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Bluegrasser Rhonda Vincent goes home

By George Hauenstein, January 2000

Bluegrass music is enjoying a renaissance of sorts these days. This is due in part to the attention paid it by such well-known country artists like Ricky Skaggs, Jim Lauderdale and Dolly Parton, all of whom recently released bluegrass albums.

But for Missouri-born singer/mandolinist Rhonda Vincent, the decision to come back to bluegrass was a no-brainer.

"It was the natural thing to do," says Vincent, who grew up playing bluegrass and acoustic music as part of her family's band, the Sally Mountain Show.

"Music has been traced back five generations in the Vincent Family. I joined the Sally Mountain Show when I was three. Every day when I got home from school we'd play 'til dinner. Then after dinner, we'd play.

"It was our livelihood...our way of life...(it's) something I'm very grateful for."

Still it is her livelihood, too, as Vincent just released "Back Home Again" on Rounder after two major label country albums.

Throughout her teens and early 20's, Vincent and the Sally Mt. Show continued touring, doing TV and radio and recording bluegrass albums.

In 1985, Vincent appeared on TNN's talent search program, "You Can Be a Star." She then landed a job with the Grand Ole Opry's Jim Ed Brown. While still, releasing bluegrass albums, Vincent was trying her hand at being a country music recording artist.

She signed to a major label recording contract with Nashville's Giant Records. Over the course of the next few years, she put out two albums ("Written in the Stars" in 1993 and "Trouble Free" in 1996), three singles and three videos.

She says, it was a case of "the grass is always greener," but her career did not take off.

Vincent says the deal "looked very enticing....very exciting.. (the) money and everything at your beck and call...(the) best of everything."

Among the highlights of her country career, Vincent recalls playing Fan Fair, the Grand Ole Opry and opening for country stars like Alan Jackson. "The number (of fans) that I was playing for was a real treat and having people like that (Jackson) saying they like your music."

Unfortunately for Vincent, her records didn't sell well enough to suit her record company, and she was released. This provided her a chance to re-evaluate.

"When I wasn't on Giant (any longer), I decided I could pursue another country record deal...But, then I said, here's my life..here's what I wanted to do. Then I put a band together, The Rage, and we started doing festivals. I thought I could fill a void."

"There were no females doing real traditional bluegrass...straight-ahead, traditional bluegrass."

As for the reaction, Vincent says, "They've really accepted me back. I'm thrilled to be back...back home again."

Vincent says she "wanted the album to be traditional. There was a certain sound I wanted to capture."

Vincent is extremely proud of "Back Home Again," saying that it shows her style and voice better than any of the recordings she has done in the past. "I had total control. That's why I love Rounder."

"I recorded 24 songs in all..I would record 6..listen to them.. new and old songs...some worked, some didn't...Then narrowed it down to final 12."

One of the songs that made it was a bluegrass version of Dolly Parton's classic song, "Jolene." Parton is one of Vincent's favorites. "I look up to her so much as a person and a musician...always love working with her." Recording her song was a natural. "'Jolene' was wonderful...A friend said, (it's) definitely a keeper. It has sparked an interest."

Another song sparking fan interest is "Little Angels," which deals with the topic of prevention of child sexual abuse. While doing a show in Rogersville, New Brunswick Canada, Vincent says a fan handed her a tape of a song she had written. "She kept asking me, 'have you listened to my song, yet?...Rhonda, that was me.'"

Vincent says, "This song captured me." The song captures audiences, too. "People really get the song at first hearing...when we sing it, tears stream down people's faces." She continues, "It's absolutely part of every show."

"We recorded the song. The record company said there were a couple of lines they weren't comfortable with. I contacted (producer) Ronnie Light. He helped re-write it. I called the writer...she loved it."

Bluegrass isn't a genre that's known for artists recording socially conscious songs. But Vincent says, "I never look if it's cool. I did this album from the heart. ("Little Angels") is such a special song...I wanted to make sure it was on here because of its impact."

Now that she's back as a bluegrass artist, Vincent says she doesn't regret her country music experiences. "I'm fortunate to have had that experience. I learned a lot. That's what made my new album so great...This knowledge will help the quality of bluegrass."

What she does lament is how bottom-line oriented today's country music has become. "It (all) comes down to promotion and all dollars...(It) has very little to do with talent and your voice...It's a political game rather than is this good (music)...The greatest disappointment is that it's all dollar figures."

She also says that this new turn that country has taken has helped bluegrass. "Country music has gone contemporary, and that has benefited bluegrass...people want to hear the acoustic music...that's why bluegrass is growing."

When she's not out playing bluegrass, you can often find Vincent helping Herb Sandker, her husband of 16 years, at Bogie's, a restaurant they own in Kirksville, Mo. "Bogie's was our favorite restaurant in town. We heard it was for sale...it was ours soon after that."

Vincent credits Herb, for much of her musical success. "He's allowed me to follow my dream. (There's) no way I could've done this without him...I'm his runner...I'm not there all the time, but when I am there, I help out."