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Donna Ulisse

Hard Cry Moon – 2015 (Hadley Music Grouop)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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CDs by Donna Ulisse

Donna Ulisse has an angel's voice, evoking Dolly Parton. You can hear the influence of East Tennessee, even though she hails from the Tidewater area of Virginia. Ulisse's sound is unmistakably country bluegrass. Her songwriting chops are manifest. "Hard Cry Moon" shows she has the vocal skills to match.

The collection starts out with a cold open vocal on a train song ("Black Train"), so the listener knows where the tracks lead - right into the heart of bluegrass country. "Ain't That A Pity" starts with a lick that's more than a nod to Reno and Smiley's "Limehouse Blues," but immediately slides into an up-tempo swinging fiddle/banjo number.

Ulisse has surrounded herself with instrumentalists equal to her songwriting skills: Bryan Sutton on guitar, Scott Vestal playing banjo, Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Vestal is well-known for his work with Sam Bush, is one of the most stout and clever banjo players today. Sutton, ever ready to spin out a guitar run, also produced with a sure hand. Brent Truitt of The Steel Drivers engineered and mixed.

The featured mandolinist is Casey Campbell, a young Nashville-based session player whose wide-open style complements the songs here. "It Could Have Been The Mandolin" displays his skills admirably.

The sole cover (all the other selections are written or co-written by Ulisse) is Johnny Horton's "Whispering Pines," rendered here as soft and easy as a falling snowflake. Duncan's fiddle is especially suited to Ulisse's vocals.

The title cut, "Hard Cry Moon" is straight-out country, full-throated sadness and longing. True to the genre, "Papa's Garden" sounds a treacly note or two. Every bluegrass album seems to require a selection about dead or failing parents.

Other standouts include "We're Gonna Find A Preacher" (with Sutton playing clawhammer banjo) and "I'm In For The Long Ride." Ulisse's "Hard Cry Moon" will satisfy both country and bluegrass fans. It's that good.