The story of former major label country artists like Donna Ulisse can sometimes feel redundant.
In the span of a few short years, Ulisse moved to Nashville, found work as a demo singer, signed a major label record deal, released an album, and saw her record deal dissolve as quickly as it came.
In many cases, that is where the story would end, but that doesn’t even come close to telling Ulisse’s story; those were a few stops on a journey that has led her to release 11 albums in the last 12 years, win multiple awards for her artistry and songwriting, and most recently, debut at number 3 on Billboard’s Bluegrass album chart with her new album Time For Love.
However, before the record deal, albums and awards, Ulisse was growing up in Hampton, Virginia, developing a love and appreciation for legendary country singer/songwriters.
“My greatest influences were artists like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Carter Stanley,” says Ulisse “At the time, I didn’t realize why I loved those types of artists. It wasn’t until I was old enough to look at the songwriters; they were the writers on the songs that made them stars.”
Ulisse began to forge her own path by taking the stage at her family’s restaurant at just nine years-old.
“I just instinctively knew that music was my path,” says Ulisse. “My dad bought a little restaurant/nightclub, so I was on stage at a very young age, and it always felt like it was where I was supposed to be. I was singing songs like “When the Man of the House Is Not At Home” by Loretta Lynn at nine years old on the stage. I can’t imagine what the audience thought, but that’s what I was doing.”
As she continued to hone her craft and expand her horizons, Ulisse began traveling to Nashville with her soon-to-be husband Rick Stanley, who insisted she give her musical dreams a chance, and took unprecedented measures to allow them to come true.
“I was commuting back and forth from Virginia Beach to Nashville. I remember one time when Rick and I went to town, he said if I really wanted to pursue music, I really needed to live in Nashville,” says Ulisse. “I went off to record demos one day, and when I came back, Rick and our friend Ray Edenton were giggling. I asked what they were laughing about, and they said they put money down on an apartment for us in Nashville. In my heart, I didn’t think I was ready to make that move, but they made it for me.”
Stanley says while their early years in Nashville were a struggle, they never considered vacating their dreams.
“Those early years were hard,” says Stanley. “We came from an area where we were kings of the club scene in Norfolk, Virginia to a place where we were considered a dime-a-dozen. Sometimes we were hanging by a thread financially until the tides started to turn. The one thing we never considered was giving up.”
After experiencing her own array of emotions immediately following their move, Ulisse began to find steady work as a demo singer, and started forging new grounds as a background singer.
“I think I cried every day for the first month that we were in Nashville. I didn’t know how we were going to make it, but I was confident we were going to,” says Ulisse. “One day, my producer called and said he was at the studio recording with an artist, and that one of the female background singers had gotten sick, and he thought it was a part I could do. I told him I’d never done background in my life, but he convinced me to come down there.
“I was afraid I was going to mess up. I got to the studio, and the artist I was singing background for was Jerry Reed. They told me that they wanted me to sing a 6, a 2, and a 4. I didn’t know the number system, and Jerry knew I was nervous. He just looked at me and said not to be nervous, and that he was going to sing there with me. He sang in the same mic as me. I sang with Jerry Reed’s spit flying all over my face, and I couldn’t have been happier,” Ulisse adds with a laugh.
For the next two years, Ulisse was singing up to four demo sessions per day. As she was preparing to leave for a session one morning, she received a phone call that would set off a quick series of events that led to a big break in Nashville.
“One day, Rick was in the shower, and I was about to leave for a 10 a.m. session. I was going to be a little late, and then the phone rang. I was going to run out the door because I didn’t have time to answer it, but I figured it might be more demo work, so I stopped and answered the phone,” says Ulisse. “A voice on the other end of the phone said ‘My name is Dale Morris. You probably don’t know me;’ because I was in a hurry, I kind of cut him off and said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I don’t know you, Mr. Morris. Is this about music?’ He asked if I could be in his office at 1 p.m. that day. I was about to turn him down because I’ve been given the ‘I’m going to make you a star’ spiel a dozen times.”
Before she denied Morris, Stanley asked who she was talking to, and instructed her not to hang up.
“After all the hard work and heartache of trying to survive the town of Nashville, my first reaction was ‘YES,’” says Stanley. “Donna was finally getting the opportunity to make her mark.”
Ulisse accepted Morris’s invitation, and within a few hours, she was a major label artist.
“When I got to Dale’s office, he told me that he had heard my voice on demos, and that it blew him away,” says Ulisse. “He said if I shook his hand, he would have me a major deal by 3 p.m. Everything in me wanted to sarcastically say, ‘Sure you will,’ but he looked really serious, so I shook his hand,” says Ulisse. “We walked out of his office at 2, and it took about 45 minutes to get home. As we were walking into our apartment, our phone was ringing. I picked it up, and it was Dale telling me that he had just gotten me a deal with Atlantic Records. I fell on the floor. It doesn’t happen like that, but it did for us.”
Ulisse quickly found herself in the studio working with producer Josh Leo, who had produced albums for Alabama, Crystal Gale, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and remembers feeling pressure from Leo’s intense studio persona.
“He was more stern than folks that I had worked with before. The first thing he told me was that Randy Owen from Alabama sang with the tracks, so he expected me to do the same,” says Ulisse. “I didn’t know he would rehearse the band about 50 times before he wanted to do the real take, so 50 times, I sang as hard as I could sing, and by the time we got to the real take, I was tired.”
Leo instructed Ulisse to go home, take a nap, and come back when she was ready.
“In my head, I heard ‘you’re terrible,’” says Ulisse. “I got back in the car with Rick, and I cried all the way back home. I’ll never forget how afraid I was. I came back three hours later, and in one take, we got the vocal for ‘Guess Who’s Back in Town.’”
Ulisse and Leo recorded three tracks together before Ray Baker, who had produced hit albums for George Strait, Merle Haggard, and Connie Smith, was brought in to finish the album. On October 29, 1991, Ulisse’s debut album for Atlantic Records, Trouble At The Door, was released. Baker remembers being very happy with the finished product.
“I was very pleased with all that we had done in the studio, and believed whole-heartedly in the record we had made,” says Baker. “I was hoping the record company had those same impressions. At that point, it was up to them.”
The label released the album’s lead single, “Things Are Mostly Fine” in late 1991, allowing Ulisse and Stanley to finally hear one of her songs on the radio after the hard work they had put in to establish themselves in Nashville.
“I remember that moment like it was yesterday. Rick and I had flown home for a record release party with family and the label. On the way there, I heard the DJ come on and say ‘She’s here! She’s in town, and this is her brand new single.’ We had to pull the car over on the bridge, and Rick and I were both bawling like babies. It was a big moment.”
Stanley recalls the same shock and excitement upon hearing the beginning of the song.
“I heard an intro to a song and knew I knew it, and it dawned on me that it was Donna’s song,” says Stanley. “I almost drove off the bridge. I was so excited. We stopped the car and listened like we had never heard it before.”
“Things Are Mostly Fine” stalled at number 75 on the charts, and was followed by two more singles, “When Was the Last Time,” which peaked at number 66, and “Trouble at the Door,” which failed to chart. Baker lists record company politics as a major reason why Ulisse was not having success at radio.
“The promotion and efforts put forth by a record company are very difficult when trying to break a new artist at the radio level. Airplay is vital,” says Baker. “There’s only so much room for records in a playlist at the radio level, and of course, the radio station is pushing ads that pay their bills. The result unfortunately is the station is more likely to play a new record by an established artist as opposed to a newcomer. Unless that record can be played enough times to attract some listener response, it often falls short.”
Undeterred, Ulisse was in the middle of promoting the single “Trouble At The Door” on Dick Clark’s television show Hot Country Nights in Los Angeles when her record deal unraveled as quickly as it came.
“I was on the show with Merle Haggard and Crystal Gayle, and I was feeling like I had finally made it. The next morning, an independent promoter called me from Nashville and asked if everything was okay at Atlantic Records. I said everything was great, because they had recently called for a second album, and we were seeking songs for it. The promoter told me that I should give the label a call,” says Ulisse. “They didn’t even take my call. I called Dale Morris; he told me it was a long story, but I didn’t have anything to worry about. After our call, he had gotten in a fight with the label about the attention I wasn’t getting, and he said that if they couldn’t give it to me there, then he would put me on RCA Records, and the label said ‘Okay.’ As quick as getting signed happened, that’s how quick I was unsigned.”
Josh Leo, then head of Artist and Repertoire for RCA Records had told Morris that the label would love to sign Ulisse. However, as she was set to sign her deal, it quickly fell apart.
“I really didn’t think there was anything to worry about, I was going to be signing with RCA Records,” says Ulisse. “The same day that I was going over to put my signature on the contract with RCA, they fired Josh Leo. I had been in town for a while, so I knew how hard record deals were to get and how coveted they were. I thought that my chance had been blown. The next six months were probably the darkest point of my life.”
Stanley recalls seeing Ulisse’s pain and trying to help her through it.
“It was so hard to watch her pain, doubts, and all the hard stuff that comes with loss and not be able to fix it for her,” says Stanley. “I felt helpless at times, but tried to remind her that she was more than an Atlantic record deal. It was really tough.”
Soon after her record deal expired, a demo Ulisse had recorded landed on the desk of Arista Records, which was home to Alan Jackson, Steve Wariner, and Pam Tillis, and the label called Ulisse’s manager.
“Tim DuBois from Arista said that he loved my singing and had known of me for a long time, but said I should be a songwriter, because I would find my voice in my own writing,” says Ulisse. “When they told me that, in my head, it computed to not being good enough to be an artist. It broke my heart all over again. It’s like I went through the whole Atlantic experience again.”
Though feeling defeated, Ulisse began to focus on her songwriting, and found herself being drawn to a bluegrass sound, drawn partially from her musical influences, and partially from Stanley’s deep family roots in bluegrass music.
“My songwriting had a little bit of an Appalachian sound. I think that’s from the influence that Dolly and Loretta had on me,” says Ulisse. “Rick is from a big mountain family. I was planning our wedding, and he said that he wanted to have some of his cousins sing at the wedding. I asked which cousins he was talking about, and he said Ralph Stanley. When I heard him start singing, I immediately loved it and I asked Rick what it was, and he just said, ‘That’s bluegrass.’’’
Stanley, who had been constantly urged by his father to have Ulisse record bluegrass music, warmed to the idea after hearing her sing with his family of bluegrass legends.
“My dad was a cousin to Ralph and Carter, and he was also a fiddle player,” says Stanley. “Anytime we went for a visit, my dad would break out his fiddle and old Martin guitar, and the three of us would sing old Stanley Brothers songs. That’s when I heard what Donna’s voice sounded like with acoustic music, and I thought that my dad might be right.”
Ulisse began taking her songs to writers’ rounds, and with the help of her manager, Kathy Sacra-Anderson, went into the studio to record demoes to be made available at writers’ rounds.
“Kathy has been such a great champion of my music. She said that I should go into the studio with all the mountain-y songs that I was writing,” says Ulisse. “After we started the first song, it was like a NASCAR race from there. I didn’t catch my breath until the 14th song ended. I’ve never been a part of anything like it. I called Rick afterward weeping saying that I didn’t believe what I was in the midst of, but that it was the best music I’ve ever been a part of.”
“We were just going to do it as a limited pressing, just to have something at writers’ nights,” Sacra-Anderson adds. “Keith Sewell, who produced the recordings, was telling me when we finished that we should send the songs to bluegrass radio. It just kind of took off from there. They immediately started playing ‘I’m Calling Heaven Down.’”
When the album was released as When I Look Back in 2007, it featured another song, “I Want To Grow Old With You,” that also quickly gained traction, along with several thousand streams across digital platforms.
“I was over the moon when that album started gaining steam,” says Sacra-Anderson. “DJs would email me their playlists, and Donna and I were surprised they were playing it. To know that her voice was being heard on the radio again was so exciting. It was something that I had dreamed to happen for her again.”
Continuing to build a name for herself in bluegrass, Ulisse released seven albums in the eight years following When I Look Back before the release of Hard Cry Moon, an album that topped the Roots Music Report chart, and included the single “It Could Have Been the Mandolin,” which topped the Bluegrass Unlimited chart for two months, something Ulisse calls a great source of validation after the journey she had been on to that point.
“That validated all of the grieving, giving up things, and finding my soul in a song. It meant that I was finally where I was always supposed to be,” says Ulisse. “Sometimes the journey isn’t so illuminated; sometimes it takes walking it the hard way, and it seems like that’s the way I had to go about it.”
Hard Cry Moon’s success also validated Sacra-Anderson, who points to the level of talent in bluegrass music.
“Everything up to that point had been a building block,” says Sacra-Anderson. “You can say charts don’t mean anything, but it was gratifying to see our hard work pay off and how well-received it was by people in the bluegrass community. It’s humbling because you know how much music is out there that’s equally as good.”
Recognition continued to roll in when Ulisse won the 2016 International Bluegrass Music Association’s Songwriter of the Year, followed by Song of the Year in 2017 for writing “I Am A Drifter,” recorded by Volume Five.
“That meant more than a person could imagine,” says Ulisse. “The top of the mountain is when they call your name for the Songwriter of the Year award. I didn’t recognize my name. Rick just propelled me towards the stage, and I stood up like a deer in headlights. I hadn’t even come up with the speech. I was in shock.”
Ulisse kept the good times rolling into 2019, with a new record deal with Billy Blue Records and a new album, Time For Love, which debuted at number three on Billboard’s bluegrass chart. Jerry Salley, the creative director at Billy Blue Records and an award-winning artist and songwriter in his own right says signing Ulisse was a no-brainer.
“I have always loved Donna’s voice and songwriting, but her character and work ethic makes her a perfect fit for Billy Blue Records,” says Salley. “We are going to keep the label pretty small, and there is a certain ‘personality’ we want our label to have. We are a family, but unlike real-life families, we get to pick who will be a part of ours! I am very picky about the kind of artists I sign. There are a lot of great singers out there, but I’m looking for artists who have ‘the whole package,’ and Donna is definitely one of those artists. Our friendship and knowing the kind of person she is made it a no-brainer for me.”
International Bluegrass Hall of Famer Doyle Lawson produced Time For Love. Ulisse says that along with Ray Baker, who co-produced Trouble at the Door, Lawson gets her and who she is as an artist more than anoyone she has worked with. Lawson credits the excitement he feels about Donna’s music allows that connection to happen.
“Personally, I don’t think that I could be a producer with no input as to which artist I would be working with. I am better suited to produce someone whose music excites me when I hear them. Donna is such a great writer who has the ability to immerse herself in the context of each song,” says Lawson. “As a producer, I am content to let the artist be themselves and give them guidance and advice when it’s needed.”
Together, Lawson and Salley decided to release “I’ll Never Find Another You” as the lead single off of Time For Love, feeling that Ulisse’s delivery of the classic song made it a perfect first single.
“Once the album was mixed and mastered, Doyle and I both listened intently for days trying to decide on a first single. The truth is, we both believe there are multiple hit singles on Time For Love,” says Salley. “When we started comparing notes, we thought ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’ would be a great single out of the gate for several reasons. One big reason is the timelessness and the familiarity of the song [it was a pop hit in 1964 for The Seekers and then a hit again for country music hall of famer Sonny James in 1967]. This is the first time it has been recorded as a bluegrass song, and the arrangement is just stellar, giving Donna’s beautiful voice a chance to really shine. You believe the lyrics when you hear her personal delivery and interpretation of the song.”
Ulisse says she hopes listeners can see “that a good song can make you feel something” after listening through Time For Love; something Salley seconds, as well as hoping listeners connect with the theme of “love” throughout the album.
“All great songs should make you feel ‘something;’ sad or happy, make you laugh or cry, some kind of emotion, even if it simply just puts a smile on your face!” says Salley. “Donna is one of the very best songwriters in any genre, and knows how to create and deliver a great song. Time For Love is full of those kind of songs. To be honest, my initial personal reaction after listening through the entire album for the first time was ‘Thank you Donna for making me look like a genius for signing you!’ The theme of ‘love’ is something everyone can relate to, and I think everyone can relate their own personal journey to each song in some way.”
As 2019 comes to a close, so does year 28 since the release of Trouble at the Door. Ray Baker, who co-producer that album, says Ulisse has found home and thrived in bluegrass because of her ability to write, perform, and connect with her songs.
“Donna ‘feels’ the music she’s making, and after all, making music is all about the feel and how it makes others feel when they hear it,” says Baker. “Donna is one of my favorite people to have ever worked with. She’s a great artist, talented writer and a beautiful person.”
Along with her connection to her music, Sacra-Anderson notes Ulisse’s connection to her fans as a major factor of her three decade career in music.
She’s just very real. She really cares about people,” says Sacra-Anderson. “She often meets people at her merch table who have just lost a spouse or child or have a serious illness, and it stays with her. She will come home and tell me how she met a couple who shared some of their troubles with her and how bad she felt for them and how she is still thinking of them.
Lawson adds that Ulisse’s writing and performance has allowed her to connect with listeners and fans over the years.
“I refer to Donna’s ability as a writer and vocalist, and her warm, open and sincere demeanor on and off stage plays a huge part in her longevity!” says Lawson.
Stanley says Ulisse’s dedication has allowed her continue to find success, and adds that he has enjoyed their journey together in music.
“I think it’s the dedication she has for her craft; performing, songwriting, teaching, she just doesn’t rest,” says Stanley. “When it comes down to it, Donna and I have been able to live our dream, which is a blessing because not everyone gets to experience that.”
Ulisse says that although her musical journey may not quite have unraveled how she envisioned, she has enjoyed the ride nonetheless.
“I’m happy,” says Ulisse. “I know that sometimes your life doesn’t turn out like you dream it will. I don’t know that I dreamed this exact life; I think it has exceeded my dreams, and it’s just bizarre that it happened the way it did, but it’s true.”
*Images courtesy of Kathy Sacra-Anderson and Donna Ulisse*