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When you break it all down,

it’s the magic of family that makes her world go around...


By: Gina Kay Singerhouse



   It’s a cool crisp fall morning and the sun has just shone it’s beautiful warm face over the horizon.  It’s rays glitter off of the icy design that Jack Frost gracefully painted upon the trees, grass and plants of Mother Earth.

   A chill slowly crawls up her spine as she thinks about the forthcoming winter.  She reaches for her favorite mug and pours herself a cup of hot steamy coffee.  She sits at her kitchen table with her steaming mug in hand.

   It’s the silence of the morning that captures her soul.  She loves watching the world come alive in her back yard as the birds, squirrels and rabbits gather their food for the day.  She unwittingly stares out her windows to view the hustle and bustle taking place in the back yard.  It’s another beautiful day in Tennessee.

   Winter will soon be upon us and she must get her gardens ready for the forthcoming season.  As she takes another sip of her hot coffee, her thoughts subconsciously return to her childhood days.  In her mind’s eye she is able to return to her childhood and all the wonderful time spent in her Papa’s garden. 

   She may have only been six or seven years old, but Papa’s garden was magical.  In the heart of the garden was a pear tree in all it’s glory.  It stood in the center as if it were a castle watching over it’s realm.  Her mouth waters just thinking about the sweet tasty pears that she picked to eat, off of that old tree.

   She can still feel the soft dirt upon her bare feet as she ran through Papa’s garden, while playing with her cousins.  Nothing is more precious than a child’s imagination and theirs ran wild in that garden.  There were dragons to slay upon the vegetables and there were damsels in distress under the fig trees.  The plum, crab apple, apple and peach trees became markets to gather for meals that were made into pretend pies and dinners within houses made of hay. Alice’s wonderland had nothing compared to her Papa’s garden.

   Her thoughts return to the present as she takes another sip of her hot coffee.  Oh how she wishes she could bring the magic of Papa’s garden to her garden. The magic is long gone, but still lives deep within her heart and soul.  If only she could share that magic with the world! The world will never know the magic created by her Italian Grandfather, or will it?


   Deep within our hearts and somewhere in our memories we all have locked away the magic we possessed as children.  Many of us store it away to revisit on another day, while others lock it away never to be seen or felt ever again.

   Bluegrass singer / songwriter Donna Ulisse captured the magic of her childhood in a new song called “Papa’s Garden.”

   “It was magical.  See Italians have this unique idea that everybody needs to live on a compound, sort of. So my Papa had the main house and then there was like - in my little girl head - it seemed like a hundred acres. But it was probably like ten acres. The garden was just this huge, probably at least a half an acre.” shares Donna.  “The pear tree was right in the center of the garden. He was a true Italian, he had fruit trees all over his land. There were fig trees and plum trees and peach trees and a crab apple tree and whatever kind of apples.  But in the center of the garden, there stood a lone tree and it was the best pears.  I still have not tasted the likes to this day of what those pears tasted like.  Then he planted his whole garden around, kind of circular around this pear tree.  Then on the parameters of that he took his tractor and dragged a great big [dirt] bicycle race track.  So my Grandfather had this magical place that he really loved all his grandkids.  Oh I left this part out - then he gave each of his children an acre, surrounding that farm and everybody built their homes there.  So I grew up next to all my cousins and there were like twenty-some of us. I mean there was a bunch of cousins! So we never lacked for a playmate.  And that garden is where we all - like on one side of it he had a huge grapevine archway thing - just run up under there and squash grapes and birds are all loud. It was just this magical place that we played and ran and that’s where we grew up in Papa’s garden.  It was fun!”

   Donna captures the magic created by her Grandfather in her new song “Papa’s Garden.” This simple, easy and gentle song takes the listener on a journey of how a seed planted in a child’s heart can emerge into a tree as an adult.

   On September 25th, Donna Ulisse released her new album Hard Cry Moon.  The album features a delightful array of twelve magical songs. “Papa’s Garden” is the first of many songs taken from this outstanding album to hit our list of Top Songs of 2015, while earning a nomination for the Spirit Award’s Song of The Year Award.

   The magic of family does not stop with just this one song. Donna continues to share her childhood and stories of family in others...

   “He was a stoic fella in one sense and then in another - he was one of the best story tellers I’ve known in my life and probably where I get my yen to tell a story. He would giggle. He would like to tell funny stories and he had this little giggle.  So, the only time I had ever heard him giggle was while he was telling his stories. ‘Cause he had a serious edge for the most part. Then he liked to regale people with stories from the past.” shares Donna with praise.  “He loved the railroad.  I think one of the saddest times I’ve ever known was when they made him retire. It’s one of the two times I ever saw him cry, my granddaddy.  That’s very hard to watch.  To me he was this little mountain and it broke his heart when they made him retire.  It was fifty years off of something that he lived and breathed and loved.  When I got ready to do this song, I wanted to write a song about my granddaddy and his love for the C & O Railroad. I have an elderly uncle, my Granddaddy’s oldest son, and I called my uncle Junior and I said ‘can you tell me’ - Granddaddy would take me down to the Richmond Railroad station all the time.  The train station was terribly exciting ‘cause when he had his desk job I got to go on occasion and sit in his office and stuff and hear those big trains coming by and he’d bring me out there and introduce me to the engineers and all that stuff.  I was little than so it was very overwhelming and those trains looked so huge! Anyway I was asking Uncle Junior, ‘cause I was too little to ask a lot of questions so I don’t know really what he did?  Then he mentions the word ‘gandy dancer.’  He said well your Grandfather was a gandy dancer.  I thought ‘what in the world is a gandy dancer?’ I said I’ve never heard that term in my life and he said that's what they used to call what he did and it was like the most basic of the laborers on the railroad line. They would have to get together as a group like twelve or fifteen of them and they would put this huge rail in between their legs and they would have to step in line like the Army [in cadence].  So they would do this song and they would lift this rail and basically walk it over to where it needs to be laid and it was very hard labor and they were very heavy.  They would have to shore ‘em up with stone and sand and dirt to get ‘em to be even. That’s what he did for years and years. So it was kind of finding this whole new chapter of my Grandfather that he worked so hard.”

  Donna captures the heart and soul of her maternal Grandfather, Lloyd Butler, in her song “Workin’ On The C & O.”  It’s the whimsical chorus in this song that captures the listener’s attention.

   Out of the twelve cuts on this album, Donna has written or co-wrote eleven. In each of her albums she tends to capture some aspect of the Clinch mountains and one of the many stories about her mother-in-law who lives there.  There is no exception to this hidden rule of Donna’s as she includes another song taken from the region of the Clinch mountains in a well narrative song in “The River’s Runnin’ Free.”

   “Brace yourself, it’s a true story.” explains Donna. “My mother-in-law has had some amazing experiences. She’s fought some real tigers in this world.  She’s eighty-four years old and stays up in that little mountain cabin by herself. She’s just this really strong woman that I would love to have any part of her be part of me because she just knows how to survive and she’s just a crackerjack.  She has this little sister that lives around the bend from her.  It’s sort of parallel from her mountain cabin, but there’s this big mountain in between. She goes up there and sits with her little older sister and they snap beans and do all those beautiful things.  I’ve seen them do it a million times. 

   Where her sister’s porch is, there is this little river or creek or whatever they call it. There’s a steep embankment than there’s some water and it’s fast moving and all very steep and it’s all on her land.  They see a little smoke coming from down there by the river and Gusty is looking at my mother-in-law and said ‘Well that’s odd. I wonder what that’s about?’ And about that time they see a guy coming up the land and they recognize him as a neighbor that lives way on down the hollar. He’s a young fella and he had gotten married a year before that. He’s on their property and there’s smoke coming from down by the water. Instantly my mother-in-law knew it was wrong, it was danger. She recognized it, smelled it, looked it - it was danger. She said ‘don’t come any farther. Don’t take another step.’ She said he was acting weird.  He had a stick and he was just going ‘I was just seeing what you ladies were up to today.’ She said ‘what do you need?’ He said ‘well I would like a glass of water’ and takes another step.  She said ‘we’ll get the water’ and just instinctively she leaves Gusty on the porch as this guy is still trying to approach her and goes in and calls the sheriff.  She comes out with the water and he had killed his wife and cut her up into pieces and he was down there by the river trying to burn her. So it’s a true story!”

   Donna captures a touch of her niece, who recently got married, in “We’re Gonna Find A Preacher.”  Performed as a duet in a classic bluegrass feel with a beautiful fiddle accent, this song speaks about a couple in love who want to marry, however, their families do not give their blessings to the union.  This is the second song on this incredible album to hit our list of Top Songs of 2015.

   One of the most entertaining songs on the album is also classified as the debut single release from it.  “It Could Have Been The Mandolin” is performed as a classic country ditty.  This song is another that will hit our list of Top Songs of 2015 as it reminds us that we generally fall in love while listening to a particular song that touches our soul.  Donna released a very mischievous video to this song and can be viewed on our website.

   Donna slows it down with the title cut.  Based on a story of a friend of hers, this honest ballad speaks about the difficulties of dealing with a break up and a broken heart.
   The final song to hit our list of Top Songs of 2015 from this album is a beautiful ballad called “As Long As We’re Together.”  Written by Donna and her husband Rick Stanley, this song will also be added to our list of songs perfect for any wedding as it captures the truth about being married to the love of your life.

   “Oh yes, this is our theme!” laughs Donna.  “We wrote this one together.  We go grocery shopping together.  I love grocery shopping so much more when we are doing that together. Everything is better when we’re together, even the hard times. That’s basically what this song is all about.  We’ve been broke a lot in our life.  We’ve been up, we’ve been down, but we’ve always been together.”

   “As long as we’re together...” adds Rick Stanley.

   The album also includes “Ain’t That A Pity,” “I’m In For A Long Ride,” and “Whispering Pines.”  The album opens with “Black Train,” a song in which Donna ingeniously uses a train as an euphemism to that of someone walking away from a bad relationship.

   The album closes with “I’ll Sleep In Peace At Night.”  Performed as a soft lullaby, Donna could not end this extraordinary album in a more effective and perfect way.

   “My favorite song, it’s so hard to pick a favorite.  It’s probably not going to be the radio favorite for everyone on this CD, but it’s my heart and soul.”  kindly shares Donna.  “It’s the last cut on the cd and it’s called ‘I Will Sleep In Peace At Night.’ It’s autobiographical.  It is me. I’m always messing up and that’s okay. Because I have a God and a Christ that forgives me. I’m thankful everyday of my life for my beliefs and for my faith. I couldn’t breathe without it. So I wanted to put this on the album to make it surreal.”

   There is no ‘messing up’ when it comes to this album.  It was so hard to choose which songs, from this list, to include in our list of Top Songs of 2015.  Each of the songs are beautiful and graceful in how Donna is able to capture the characters, the elements and the lifeblood that makes her who she is today.  It’s because of that reason we have to pull the entire album and nominate it for the Spirit Award’s Album of The Year Award.  There is no argument that this is the best album to come out of the Bluegrass and Country Music genres in 2015!  My only complaint is the title - for I believe that it should have been given the name of The Magic of Family.

   Her heart warms at the memory of those magical childhood days running through Papa’s garden.  Her cup is now dry and she must start her day.  She gets up from the table and heads to the sink to rinse her mug out.  She is startled by the touch of her husband as he walked up behind her to embrace her with a loving and warm hug.

   It was a seed of magic that her Papa planted deep inside her so many years ago and it’s the seed of love that her husband has watered deep inside her heart.  But when you break it all down, it’s the magic of family that makes her world go around.


(This article was printed in the November / December 2015 issue of Strictly Country Magazine.)

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