Rhonda Vincent: All-American Bluegrass Girl
Rhonda Vincent has had a long and successful career in bluegrass music. From her origins in northeastern Missouri to her emergence as the Queen of Bluegrass, a crown conferred on her by The Wall Street Journal, she has represented bluegrass music’s wholesome image while winning awards and growing the genre. For years she has been known as the hardest-working touring musician in bluegrass, performing in the neighborhood of 130 to 150 tour appearances, hosting for several years her own bluegrass cruise, and more recently as a mainstay of Larry’s Country Diner on RFD-TV. Bluegrass promoters consider booking her to their festivals a recipe for a strong, well-attended evening that will put, as they like to say, “butts in the seats.” Even as her shows are a constant steady draw at major festivals, she continues to appear regularly at smaller events as well. The clip below shows her performing one of her very popular songs at the small-to-medium-sized Jenny Brook Family Bluegrass Festival in Vermont.
Vincent was born into a bluegrass family and represents, along with her brother Darrin Vincent of Dailey & Vincent, the fifth generation in her family to perform music, being followed by her daughter Sally Berry, now a member of her band. The Sally Mountain Show developed out of Rhonda’s father Johnny’s commitment to playing bluegrass music and his development of a family band that toured across the U.S. and around the world. Eventually, in 1986, he opened the Sally Mountain Park in Queen City, Missouri, where there has been a Sally Mountain Festival each year since. The family’s band featured young Rhonda on mandolin and her brother Darrin on guitar, while mother Carolyn played bass and sang. Here’s a clip circa 1985 featuring an early appearance by Rhonda, then 23. She had performed with the band since she was five.
A look at Rhonda Vincent’s tour schedule between now and the end of 2017 shows between eight and a dozen bookings a month, mostly on weekends at festivals, arts centers, and, this year, including a three-day trip to Europe in early September. This leaves her time to record both on her own records and as a guest artist on other recordings, where she is recognized as one of very finest of harmony singers while bringing her own distinctive sound to the mix. Her busy touring schedule leaves time for ventures such as the Country’s Family Reunion Cruise, to which she brings a bluegrass presence. While tapped in the 1990s as a potential country music star and having signed a contract, she has continued to sing both country and bluegrass. The poster of the following video commented, “I lost track of the date, but this was during Rhonda’s all-too-brief foray into Country Music in the early-to-mid 1990s. She sounded so good, I will never understand why Country did not embrace her, but it was a huge event for Bluegrass when she returned to it.” The video was an official video from her record company.
Vincent also involves herself in many quiet, personal acts of kindness and generosity. One particular story I was involved with almost certainly is characteristic. In 2009 we met a young Spanish woman from Barcelona named Marta at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival, then located in East Hartford, Conn. Marta asked me to introduce her to Vincent, who she met and talked with briefly. A year later, Marta returned with a friend, who was also named Marta, bearing gifts. After Vincent’s first set, the two young women spent some time with her and her band, giving her a Basque flag, a replica statue, and a lovely picture book of Spanish scenery. A few minutes later, Marta came back to me, quite excited, to say that Vincent had invited the two Martas to join her on a road trip to western New York for a house party at a long-time friend’s home. “Do you think she was serious?” she asked. “If Rhonda invited you, she was serious,” I said, whereupon they changed their plans, accepting the invitation. There followed a four-day road trip, lots of jamming, and a pool party, as well as a midnight trip to view Niagara Falls under the lights. Two young women returned home with unforgettable memories.
Vincent regularly performs with country artists today considered “classic,” which is, as nearly as I can tell, a loosely defined “radio genre” including country artists from the late ’70s into the ’90s. According to Wikipedia, classic country developed as a reaction to contemporary country’s move to FM radio in and near urban centers and its greater influence from the sounds of rock and roll. Classic country, however, remains truer to country music that emerged shortly after World War II and is popular among older, whiter, more rural audiences. Vincent has recorded and toured with such country artists as Gene Watson and Daryle Singletary, while performing with the likes of Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and the Oak Ridge Boys. Below is a video of a performance with country legend Gene Watson.
Vincent has become a model for many women in bluegrass, running her business and appealing to her fans with a kind of glamor appreciated by both men and women. She’s helped to break through some of the resistance to women in bluegrass, formerly a realm almost completely dominated by men, as performers, band leaders, and business owners. Her support of veterans, outspoken patriotism, old-time religion, middle-American values while not taking public overtly political positions, and commercial success have all provided models for the continued growth and success of bluegrass and its appeal.