Together it happens for us: Life with Rick Stanley and Donna Ulisse
by Emerald Butler
Rick Stanley started songwriting at an early age. The fact that his cousins were bluegrass superstars probably didn’t hurt his early success either. Rick wrote his first song “Home in the Mountains” when he was only 15 years old. The song has gone on to be recorded by several artists including Ralph Stanley and Keith Whitley.
“Let me just say for the record,” Rick’s wife Donna Ulisse jumps in. “his first song ended up being nominated for a Grammy. He hits it out of the park at 15 years old and he didn’t know a thing about songwriting. Not the technicality; his gut just told him what to write.”
Even though Rick hit it out of the park on the first try he still looks back and realizes how lucky he got. “I’d always grown up and listened to Carter’s (Stanley) writing, so when I wrote that song I just kind of relied on all I had heard all those years. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I’d say to write a good song you need to live a bit more life to do it.” Many times, the Stanley brothers would stay over at Rick’s childhood home and Rick would ride to town with Carter. When asked what Rick would talk to Carter about if he could go back, Rick says he would talk to Carter about his songwriting.
“How did you write songs with such feeling? Where did these ideas come from? Where did the pain come from?”
“It was so obvious in his writing,” Donna jumped in. “His heart just shimmered in them.”
Rick has continued to find even more songwriting success and happiness while writing and playing with his wife singer-songwriter Donna Ulisse. The couple met at a talent show in Virginia. Donna had entered the talent show for a chance at winning $100. “I would go, and my dad would take me. I’m the only Italian daughter of a very Italian father, and he would be sitting at a table waiting for my turn and I would be staring at Rick. He was playing bass, and my dad said ‘why do you keep looking at that boy?’ and I said ‘daddy I’m going to marry that boy, and when I do I’m going to iron his pants!’ because his pants were so wrinkled. Years go by and I had started my little band and I get a call at a rehearsal. My mom said ‘there’s a guy named Rick Stanley on the phone and he would like to talk to you, and I said ‘no way!’ I freaked out. I went in there and he said ‘Donna, Kathy is moving to Nashville, would you like to be our lead female singer?’ I said yeah then went in and fired my band and joined Ricks,” Donna laughed.
Over the years, the couple has grown used to spending most of their time on the road, however, like many, this drastically changed in 2020. “Since February, we haven’t had a gig. We are just waiting for this year to get a little better,” Rick said.
“We had a songwriting workshop going on the weekend that the rumblings of a first shut down were happening,” Donna shared. “It was in March, and we all stopped on Sunday to watch the news because the president was saying that they were shutting the country down. It was frightening. The fear was like an electric bolt going through all the attendees here. It was sobering what was happening, and I don’t want to open back the workshop and have that happen again, so we are waiting for the right moment.”
“We just haven’t set a date to do that yet,” Rick added, “but we will.”
While Rick and Donna have several co-writers that they have worked with, the couple found themselves writing more together during this time. “She has a lot of co-writers and I have a few, but we’ve kind of just stayed, she and I writing.”
“Though Rick is my favorite co-writer,” Donna adds.
It’s not easy to pick, but the two shared that one of their favorites is the song “I’m Not Afraid” off of Donna’s latest album Time for Love. Notably, the song is climbing its way up the bluegrass gospel charts and it gained even more momentum in the middle of January.
“It’s a pretty uplifting and inspiring song,” Rick says.
“It’s a timely piece I think,” Donna joins in. “It seems like the time is right for it.”
The song speaks of the courage of sharing their beliefs and faith in a time where words seem to hold more and more power.
No matter what song they might be writing, what project they might be producing, or what delicious meal they might be cooking, Rick and Donna find joy in doing it all together.
“He always supported whatever I had going on like it was his thing,” Donna says of Rick. “I believe our strongest force is that we are each other’s biggest strength. It doesn’t matter who it’s for. Together, it happens for us.”