One of my very favorite parts of this crazy wonderful gig is the opportunity to meet and follow important and excellent artists who aren’t stars but who have given their lives to the music and who have solid long-term careers because of their commitment. They are the hard-working, resilient journeymen and journeywomen who reach audiences at a personal level, serve the legacy and who may, at any time, hit a wave and make a mark on the big mainstream culture. We never know. This week at Roots features two women who’ve made an impression on me as artists, writers, self-starters and people. One works in the idiom of bluegrass. The other has evolved from country/folk to a deep commitment to blues and soul.
From the land of bluegrass and its blurry edges into traditional country music comes Donna Ulisse, a Nashville based artist whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for going on ten years. In that time, she’s gone from re-booting her life and career around bluegrass music (after an early foray in major label country) to being an industry leader. In 2016 she was named IBMA Songwriter of the Year and just this September her composition “I Am A Drifter” won IBMA Song of the Year. Nevertheless, I’ve felt like her work as a recording artist has gone underestimated, though perhaps that’s changing too. She was picked up by the influential Mountain Home Music company in Western NC and her new Breakin’ Easy album, produced by the legendary Doyle Lawson, is performing well on the bluegrass airplay charts. Doyle says this about the artist: “Donna is a dynamic vocalist with what I call 'that sparkle' one listens for, and it matches her personality perfectly." That’s how we felt the last time Donna played Roots in 2013, when I noted that “she’s pure without being a purist, and that’s an impressive line to walk.”
Also defining the striving career and hard earned respect is Nashville transplant Amy Black. Amy debuted on MCR in July 2011 when we described her as a “Boston folk singer” though that may have underplayed the bluesy southern tones in her music. She’d released her debut album One Time which had core sounds in Bonnie Raitt blues terrain, plus a clear Joan Baez vibrato, adding enough fiddles and dobro to keep it country. That night she shared the bill with the Bo-Keys, the retro Memphis band led by bass player/producer Scott Bomar and including members of the Hi Rhythm Section. Did Amy Black have any idea that night that six years later she’d be working in Memphis with the some of those same guys and Scott Bomar producing her on a classic-style soul album? No, because she says exactly that in the video bio for her new project Memphis. We’ve really been able to watch Amy’s evolution from bold voiced folk singer to the blues and soul artist she is today. She calls where she’s landed her “sweet spot” and the tracks on Memphis are sweet indeed. She’s got color and drama and commitment. And seven original songs sit easily with catalog covers from Otis Clay, Bobby Blue Bland and others.
Rounding out the bill, two newcomers from a more rock and roll side of the music world whom we’ll be discovering together, unless of course you’re already on the Guthrie Brown or Hanna Fairlight train. Brown has recently been opening a bunch of shows for guitar slinger Johnny Lang, so that’s impressive. In reverse chronology he’s also worked with super producer Jaquire King, landed a publishing deal with BMG, won the love of Lightning 100, opened shows for Willie Nelson and Robert Randolph and moved to Music City from Montana. The last item might seem like the least difficult, but it was the thing that set this whole promising career in motion. Guthrie makes tuneful, well crafted pop rock and he’s just getting started. Meanwhile songwriter/artist Hannah Fairlight promises something “something completely different and hard to categorize” in her official bio. Other mentions: influence of Bowie and Patti Smith, history at CBGBs in New York and leather pants. Sounds loud and stylish.
Our artists work hard so you can take a break. Hope you can take a load off on this Autumn night.