Donna Hughes of Trinity is a renaissance woman.
A lady of many talents, Hughes is a singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, recording artist, real estate agent, barn quilt painter and barn restorer.
Also, she is about to add children’s book author to her eclectic resume. The jack-of-all-trades is in the process of publishing her first book with her mother.
Hughes is excited about their collaboration. “My mom (73-year-old Loraye Hughes) is painting the illustrations. It’s about finding your own path in life. I’m really excited.”
A Randolph County native, Hughes started playing music at age 3. She got exposed to bluegrass at a local venue.
“We went to Eleazer (in the Uwharrie Mountains) every Friday night. Butch Reynolds and Racy Maness (local bluegrass musicians) would let me get up and sing. It was the best time ever!”
She went to Tabernacle Elementary, then Farmer Middle School, graduated from Southwestern Randolph, graduated Cum Laude from High Point University and settled on her granddaddy’s farm in Trinity.
“My grandfather built a thriving dairy farm,” she said. “I was heartbroken to see it fall into disrepair. It was my dream to restore the barn.”
So the singer/songwriter hit the road, playing some impressive places with hopes of restoring the beloved family barn.
“I opened for Ricky Skaggs in Dollywood. I’ve played the Bluebird Café (in Nashville) four times and the Station Inn three or four times. I would drive to Atlanta and play Eddie’s Attic, then drive home so I didn’t have to pay for a motel room,” she said. “I opened for Marty Stuart at The Birchmere (in Alexandria, VA) and I opened for Tony Rice at many venues, including BB Kings’ in NYC.”
The aspiring musical artist worked hard to get exposure for her brand of music.
“I mailed CDs to radio stations, promoters, bluegrass associations … you name it and I did it.”
Her efforts paid off.
“The late Dennis Jones of WNCW in Spindale, NC, was playing my songs. Barry Bales (bassist for Alison Krauss) was out washing his truck and heard,” she said. “He called me and said, ‘We’re looking for material for our new album.’ He said he liked my stuff.”
Hughes jumped at the opportunity. She contacted Clay Jones, a fellow NC bluegrass musician, who was selling cars in Myrtle Beach at the time.
“I called Clay and said, ‘Meet me at Doobie Shea (a recording studio in Boones Mill, VA)’.”
The friends labored to record a demo of Hughes’ original tunes.
Hughes shared, “After that, I mailed Barry Bales 60 songs.”
Three to four months passed and the young songsmith had not gotten a response. She thought, “Well, it was an honor to be called.”
Then she received a card from Krauss stating she had decided to record one of Hughes’ songs.
“I had breakfast with Alison at IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) in Louisville (KY). I wanted to just stand up in the restaurant and shout, ‘Look who I’m having breakfast with!’ ”
In 2004, Alison Krauss & Union Station released the album, “Lonely Runs Both Ways.” The project included Hughes’ original composition, “My Poor Ole Heart.”
More doors started to open.
“Tony Rice (legendary acoustic guitarist and 2021 NC Music Hall of Fame inductee) called and asked if he could produce my next album. I thought it was a prank, at first.”
Rice brought Hughes to record at Bias Studio in Washington, DC (and Hilltop Studios in Nashville, TN). He even arranged for Mary Chapman Carpenter to sing on one of her cuts. The end result was Hughes’ album, “Gaining Ground,” also released in 2004.
Following that project, Hughes ran into Kentucky banjo icon JD Crowe.
“He produced my next album (‘Hellos, Goodbyes, and Butterflies’) at Hilltop Studio in Nashville. I remember we finished up on Super Bowl Sunday and we sat there and watched the game
on a little TV about the size of a microwave. I thought, ‘For a man to give up the chance to watch a Super Bowl on a decent TV for my little record is pretty cool.’ ”
Those three events — Krauss recording her song, then Rice and Crowe producing her albums — have been the highlights of her career.
“We watched Alison sing on the CMAs. I told my dad wouldn’t it be cool if she sang my song,” Hughes said. “The next year she did, but Dad had a brain tumor and never knew it happened.”
It was still a thrill. “A songwriter’s greatest high is when someone else does your song,” she readily admitted.
Music instructor Tim Moon of Asheboro reflected on Hughes’ career.
“Donna is a good singer and rhythm guitarist, but songwriting is a whole other talent! She is outstanding writing lyrics and seems to always find the chord progression that enhances the story in those lyrics,” He said. “She is very talented in music! I remember how excited she was when Alison Krauss wanted her song and I said you have worked hard at writing and you deserve it.”
Although good things happened for Hughes in the music business, she was not raking in tons of revenue.
“I didn’t get a mainstream hit, but I got my name out,” she said. “I received the key to the city of Trinity from the mayor.”
So Hughes embarked on another career, selling real estate. She eventually opened her own firm, Top Dog Realty.
“I got a lot of business through people recognizing my name,” Hughes said.
Her lucrative new venture allowed her to follow her dream and restore her granddaddy’s dairy barn.
“I’m working to make it better and better,” she said. “I believe in preserving the past. I think my granddaddy would be proud.”
Her latest musical venture, which included a video in 2021, sprang from Hughes’ interest in the legend of Naomi Wise.
“My song is about the young girl who lived and died in Randleman in 1808. She was an outcast, but is still talked about 200 years later,” Hughes said. “Both Doc Watson and Bob Dylan also wrote songs about her.”
Filmed in Burlington, the music video re-enacts the life of Naomi Wise. “It was quite an ordeal with costumes,” Hughes said.
Chris Poole of Thomasville, the villain in Hughes’ video and a UNC-Asheville Music Business/Management major, said that “working with Donna was an honor. It was such a unique experience and one that I won’t soon forget. She was adamant that I should be involved and play a part from the very beginning and I’m thankful for that.”
Hughes has recorded other music videos, including one entitled “Red Oak Tree” about a graveyard.
When asked what’s her best song that she has ever written, Hughes was ready with an answer.
“ ‘I Want to Grow Old with You.’ It would be perfect for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill to sing,” she said. “The song makes it seem OK to get old, something people dread, but getting old is an honor, to make it that far.
“With the disease our world faces now, so many people are missing the chance to get to grow old, and grow old together.”
To date, Donna Hughes has written more than 500 songs and recorded six albums. She has had her material recorded by numerous bluegrass artists, including the Seldom Scene, Wyatt Rice, Amanda Cook, Samantha Snyder and Wilson Banjo Company.
“I’ve done more than I ever thought I would,” she said.
But she’s not through. “I want to do another bluegrass CD. I’m not done writing songs.”
With her drive and ambition, she definitely has more to accomplish.