Donna Hughes has built much of her reputation writing songs for — and working with — some of the finest artists in contemporary bluegrass. Alison Krauss recorded her song “My Poor Old Heart” for her Grammy-winning album Lonely Runs Both Ways. Other of her songs have been recorded by folks like the Seldom Scene, Nu Blu, Darren Bleachley, the Snyder Family, and so on. Her own solo albums have been produced by giants of bluegrass like Tony Rice and JD Crowe, with her latest record — 2014’s From the Heart — including instrumental backup by masters like Scott Vestal and Rob Ickes.
Last night, she showed up at the Isis Lounge all by her lonesome, and played much of her set from a piano bench, behind the baby grand in the corner.
Isis is a special place. There’s a restaurant serving incredible food downstairs, by the street. But, if you follow the bar through where the room thins into a hallway, walk through the curtain in the back, you enter what used to be a movie theater but is now a sizable open room that was built with acoustic instruments in mind. The sound in that room is so spot-on for acoustic instruments — something most music venues are not built for — that Del McCoury and David Grisman hand-picked it as one of their only stops on a couple-of-gigs tour through the south this spring. I’ve seen Amy Ray throw it down to a sold-out crowd in there, with a seven-piece band, where every note was distinct and smooth. I’ve seen Anais Mitchell stun the room to silence, alone at the center of the large stage, with a room full of thoughtful folks at tables, glasses of wine and cocktails, on a weeknight.
Upstairs, where the projectors of the old movie theater used to be housed, owner Scott Woody has fashioned a lounge and listening room. A small bar lines one of the walls. There are a handful of tables and a couple couches. A coffee table and some chairs.
It was in there where Hughes delivered a lovely set of her original work.
Considering the full-band sound of much of contemporary bluegrass music — the way the instruments weave in and out of each other, how solos get handed back and forth like challlenges — it was interesting to see these songs stripped down to an even purer essence. “Red Oak Tree” was an easy early highlight, with its storyline pulling from places that are equal parts emotional and historical. “Walk by Faith, Not by Sight” (named after a Baptist hymn, though it is not actually that hymn) was another strong moment. It was a song she wrote to comfort a friend whose husband died suddenly, tragically, after choking on a bit of steak. Hughes turned that shocking, split-second death into an incredibly moving rumination on how to live on in the face of such remarkable loss. The minor key melody dripped out in places, poured out in others, with Hughes’ voice at times sounding like it had fallen from a great height. She mentioned she’s hoping Krauss will record the song, and I hope she does. It was a tremendous songwriting achievement.
Considering the depth of songs like that, it seemed odd to hear them placed alongside others that dally more in the realm of novelty. “Walmart Checkout Line” and “The Facebook Song” attacked areas of blue collar living with undeniably sharp comedic timing, but felt a bit like wading in shallow water after diving so deep into the darkness of human existence. Though, I suppose both levels of truth are part of Truth with a capital T. The novelty songs probably sound better with a full band behind them, though, whereas in this lounge setting they came off like a deeply gifted songwriter just goofing around at the end of a practice session.
This is a minor complaint, though. Hughes is clearly a gifted songwriter and Isis, this night, treated a comfy crowd to the treat of seeing great songwriting delivered from its rawest core.