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Rhonda Vincent: the queen of bluegrass

By Joel Bernstein, November 2001

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Having already done some production work on her earlier records, so she was clearly interested in progressing in that area of the business. She has gone on to produce both of her Rounder albums.

After Giant, Vincent found herself at a crossroads. "It was a transition, having gone from playing with my family to being on my own. Unsure what type of music to make, "after two years, I had to make a decision. I had played a couple of festivals, really enjoying myself, and I decided on this path. In country music, they wanted me to be center stage and forget about the instruments."

Vincent then rounded up a strong group of veteran pickers and formed her band The Rage. Banjo player Tom Adams and fiddler Mike Cleveland have won IBMA honors on their respective instruments. (Cleveland, however, has just announced plans to leave the group.) Younger brother Darrin Vincent, who also grew up in the family act, plays bass and serves as the main harmony vocalist on the album.

After choosing her direction and her band, she wound up signing with Rounder, which gave her the best of both worlds. With much better distribution then Rebel, Rounder also provides the creative control she could never have gotten with a major label.

"They give me the freedom to record anything I want, any style. We talk about it beforehand, but it's great that they trust me and my musical decisions."

Her Rounder debut, appropriately called "Back Home Again," took her career to a new level. Signed with Rounder for one more album, Vincent expresses hope that her stay there will be longer.

Bluegrass has always been a genre that seems able to adapt just about any style of song to its needs, from the reggae of "The Harder They Come" to the heavy metal of AC/DC. Vincent doesn't go that far afield in finding her material, but she still goes outside the strictly bluegrass arena. Her latest includes songs made famous by Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb. It also includes "Don't Lie," a recent hit for Trace Adkins, which in Vincent's hands becomes neo-Louvin Brothers.

"I look for songs that make my heart jump," she says. "It has to be something I enjoy listening to. Then I get up and try it myself."

Vincent has gotten a little bit fussier stylistically. "I used to record anything I felt like recording. Starting with 'Back Home Again,' I tried to set up perimeters and a specific style I want to represent."

"Little Angels," a song on "Back Home Again" which concerns child abuse, is a song Vincent gets very passionate about. "It was given to me by a lady in Canada. She just handed me a tape. I get tapes all the time, and you never know what will be on them."

"Driving Nails In My Coffin" seems an odd choice, if only because it's a drinking song, and Vincent says she's never had a drop of drink. "I had heard it by Ernest Tubb, but never thought of doing it myself. My husband and I have a restaurant in Kirksville, Mo., and every Wednesday we have bluegrass night. I heard it there, and one night, I just got up and told my band I wanted to try it."

Vincent has three songs on her latest album co-written with Terry Herd and refers to it as her songwriting debut, even though technically it's not. "I had written songs as a teenager, but that was before my children were born, When you have little ones to take of, there are no quiet moments. Now they're teenagers and have their own lives, so there are times I can get away."

Vincent's songwriting blossomed when she met Herd, a noted bluegrass broadcaster and satellite radio consultant. "I had started 'Cry Of The Whippoorwill' and could not get it finished. He took a look, and came back the next day with five more verses. Now, one of us will get an idea and call the other one. Most of our songwriting is done on the Internet, by Instant Messenger or email or on cell phones. Only just before I'm ready to record do we get together in person. A lot of people want to co-write with me, but when I say this is the way I work they say 'I don't think I could do that'." I have such a busy life, it's the only way for me."

Not every song Vincent loves will suit her style, and that even includes songs she's written. "There's one that I wrote with Terry and recorded it, but it just doesn't work for me. So, I'll be pitching it. I've already gotten it into the hands of Alan Jackson. It's got more of that straight country beat."

She recently returned from playing in Switzerland, Germany, France and England. Although older country music has always had a big following there, the "O Brother" impact was still noticeable.

"It's on all the movie channels over there. We played a country music festival. We were the only bluegrass band, and the response was wonderful."

Vincent is glad to serve as an international ambassador for bluegrass. She's also happy that she and some other acts are providing inspiration for girls who want to be musicians. "I played with The Dixie Chicks for years. I watched them and saw how hard they worked. They're very talented. Alison Krauss opened a lot of doors for young girls, and so did they."

And perhaps some of these girls will grow up to be like Rhonda Vincent, who says, "I'm doing what I love. I feel like I'm living my dream."

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