Critically praised and popular bluegrass vocalist and songwriter Donna Ulisse’s first album with a new record label, Breakin’ Easy, (Mountain Home Music) finds this monumentally talented singer working with producer and bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson. The partnership results in what, on initial listen, shapes up as one of the most formidable roots music releases to emerge in the last decade or more. There isn’t a single track of filler to be heard amongst Breakin’ Easy’s dozen tracks and she moves fluidly from bluegrass to a classic country sound brimming with confidence throughout. Ulisse’s songwriting often features a number of musical and lyrical turns that are torn straight from the pages of country music fundamentals 101 and often flirts with a dark sense of humor that never fails to be clever. This is a worthwhile release for anyone who follows roots music and the Americana scene, but Ulisse is the sort of talent whose appeal reaches beyond genre.
The lightly exultant bounce pushing “Without Trouble Please” bubbles over with hope and life-affirming energy. It’s a nice contrast with a lyric depicting longing for good times instead of enduring life’s struggles and Ulisse electrifies her singing with the same hopeful bent. She tempers her approach some on the album’s second song “Back Home Feelin’ Again” and definitely captures the retro sound of classic bluegrass without ever seeming to strain self-consciously. There’s great warmth coming off this track and the natural, relaxed performance style is surely a reason why. Lovely steel guitar fills color “Drive This Cold Out of Me” and the easy amble of the arrangement gives it a luxurious, languid quality. Ulisse handles the classic country sound with every bit as much self assurance as she does the bluegrass tunes. “A Little Past Lonely” underscores that last point with an affecting and lightly theatrical take on country music fueled heartache. It makes great use of vocal harmonies to heighten the song’s emotional impact.
The good-natured shuffle of “Made for Each Other” strengthens the album’s already optimistic mood with an affectionate entry in the love song tradition that never feels forced. Positivity continues to rule the day on “We Are Strong” and this predominantly guitar driven tune shows some great six string flourish and benefits from some understated banjo accompaniment. “Till I Finally Let Go” is another fine homage to classic country that she gets over with the naturalness of someone born to sing this stuff. The album’s penultimate tune “Where My Mind Can Find Some Rest” has a lightly spiritual air without ever conjuring specters of religion and the accessibility this decision ensures makes the performance all the more lovely. The same upbeat attitude characterizing the bulk of Breakin’ Easy continues with the album’s last song “We’ve Got This Love Thing Figured Out” and the conversational elegance of Ulisse’s lyrics coupled with her breezy delivery makes this a fine closer on an album everyone should hear.