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Rhonda Vincent: the queen of bluegrass

By Joel Bernstein, November 2001

It's a good time to be the queen of bluegrass music. Even though Rhonda Vincent was not directly involved with the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, she still benefits from the interest in the genre that it has created.

With her current Rounder album, "The Storm Still Rages," continuing to top bluegrass charts, Vincent herself being named IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) female vocalist of the year, and she and her band The Rage also named entertainer of the year, Vincent can certainly lay claim to being bluegrass royalty.

Vincent spoke shortly after taping a segment for a CBS-TV morning show, something which she says could never have happened for her or any bluegrass artist a few years ago.

"Where there used to be a brick wall, now doors are opening for us." Vincent doesn't give all the credit to 'O Brother,' saying, "I think the trend was developing a couple of years before that. I attribute it to the Internet. People now have access to any kind of music."

Vincent is also a very big fan of satellite radio, which she says will allow everyone to hear whatever kind of music they like and listen to the same station all the way from New York to Los Angeles.

She also credits Soundscan, the means by which the music industry can know exactly what is selling and where. "It's much easier now to show stores that something is selling well and so they should be stocking it."

Vincent, like many other people, is aware of the irony of "O Brother" being such a big lift for bluegrass artists.

"'O Brother' is not bluegrass per se. It's a lot of acoustic music, older mountain music. I'm just glad that people are listening to it and want to hear it. People like our music. They don't always know what to call it, but they like it. People are searching for that simpler music."

While Vincent's timing seems great right now, she hasn't always been in the right place at the right time. Her voice is one that could appeal to people who are not big bluegrass fans.

However, an attempt to break into mainstream country music, with two albums on Giant Records in the mid-'90's, was a case of very bad timing. "Shania was just coming in, and the music was becoming much more contemporary."

Those two fine country albums made barely a ripple in the sea of hot country music.

Many bluegrass artists seemed to have started at a young age, often playing in a family group, and Vincent fits that profile. However, she grew up in Northern Missouri, far from the bluegrass mainstream.

"I started singing with my family when I was three years old. We (The Sally Mountain Show) had our own (local) radio and television shows. We were just doing country music. Then, my dad found out that if he played a banjo and we did acoustic music, then we could make a living as a family just playing festivals. Festivals are very big in bluegrass. With country music, you had to play in bars. That wasn't good for a family act."

At a very young age, Vincent moved beyond just singing. "When I turned six, my dad got me a little snare drum. When I was eight, we joined a country music show in which anyone who didn't play an instrument didn't get paid. My dad gave me a mandolin, said 'Here's G, C, and D, and you're going to play this so you can draw your $10 every night.' Later, I learned more chords. Now, I play most any stringed instrument. On-stage I play mandolin, guitar and fiddle."

The Sally Mountain Show spent years on the bluegrass circuit. "Around 1978, we met an agent from Nashville, and that's when we started getting national exposure. We played at Lincoln Center in New York City (with The Osborne Brothers and The Stonemans) and at The Grand Ole Opry."

Her life has always revolved around music. "I played and traveled with my family for 25 years. Every day I'd come home from school and play music with my father and grandfather until dinner time. When I was a teenager, I began wanting to do things with my friends, but I was always there. I didn't even go to my prom because we were playing that night. We pulled up to my graduation in our trailer, I got my diploma, and then we went off to do our show in Illinois. One of my school friends said to me recently that after being forced to do it all those years, she thought that I would grow up to hate playing music. Instead, I grew up to love it."

Vincent's first records were with her family, The Sally Mountain Show, eventually on Rebel Records (a big label in bluegrass, but barely known to non-aficionados.) Then, she moved on to doing solo albums for Rebel.

"I met James Stroud while working on my solo records. He loved my voice and wanted to work with me. When he became the head of Giant Records, I was one of the first acts he signed."

Although she didn't have anything close to a hit during her stint with Giant, Vincent found it useful. "I look at it as an internship. I learned about recording and production."

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