Rhonda Vincent & The Rage / Mountain Heart – Red, White & Bluegrass Night – Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
The Middle Tennessee area has had more than its share of servicemen away on long hauls in Iraq, many home momentarily this summer before being sent right on back. So this edition of the regular summertime Thursday night bluegrass shows at the Ryman, just a few days after the Fourth of July and featuring headliners Rhonda Vincent & the Rage and Mountain Heart, was partly a salute to the men and women of the 101st Airborne stationed nearby. Some of those enlistees were in the audience; several joined a color guard as Vincent belted the national anthem. And the venue handed out little American flags.
What they handed out a whole lot more of, though, was Martha White Blueberry Cheescake Muffin Mix. Muffin Mix on every one of the Ryman pew seats, to begin with. My wife Nina testifies that the mix baked up very nicely, and I can tell you that the muffins were swell, in an entirely blueberry cheesecake kind of way. Well, the series is the “Martha White Bluegrass Nights,” and the firm is Vincent’s regular sponsor; but the financially helpful bluegrass tradition of sponsorship was taken to unusual lengths. There was an enormous ad that overwhelmed the back of the stage, plus a Martha White booth, a T-shirt toss, the Rage’s festooned bus parked outside, free Martha White guitar picks, recipes scattered around the building, signs on the mike stands, and — always sweet, really — Vincent’s version of the old Flatt & Scruggs Martha White song. It was one flourful evening.
There was also music.
The openers may be the less familiar of the two acts to those who aren’t followers of contemporary bluegrass. No, that was not Mountain and Heart opening the bill pop-metal style, but a band that has risen relatively quickly to the top ranks of contemporary ballad-heavy bluegrass through showmanship and sheer technical proficiency.
The members of Mountain Heart have adopted wireless mikes for their instruments, which allowed them to prowl the big Ryman stage at will, form sudden duet or trio groupings, and create extra visual surprise in the process. Adam Steffey demonstrated well the slashing mandolin that has made him a multi-year IBMA player of the year award winner. Steve Gaffey quieted the hall with his celebrated turn on George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” (there’s a lot of country in this act), and leader Barry Abernathy pulled off his continuing, astonishing trick of keeping right in there with the banjo parts, despite having only a thumb on the chording hand. On the “Gospel Train” quartet, they showed a propulsive and original style.
Still, something was limiting this band’s impact — too many drifting ballads that don’t quite jump out from the mix, and a laid-back quality to the music itself.
That contrasted sharply with Rhonda Vincent and company’s typically high-energy, highly focused, in-your-face set. The set list doesn’t change too fast with this band (“Kentucky”, “You’re Running Wild”, “Is The Grass Any Bluer”, etc.), but the band lineup keeps evolving. Recent addition Josh Williams on guitar adds another very strong voice to the band’s tools.
Lately, Vincent sometimes seems to be patterning her change-up pop side after the adventures of Alison Krauss. The crowd responded well to her crossover hit “You Can’t Take It With You”, but this act remains essentially hard-core and irrepressible. The jokes are often funny too — not a universal quality in this field. There was more to this enjoyable summer night than flour power.