by Susan Marquez
The past year has been full of high highs and low lows
for Donna Ulisse. Her new album released on November 1, 2019 was on the heels of a serious illness that put her in the hospital. “But I’m still here,” she laughs. “And I am hoping for big things this year.”
Billy Blue Records signed the 2018 SPBGMA Songwriter of the Year (she was the recipient of the same honor from the IBMA in 2016) in March 2019. She signed as both a recording artist for her bluegrass and Gospel music and as a songwriter for the newly formed Billy Blue Publishing Company. Top recording bluegrass artists have recorded Donna’s songs, including Doyle Lawson, Volume Five, Claire Lynch, and Larry Stephenson. She and her husband, Rick Stanley, teach classes at Lil House in Lebanon, Tennessee along with fellow songwriter Jerry Salley. “We’ve had several cuts from the workshop released, including one that is number one that hit number one on the Gospel charts,” says Ulisse. “Our little songwriting workshop is paying off for everybody!”
In September, Donna sat on panels at the International Bluegrass Association World of Bluegrass conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. “On the final panel, they had to bring in extra chairs!” Music journalist/songwriter David Morris moderated the panel featuring top bluegrass songwriters. On the stage with Donna was Jerry Salley, who won Songwriter of the Year for the second year in a row, and Jim Lauderdale. They delved into the dynamics of songwriting, especially when it comes to collaborating.
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing songs,” laughs Donna. “I started writing around the fourth grade and I’ve never stopped!” The Hampton, Virginia native says she loved growing up on the east coast. “I loved the water, so that was something I missed when I moved to Nashville, but I’ve been in Tennessee for 32 years now—longer than I lived in Virginia!”
Her career grew organically. Her family loved music. Donna’s great uncle was a friend of the great Ray Edenton, who played on many important country music albums from 1953 through his retirement in 1991. Edenton is in the Studio Musician Hall of Fame at RCA Studio B. “He knew my parents, and when I was ten or 11, we went to Nashville to cut a demo. Chip Young, the producer, told my parents we needed to move to Nashville.”
Donna became a staple on country music shows
and was a featured guest on RFD-TV’s Simply Bluegrass show hosted by Ricky Skaggs. She also did a month-long stint in 2016 as host of Bluegrass Ridge, a video television show on Heartland TV network, which has several of her videos in regular rotation.
“I loved country, but my father-in-law begged me to get into bluegrass. I’m glad I did.” Ulisse thought bluegrass would be easy. “It sounds simple, but it’s really very difficult. I like that challenge.” The new record, A Time for Love, was produced by Doyle Lawson. “I think it’s the best record I’ve ever done,” says Donna. “It’s no doubt a God thing.”
Working at Billy Blue is a reunion of sorts with one of her long-time writing partners. “My first number one record was a song I co-wrote with Jerry Salley, and he is one of my dearest friends.” It Could Have Been the Mandolin stayed at the top of the Bluegrass Unlimited chart for two months. Co-writers and teachers together at Lil House Songwriting Workshops, Jerry is now in an artist/record label relationship with Donna. Before she could start promoting it, Donna had a bit of a health scare. “I got a cold from flying on a plane that developed into pneumonia. That led to pleurisy, then to sepsis. On October 10, my hero-husband had to rush me to the emergency room because I was really sick.” The experience left her with permanent nerve damage in her left ear. “They say it will take sixty days for my blood to regenerate.”
That health scare took her off the road for a bit, which was difficult for Donna,but allowed her to again focus on songwriting.
“I am enjoying being with Billy Blue Publishing. They have writing rooms like those on 16th Avenue in Nashville.”