By Larry Stephens
This CD is about Donna Hughes. She wrote all fifteen songs (co-writing one of them). She sings all of them. There are “background” vocals rather than harmony vocals and it’s a shame more mileage wasn’t made out of the background vocalists. They include Ben and Sonya Isaacs, Carl Jackson, Cia Cherryholmes (whose website, apropos of nothing, is headlined by some of the best essence-catching head shots I’ve ever seen on a bluegrass site), and the father-daughter team of Buddy and Melonie Cannon. That is an impressive lineup of singers whose talents are drastically underused.
If you’re going to put out a CD that’s all about you there are some strengths you have to find. The backup singers are underutilized, so what’s left? I suggest four things: the lead singing, the writing, the musicians, and the production values.
All the elements of a CD are often dropped into some convenient genre. This helps identify a target audience and helps the audience identify CDs that might interest them. I, for instance, would never stop at the rap section in a music store. Basing your musical choices on genre alone can sometimes be disappointing. You may buy something that’s labeled as “country” only to find it’s anything but. You may pass over a CD that, if you’d just listened, would have delighted you.
Good or bad, there’s no neat genre to drop Hellos Goodbyes & Butterflies into. Most tempting is bluegrass, for good reasons mentioned below, but this isn’t a bluegrass CD. To quote Jon Weisberger’s liner notes, “[this is] a singer/songwriter fronting a bluegrass band.”
One reason to think of it as bluegrass is the musicians. Hughes’ band is comprised of Brian and Maggie Stephens and Patton Wages (Marty Raybon), all members of Lost Horizon. Brian plays guitar on most of the tracks here while Maggie plays bass on three. Patton is a no-show in favor of Scott Vestal (Larry Sparks, Doyle Lawson, Continental Divide, Sam Bush). Dobro is covered by either Rob Ickes (Blue Highway) or Randy Kohrs, mandolin by Adam Steffey (The Boxcars). In addition to Maggie on bass is Barry Bales (Union Station), with Joel Keys playing guitar and Aubrie Haynie and Jenee’ Fleenor (Terri Clark) splitting fiddle duties. That is an impressive lineup of musicians and they do excellent work on this CD.
The excellent musicians and singers underline a potential problem for Hughes. She has a following of Donna Hughes fans who would probably listen to her sing newspaper ads. On the other hand, if I was going to a bluegrass show that included her – and had listened to her CD – I would expect music that approximates what I heard on the CD. She won’t be able to do that with a three-piece band. The flip side of that is when I see a band on a show and then buy a CD from their table, I expect to hear what I heard on the show. She’s chosen to have separate identities and some people may not like that.
Another reason you might be tempted to think of this as bluegrass is the producer, none other than JD Crowe. But, no, that doesn’t make this bluegrass. In fact, Crowe is quoted as saying about the CD, “it’s different.” The mix (by Crowe and associate producer Steve Chandler) tends to bury Hughes’ voice just a bit, but that can also be attributed to her not having a voice that cuts through the mix; it doesn’t have an edge. On the plus side, the lyrics are included in the folder as well as musician attributions for each track. One small gripe is the song names don’t come up when playing the CD in something like Media Player. That makes it more difficult than it needs to be to figure out what you’re listening to.
That leaves singing and writing. If you’re going to do a CD that features you on lead on every song – which you have written – you need to have a strong vocal presence and a talented pen.
Hughes is a talented writer. The problem with writing outside a genre is you’re hard to pin down. You’ll either really like her songs or you’ll just be puzzled and lay the CD aside.
“Autumn Leaves” has great lyrics:
On a hillside…back in the woods
Far away from town
There’s an old abandoned graveyard
Lost and forgotten all about
Now there’s a lead-in for a bluegrass or country song. Rob Ickes’ kickoff, Adam Steffey’s mandolin and Aubrey Haynie’s crying fiddle, the chord pattern – great work. Then there’s “Blackbeard,” with eight or nine verses (I’m still not sure which). I think I’ll skip that track from now on.
The instruments on the “Cut Your Losses” track grab you, have you tapping your foot, but the lyrics and true melody are not nearly as interesting as what’s being picked. Other tracks slip by without grabbing my attention except for the instrumental parts; her singing and lyrics just don’t get my attention. Songs like “Jesse” tell a good story when you read the lyrics but it’s a long story to sing. But wait – Track 7 (let’s see, that’s “The Last Thing I Need”) – it’s a dandy country song. I wish she had put a bunch more like this on the CD.
If you’re a Donna Hughes fan you’ll love this CD, but I doubt I’ll listen to it again.