Rhonda Vincent – More than a feeling
There’s a breathless quality to much of bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent’s promotional material; “too good to be mortal,” a choice quote from former Billboard country music editor Ed Morris, appears on almost every piece. But here’s the funny thing: When you listen to her sing, it really does take your breath away — at least, it does mine, and has ever since the first time I saw her perform at a small bluegrass festival in rural Illinois with her family band, the Sally Mountain Show.
That was almost exactly ten years ago, and a lot has happened to Vincent since then. She spent a few years in the Nashville mill, making two badly mishandled mainstream country albums for Giant Records, and a couple more feeling her way back into bluegrass before emerging triumphant in 2000 with a stunning CD, Back Home Again (Rounder).
The success of her comeback was ratified in the fall when she received the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year award, and she followed it with a showcase at the Americana Music Association’s conference in Nashville that startled an audience largely unprepared for her blend of polished singing, instrumental virtuosity, traditional bluegrass drive and raw emotional intensity.
That combination, polished and raw, is the key to Vincent’s music. On closer inspection, it also challenges some assumptions about bluegrass, and indeed some ideas about roots music in general. Yet avoiding those challenges entails a considerable sacrifice, for as a growing number of listeners agree — and as more will discover with the June release of her second Rounder album, The Storm Still Rages — Vincent is making some of the most compelling and exciting music to be heard today.
In some ways, Vincent is a kind of throwback to individualistic bandleaders of the past such as Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers. She knows exactly what she wants, and has worked and reworked the lineup of her group, the Rage, until she’s only a member away (perhaps not even that) from getting it.
“I don’t think I really locked in on the sound that I was wanting to go for at first,” she says of the early days of the Rage after she left Giant in 1996, “because at that time I would think, OK, it’s a song I like, let’s do it, here’s the people that fell together, and let’s just do that.
“Then, when I went in and recorded the first tracks for Back Home Again, everything hit home, because I recorded about 24 songs and listened to what they told me: This is the direction I’m going. Here are the perimeters; I’m not going outside of them. I’ve got to find people who can perform this as well as or better than what’s on the album, and can stay within these perimeters.
“And since then I’ve had musicians who are not here because they stepped outside those perimeters. This was not…,” she struggles to complete the thought, “We all have to have the same common goal. And now we do. We all think alike, everyone lives and breathes the music.”
She’s focused on professionalism, too, in a way that resembles another country music generation’s outlook — she’s not yet 40, but she’s been a performer since the late 1960s — and she bears the stamp of her experience in modern Nashville as well. Sitting in a dressing room at the Mountain Arts Center in Kentucky on a Friday night in early May, with her bandmates warming up and running over some songs at the other end, I ask her about what changes she sees in bluegrass now that she’s back.
“There seems to be a real trend right now,” she replies. “And I feel something that’s helped me is that I have experience, from dealing with Giant. Those were my college years — and college is not fun, but you do it so that you can be that much better at your work and live your life a little better. At the IBMA they do seminars, constantly looking at what we can do to make this forge on, what can make it better. And I’m trying to help bring all these things. I’m going to do everything I can, from the haircut to the makeup to the music, to present ourselves in the absolute best way. And these guys are the same way.
“I think the biggest change in bluegrass is that we have SoundScan now, to log these sales, and to say yes, put this album in your store because yes, it sold this many. And if we can get everybody to do that, it will give it more legitimacy in the market, in the worldwide marketplace. Realistically, I don’t think everyone will, but I’m certainly doing my part,” she concludes crisply.
Roots musicians her age frequently sidestep such matters — though perhaps less so in bluegrass than elsewhere — but Vincent sees it as sensible, a way of supporting the music. “I want it to stay authentic,” she says, and, and when I ask what that means, her response runs in a straight line. “No amplifiers. I hate amping things. We’re carrying just a couple of good microphones, we don’t have any monitors, and most of the places, I go out to the soundboard and ask them to run it flat. What you see and what you hear is what there is.
“We invest our money and our time to have the very best instruments that we can afford, so I want people to be able to hear that. When we had eight mikes up there, they could tweak the EQ on that to where it would sound like an electric guitar. My mandolin, they could make it sound like something from outer space. And that’s one of my pet peeves. Let it sound like what it really is, the way we play it and feel it.
“So that’s why I want to put our best foot forward. We have a first impression to make. If you don’t like this music, don’t dislike it because I have the wrong pair of shoes, or the wrong haircut, or the wrong shirt on. Don’t like it just because of the music itself.”