Heralded as one of the best new singer-songwriters in bluegrass, Donna Hughes’ debut on the reputable Rounder Records label is a significant career milestone for the creative and talented young woman from central North Carolina. When I first heard her independently released albums years ago, I knew she was inspired, motivated, and headed for great success. She just needed the right amount of luck. Enter guitarist Tony Rice who also heard “something that was down to earth, with a definitive southern flavor to it….that implied a broader, more adventurous approach.” This album, produced by Rice, includes four new arrangements of original songs that Hughes previously released on her own “Same Old Me” project. Eight additional originals are on this “Gaining Wisdom” album, along with two covers (“Time After Time” and “Find Me Out On A Mountain Top”).

As I’ve said before, Donna’s songs have potential to become contemporary bluegrass, acoustic country or folk hits. Classically trained on piano, Hughes also has a strong affinity for bluegrass music. She has performed with regional bands, Wildwood and Different Directions. Her adorned and relaxed presentation is incorporated with the modern instrumental consciousness of such stellar acoustic technicians as Tony Rice, Tim Stafford, Rob Ickes, Mike Bub, Sam Bush, Ron Stewart, Wyatt Rice, Bryn Davies, Rickie Simpkins, Wayne Benson, Scott Vestal, Kati Penn, and Obil Perez. To accompany her dreamy singing, we hear harmonies from Carl Jackson, Alecia Nugent, Sonya Isaacs, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Carroll, Kati Penn, Rhonda Vincent, and Lona Heins. This is a very impressive cast that infuses her music with a great deal of enchantment. Hughes writes and sings moving and sensitive personal songs with a relaxed, refreshing, contemporary flair. Introspective themes of lost love, sorrow, longing, heartache, and optimism are covered.

In her song, “Letters,” Donna admits to having a lot to say in correspondence with her grandmother, and it becomes apparent that dreams and aspirations are in the Hughes’ family. “Where Are You Darlin’?” is a tale of anguish in which she sings, “Along with all my dreams/I can’t go on, I can’t go back.” And the song “Too Many” expresses “I just can’t love you anymore.” Four of the tracks provide nice showcases for her piano playing, with the lean arrangement of “Talking to the Wind” being a particularly unique and lyrical way to end this euphonious album with a nod to her own Native American ancestry. (Joe Ross, Roseburg, OR.)