After a brief fling at major label success in the early 1990s, Donna Ulisse ("yoo-LISS-see") settled into a Nashville career as a well-respected songwriter and session singer, and didn't go back into the studio on her own until 2007 when she released the first of nine albums on the Hadley Music label before signing up for this go-round with Mountain Home, a North Carolina-based label which has become a major player in the bluegrass business over the past few years.

Ten of the dozen tracks on this new solo disc were written or co-written by Ulisse, five of them with her husband of more than three decades, Rick Stanley (who, for those keeping score in these things, is a cousin of bluegrass pioneers Carter and Ralph Stanley, and also contributes backup vocals), and she once again displays a her knack for writing tunes that range from breezy and lighthearted ("Without Trouble Please" and "Made For Each Other") to contemplative and introspective ("Drive This Cold Out Of Me" and "Where My Mind Can Find Some Rest").

Though she's mostly known as a vocalist for her bluegrass work (she tours with her own band, the Poor Boys), Ulisse's voice is one that defies labeling or classification, and pigeonholing her as a "bluegrass singer" doesn't give justice to her versatility. It's a voice that is rich and resonant, and her phrasing and intonation are thoroughly professional in a way that suggests she would be artistically successful in pretty much any genre she put her mind to. The best example of this comes on "'Til I Fin'lly Let Go," written with Stanley. Like the rest of the album, the arrangement is basic bluegrass, but the addition of a pedal steel backdrop gives Ulisse the space to turn it into a classic country tear-jerker, and she wrings every ounce of feeling out of it. It's a real keeper, but then, there aren't really any throwaways on this album. From front to back, it's well thought-out and executed.