Thursday, April 3, 2014

Dinner and Rehearsal at Donna's

We've followed and been friends with Donna Ulisse since soon after her first bluegrass CD, As I look Back, followed by Walk This Mountain Down, was released six years ago. I interviewed her and an article was published in Bluegrass Unilimited. We've enjoyed her company at many festivals and our annual visits to IBMA's World of Bluegrass where she has been an active participant as a performer as well as a speaker on panels and a regular vendor in the exhibit hall. When we've been in Nashville, we've met with and enjoyed meals with Donna and her husband Rick Stanley. We've considered her a friend and always looked forward to seeing her.

Donna Ulisse
Donna Ulisse's journey from having been brought to Nashville on a two record deal as a country singer, being dropped by her label and then developing herself as a singer/songwriter in Nashville has been a lesson in persistence, hard work, talent, and building on her skills to create a career while adding new skills to her already considerable strengths. She has worked as a demo singer, backup singer, and contract song writer. Convinced by Keith Sewell she should make her own recording, she entered the bluegrass world with both trepidation and courage. The success of her recording career has led to five more albums, some bluegrass and a couple of gospel albums. It has also led to a flourishing performance career at increasingly prestigious venues capped by opening with her band The Poor Mountain Boys for The Seldom Scene at the Birchmere on New Year's Eve. Throughout this ride, Donna has consistently remained fresh faced and enthusiastic while fashioning a new and exciting career. 

 In our bluegrass journey, we have had many opportunities not often afforded to most fans. We've been to people's studios, traveled to a variety of venues, and met some of the most wonderful people we've ever known. Being invited into their homes, however, remains a rare and valued event. Getting to attend a rehearsal, perhaps the most risky and potentially tension-filled of times short of an actual recording session, is even rarer. To be invited to an at-home meal and rehearsal at Donna Ulisse's home was, therefore, anticipated as a valued and treasured time...and so it was.

We drove south of Nashville to a suburban neighborhood, arriving (early) to find Donna at the stove finishing up her dinner. She had promised an Italian feast to celebrate her shared heritage with Irene, whose maternal grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 20th century. Her dinner of pasta and chicken in a rich sauce exceeded all expectations! Soon, husband Rick Stanley (a cousin of Dr. Ralph's) came home, and was followed by other members of the band. Donna feeds the band every Tuesday before a several hour rehearsal. The dogs, Molly and Tenbrooks (both rescue dogs) frisked around, greeting old friends in the house while making two new ones.

Somehow, I managed not to have my camera out to take pictures of the meal Donna served us. Penne, chicken in a delicious sauce, garlic bread, salad, a few alternative adult beverages...what a way to get a busy group of bandsmen to reliably come to a rehearsal. After a leisurely time eating and joking, the instruments came out and rehearsal began.

Rick Stanley

Rick Stanley, second cousin to Carter and Ralph, has fond memories of their staying at his family home when he was a child. He had to give up his bunk bed for Carter and Ralph to sleep on a pallet on the floor in the same room, and remembers them picking music together on those visits. At age fifteen, Rick wrote "Home in the Mountains," which Ralph recorded and Keith Whitley sang. The song has been covered many times. It was included on the Stanley Tradition tribute album, sung by Charlie Sizemore and more recently included on Doctors Orders by Don Rigsby, Donna says she now calls Rick "The Standard." Married for thirty years, Rick and Donna are co-writers and best friends, as well as husband and wife.

Tony King

 Tony King  played guitar with Brooks and Dunn for 16 years, but says bluegrass and flatpicking are his first love. He played guitar and sang with JD Crowe and the New South from 1983 until 1986.   As acoustic rhythm guitarist and background vocalist for Brooks and Dunn, Tony also wrote or co-wrote a number of songs recorded by the duo. Some of Tony’s other writing efforts have landed hits for Rhonda Vincent, Barbara Fairchild, and Ricky Van Shelton, who took his song “I’ve Cried My Last Tear For You” to #1 on all three charts, as well as being the #1 song of 1990 on the Billboard Chart. King has performed on The Tonight Show, Letterman, the ACM’s, the CMA’s, Grammies, American Music Awards, Nashville Now, and Austin City Limits. He's been playing with Donna Ulisse and the Poor Mountain Boys for several years.

Bill Baldock

Bill Baldock grew up in Cincinnati, OH, just across the Ohio River from his native Kentucky. He learned guitar and old-time banjo from his grandfather, as a child, and formed a band with some teachers from his high school as well as starting several other local bands, teaching and doing instrument repairs for several music stores in area. Later, he joined the Wood Brothers band, which played at King's Island, WWVA Jamboree, as well as traveling on Department of Defense tours around the world. Since re-locating to Nashville in 1988, Bill has played on television, at the Grand Old Opry, Ernest Tubb's Midnight Jamboree, and was regularly featured at the Opryland Hotel. He worked at Gruhn Guitar on their repair staff and joined Mike Scott's All-American band, touring widely during the nineties. He left Gruhn in order to found his own music store. He currently is the featured bass player in the Poor Mountain Boys. He plays all the string instruments in many different styles, making him an excellent fit for Donna Ulisse's band.

John Martin
John Martin, raised in Concord, VA says, "I started playing guitar when I was 12. When I was about sixteen years old, my cousin introduced me to the music of Tony Rice, and everything changed. That's when I started playing bluegrass, paying real close attention to bands such as Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, The Seldom Scene, JD Crowe & the New South, and the Bluegrass Album Band, and, of course, Tony Rice. Fast forward to about twelve years ago, when I started playing mandolin. About six years ago I heard a song by Donna Ulisse on WSM radio. As soon as I got to my computer, I went to her website and sent her an email to introduce myself, asking her to keep me in mind if she ever needed a mandolin player. She did and here I am, playing for one of the best singer/songwriters in the business and having a ball."

After supper, everyone drifted into the living room, picked up their instruments and, almost without direction, the band began to work on several songs. Donna would suggest a change, "I hear something like this on that phrase." Tony or John would musically suggest a couple of different ways to kick off a tune. Bill sang a solo. Donna wasn't quite happy with the way a verse went, and they ran over it several times until the band was in a groove that sounded right to all the members. Rick and Donna, who have been singing together for thirty years, ran through several passages, and Rick sang through "The Roving Gambler" to start working it up. There was lots of good humor as mistakes were ironed out, false starts done over, as a sense of a structured, purposeful jam pervaded the room. It was work, but work all the participants seemed happy to be engaged in together.

Greg (Papaw) Davis, John Martin & Tony King

Donna & Rick Work as One

Donna, Rick, and Bill Baldock

Greg, Tenbrooks, and John Work it Out

Molly Grooves on the Sounds

Just Part of an Ordinary Musical Evening

Most of Donna's seven CD's in the past six years have consisted of songs she's written combined with enough traditional bluegrass and gospel standards to provide an air of familiarity to her increasingly large audience. Meanwhile, she writes every day, working by herself and co-writing with many luminaries of the Nashville songwriting community. The Butler Brothers, one of her songs, written with Jerry Salley,  was included in the Grammy Award winning CD The Streets of Baltimore by the Del McCoury Band. Meanwhile, in her spare time, Donna has written a just published published book.

Written as a memoir of her development as a song writer and a guide to her approaches for aspiring song writers, it has just been released on Amazon. In the book, she discusses her own development, suggests ways to think about writing songs, encourages her readers to approach the work with courage and playfulness, and provides some exercises to kick start novice writers. The Songwriter in Me: Snapshots of My Creative Process (Hadley Music Grooup: Perfect Paperback, 2014, 156 Pages, $19.95) is currently available through

It was a rare pleasure for us to spend the evening with Donna Ulisse, her husband Rick Stanley and the other members of the Poor Mountain Boys. We look forward to seeing them on the road this summer. Meanwhile, I have to get going on reading her book.