Rhonda Vincent: the queen of bluegrass

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."

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."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com