I grew up with vocal bluegrass. My father had a small collection of 78s and 45s he treasured by the likes of the Blue Sky Boys and Jimmy Martin slotted among such diverse artists such as Mario Lanza and the Six Fat Dutchmen and, of course, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. He loved the hymns and always said that if they sang more in church, he would go, but they never did and neither did he. In my early years, we had no TV and the evenings would be taken up with radio (but only selected favorites) and reading and music. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor in front of the console listening the the Blue Sky Boys singing "Tears On Her Bridal Bouquet" and wishing I could play it over and over again because there was something in it that struck deep—as deep as it could for a young child.
Of course, I turned rocker when rock and roll took over radio and turned my back on country and bluegrass in favor of electric anything and everything. It took a move to San Diego in the mid-seventies and a chance acquaintance with a member of the Folk Life Society to return me to the fold. Tony Trischka was coming into his own then and the Dry Branch Fire Squad was just around the corner and Seldom Scene was just starting to gain traction and before I knew it, I was back. And I reached back—to the Blue Sky Boys, whose music had been reissued by Rounder and County, and to Jimmy Martin, whose albums slowly replaced the Jimmy Martin 45s I had saved from childhood.
Which is my way of saying that while I am no expert on bluegrass, I know what plucks my strings and few pluck them as well as Donna Hughes on her new album, *Hellos Goodbyes & Butterflies*. Hughes brings something more to the music than a solid bluegrass voice and an ability to phrase. She brings a feeling for the music—a real feeling—and boy, do I hear it. She had me from "When will you ever learn," the first line of the outstanding lead-off track, Cut Your Losses. When I heard that one line, I somehow knew this album was special. The song sounds like it could have come off of the first or second Bluegrass Album Band project, substituting Hughes' superb voice for lead, and if you haven't heard either of those albums and you love vocal bluegrass and topnotch picking, you haven't lived.
From Cut Your Losses on, Hughes lays out some of the best and most honest music of this type you'll hear these days. The songs' subjects range from the dueling emotions and remembrances of a father who has passed (Saying Hello) to a sad-but-cynical message to "the other woman" who has stolen one's husband ("Mid-Life Crisis") to a realization that sometimes you need more than love to build a life (Better Apart). And lyrics? Donna Hughes is a bluegrass poet of exceptional quality. The songs are solid, through and through, with truths in poetic form—"He'll love you forever until you get wrinkles/It's fun to love him until he starts telling lies/Make sure you lose the weight from those babies/Or he will stop looking into your eyes" (from Mid-Life Crisis) or, as in Last Thing I Need, "Your hands felt good on my shoulder/Your hands felt good on my face/Your car looked good in my driveway/There was nothing like your warm embrace" which on the chorus turns into "I need air to breathe, I need water/And I need a good long night's sleep/I need love and I tried to love you/You gave me heartache/You're the last thing I need." Of the fifteen songs on this album, she nails it lyrically on every one. And I mean nails it.
Music? Again, fifteen solid songs. It doesn't hurt that producer J.D. Crowe (and Associate Producer Steve Chandler) brought in a who's who of the best in the business (I would list them all, but it would take forever, but let me namedrop a couple of favorites—Randy Kohrs, dobro; Rob Ickes, dobro; Scott Vestal, banjo; Adam Steffey, mandolin). After all, most of the time that you have the best, you sound the best. But Crowe and Chandler bring their ears as well, and a sense of what sounds right and in bluegrass, what sounds right is usually right in front of you.
Beginning to end, this is as good a vocal bluegrass album as I've heard in some time—right up there with albums from a group I openly revere: The Dixie Bee-Liners. If you like music from the likes of Jimmy Martin to Seldom Scene to The Dixie Bee-Liners, you'll "get" Donna Hughes. And after you "get" her, it won't be long before you get her. I'm sure of it.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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