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Vincent goes both ways

By Henry Carrigan, February 2014

It's the Voice. Rhonda Vincent has been wrapping her soaring, golden-throated vocals around bluegrass tunes for a couple of decades now. The International Bluegrass Association named her Female Vocalist of the Year seven years running (2000-2006), and named her IBMA Entertained of the Year in 2001. From 2002-2006, Vincent carried home the Entertainer of the Year award from The Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass (SPBGMA). Early in her career, Vincent also recorded several country albums, before returning to bluegrass.

Yet, it was always her voice that gave every project its power, beauty, and character. On this new double album, Vincent not only demonstrates her vocal depth and breadth, but also honors the music that has inspired her over the years. With one album devoted to six bluegrass tunes and the other devoted to six country songs, she illustrates just how porous the borders between bluegrass and country music are, singing a duet with Willie Nelson (Only Me) on the bluegrass side and Beneath Still Waters on the country side.

Country Standard Time caught up by phone with Vincent at her home in Greentop, Mo., just before she hit the road to head to St. Paul, Minn., to record a segment of Prairie Home Companion

Rhonda Vincent sings

Why did you decide to do this double album, with one disc devoted to bluegrass and the other to country?
Vincent: You know, I had to do this album. When I was a teenager, singing bluegrass, folks told me I should be a country singer. So, I went to Nashville and cut a couple of country albums for Giant Records. People at the label asked me if could get the bluegrass out of my voice. I was hurt, and I thought "what am I gonna do?" I call that time in Nashville my musical college years.
I went back home and put together The Rage and started focusing on bluegrass. Then, in 1999, I was opening for George Jones at the Salem Bluegrass Festival, in Salem, Va., and fans came up after the show and said, "We love your country music." The fans mobbed us and bought up all of our cds. It was then that I realized that the differences between bluegrass and country music were all in the perceptions of the listeners. My voice is the same whether I sing with a banjo or a steel guitar. I've been wanting to make an album like this for a long time to illustrate the ways that bluegrass and country are so close together as musical genres.

How did it come together?
Vincent: Back in March of 2013, we released this great Larry Cordle/Lionel Delmore song, "I'd Rather Her I Don't Love You (Than Nothing at All)" and thought that it'd naturally be part of a traditional bluegrass album we were doing. Then, I sang George Jones' "When the Grass Grows Over Me" on the Opry on the night he died. After that performance, we started thinking about how much fun it would be to do a traditional country album, and I asked some folks like Tim Crouch and Carl Jackson if they'd be interested in doing a country album. Besides, we'd been playing some of these songs on the Country Family Reunion, so we knew some of the songs we wanted to cut. You know, "Beneath Still Waters" became the most requested song on that show, so we put it on the country CD. It took about two years from the time we started, and we cut the music live, except for Willie Nelson's vocals and guitar tracks on "Only Me" on the bluegrass cd.

How did you get Willie Nelson to join you on the album?
I opened for Willie back in 1999, and I'd always wanted to have him play or sing on one of my records. A couple of years ago we were playing down in Texas on the same bill as Haybale!, and I saw Dallas Wayne, who plays rhythm guitar for the band and is also the program director of Willie's Roadhouse on Sirius XM; I asked Dallas if he thought Willie might sing a duet on this album. Dallas said he thought he would, so I asked. Not only did he sing, but he also played a guitar solo. A lot of people have said that he played the exact riff he played on "On the Road Again." I haven't heard it yet myself, but how cool and special is that?

When did you start playing music?
My dad got me some drums and brushes for my sixth birthday. I started playing the mandolin a couple of years later, and then when I was 12, my dad put a fiddle in my hands and told me to play that. I was singing gospel songs with my family band when I was five. You know, my afternoons were so different from those of my friends at school. My dad would pick me up right after school, and my grandpa would come over, and we'd play music right up until supper time and sometimes after.

Who are your three greatest musical influences?
It's not easy to come up with only three, but Dolly Parton would be one. I learned so much about singing from listening to her. My dad, of course, was a huge influence on me. Ricky Skaggs has taught me so much about music, about being a musician and about playing the mandolin. George Jones was also a huge influence on me.

George Jones and his music seem to have been around at several turning points in your life.
Yes, George Jones is the inspiration and the thread that runs through the music on this album. His voice is so soulful, and he does so much with notes in a song.

Tell me a little bit about your approach to writing songs.
Well, I was thrilled to include the first song I ever wrote "Teardrops Over You" - on this album. I wrote it when I was 16. I often pick up my guitar and play a melody. You know, I have to be impressed by the melody or the story for me to keep working on a song.

How have you grown over the years as a musician and singer?
This project has brought a new way to sing for me. In the past I've done a lot of up-tempo songs, but on this album, I learned to slow down the tempo and stretch out the notes on the songs. When you listen to George Jones and Charlie Louvin sing, you can hear how much they get out of one long note of a song, and I learned how to do that here, too. It's like doing vocal acrobatics.