Barry Bales, bass player for Alison Krauss & Union Station said, "Good things turn up in the strangest places. One rare fall Saturday at home, I was listening to "Goin' Across the Mountain", a bluegrass show on WNCW out of Spindale, NC. I don't remember what I was doing exactly. I do remember that all-of-a-sudden, I was drawn to the song being played on the radio enough to stop whatever it was. I've listened to and played bluegrass music as long as I can remember - I thought I knew everybody. But this was something fresh, sung by a voice I hadn't heard before. I immediately got on the phone to DJ Dennis Jones and asked who that was I had just heard. He informed me that it was Miss Donna Hughes from the great state of North Carolina, and this was a CD she had put out herself, having written every song on it. Well now. It just so happened that our band was about to head into the studio to begin a new project and we needed some material. This one could definitely work. After getting her number, I called and left a message asking her to send me all the material she had. I wasn't prepared for what I received. Not one, but 3 CD's full of great new songs written by Donna. Donna's songs are a wonderful breath of fresh air in the world of bluegrass today. She has the rare ability to take song topics that others have overdone and write about them from a new perspective. Even songs about lost love are given new life at her hand. Donna also has a particular gift for writing songs that bridge the gap between "traditional" and "contemporary" content. Very few bluegrass listeners of today were born in a cabin or raised plowing with mules, but a lot of our parents and grandparents were. A number of the songs Donna writes speak of a young, modern generation with close ties to rural life of the past. This is a particular segment of the modern bluegrass listener/performer population that Donna represents well. You may reasonably expect to find CD's from Coldplay and Brad Paisley in their collection next to one from Larry Sparks. "She also brings that sensibility to her performing style. She has an easy, almost conversational vocal delivery. And the addition of her piano playing is an appropriate extension of her vision and tastes - embracing the musical world of today while keeping closely rooted in tradition. It is my sincere hope that work such as this from Donna Hughes becomes much more prevalent in bluegrass and acoustic music. The music and the listener will both be better for it. Enjoy."
A note from Donna:
Thanks Kathi Fox for giving my CD to Tony Rice. If you only knew how much I appreciate you. I hope all your dreams come true as well, and may God touch your soul. You are kind beyond measure.
"Shortly before Christmas of 2003,” Donna recalls, “I received a phone call out of the blue from Tony Rice. He asked if he could produce my next album…it amazed me at the time, because my car CD changer was filled with Tony Rice albums! It was such a welcome relief to get recognition from such an extraordinary musical hero, after all of my hard work.”
Despite the presence of a large selection of A-list musicians, it is Hughes’ versatility as a performer, coupled with her profound gifts as a writer, that makes Gaining Wisdom such a consistent revelation. Hughes’ songs are emotional, yet are grounded in experience and reality – making them both moving and believable. Gaining Wisdom opens with the bittersweet “One More Time,” a song reflecting upon the happier days of a fading relationship, which features the harmony vocals of Alison Krauss and Mary Chapin Carpenter. “Through the years,” Hughes says, “I was heavily influenced and inspired by the music of Alison and Mary Chapin. I never dreamed that they would one day sing on my album.” The song boasts a relaxed rhythmic groove, which Rice feels elevates the resonant poetry of Hughes’ lyrics.
Songs like “One More Time” are complemented by more straight-forward bluegrass-leaning performances, such as “Where Are You, Darlin’?”, “Scattered to the Wind,” and the riveting “Bottom of a Glass.” The latter is one of Hughes’ most heartbreaking compositions, a stunningly fresh take on the dangers of alcoholism in which Hughes – rather than condemning her subject outright – creates a sympathetic portrait of a tragedy-bound young addict. “She has the rare ability,” raves Union Station bassist Barry Bales, “to take song topics that others have overdone and write about them from a new perspective.”
While Hughes is a strong rhythm guitarist, piano was her first instrument, and producer Rice was insistent that it play a part in Gaining Wisdom. “Donna sent me demos of songs she’d written,” Rice recalls, “and sometimes she’d play them on the piano. Piano is not a standard bluegrass instrument, of course, but the more I heard her piano playing and how it colored her songs, the more I liked it and the more I felt it had to be heard on this album.”
Hughes learned to play classical piano by listening to her mother perform pieces by Bach and Beethoven and then learning them by ear. “I think being exposed to classical music has helped me to construct more innovative-sounding bluegrass chord progressions,” she remarks, “that is different from your run-of-the-mill three-chord patterned songs.” Her knack for composing in minor keys is immediately evident on the haunting “Father Time.” The subject of time’s passing is one that fascinates Hughes. “We are bound, motivated, and controlled by time,” she says. “I hope the dark sound of ‘Father Time’ might remind the listener to stop, and be more grateful of each moment, each day.”
Hughes sees different instruments as a means of stimulating different approaches and perspectives in her songs. “When I speak at songwriting workshops,” she says, “I like to tell people to write songs on as many different instruments as they can play. Write in a different room sometimes, or borrow someone else’s instrument. I get different ideas and feelings when I sit at the piano at Hilltop Studios in Nashville, than I do on my grandfather’s old piano at home.”
Her quest to continually uncover new perspectives is what makes Hughes so remarkable as both a writer and performer, and why she has been referred to by the renowned bluegrass/ country writer and producer Carl Jackson as “One of the best new singer-songwriters in the world of bluegrass…” With fellow maverick Tony Rice at the helm, Gaining Wisdom makes a powerful statement from an artist who has only just begun her career.
A couple of weeks before Christmas 2005, Donna lost her father. Two days before Thanksgiving, Donna and her mother were devastated to find out that he had a very aggressive, late stage brain tumor. After he was initially diagnosed with a stroke, they were hit hard by this news. He only lived until December 11. December 20 would have been her parents' 35th Wedding Anniversary. Donna's dad had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, a very painful condition, for 10 years. He was the most influential person in her life. Thomas Edwin Hughes, born October 11, 1937, had taught school for 30 years, served two terms on the Randolph County School Board, had been a well-known and successful auctioneer for 28 years, and had taught Sunday School at the small church named Westfield Baptist, since he was 11 years old. He had also been a farmer, who helped his parents out on a dairy farm while growing up. Donna's father was always cheerful, happy and friendly despite the pain he experienced constantly with his arthritis. He loved to sing, and went somewhere different almost every night to do so. Ed was known around his home as the "Singing Auctioneer." He was an inspiration to hundreds of people in the community, as he continued to work, and be a vital part of society regardless of his illness. Donna wrote a song about her Daddy entitled "Simple Man," which was on her first self-produced album, "Somewhere In Time." Although her dad will not get to see the album come out, she had played the new version of the song for him a great deal of times. Carl Jackson and Sonya Isaacs did the most fantastic harmony on the song. Donna is so proud of all of her father's accomplishments. Her new album will be dedicated to the loving memory of her dad. A strong man who often donated his time & money often for charity. He was always telling everybody about Donna and her music, everywhere he went. Just like her song says, "He's always kind to strangers, and he's always kept his word." Life will not be the same without him, but Donna has already begun to capture her pain, and remember the happy times she had with him in song.
Copyright 2004-2012 Donna Hughes. All rights reserved.
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