Monday, April 21, 2014

Bluegrass and country: Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent grew up in the heartland of North America, in Missouri, surrounded by music and diving into it herself as soon as she could..

"Every day when I got home from school, my father and grandfather were waiting, and we'd sing 'til dinner. After dinner other friends came around and we literally played every night of my life while I was growing up," Rhonda Vincent recalls. Though she did sometimes miss taking part in school activities when she got to be a teenager, "music was so important to me -- it really was a way of life. School was just something I did, I had to do, but I'd be thinking okay, now that's over for the day and I can run home and get to the music," she says.

It’s a love that’s lasted, taking Vincent through time playing with her family band, the Sally Mountain Show, to early solo albums in bluegrass, through several years in Nashville working on a career in mainstream country music. It was bluegrass that called her though, back to what has become an award winning career, a joyful embrace of the music she loves, and a commitment to making America’s heartland music in a way that is distinctively her own.

All that comes through on her album Only Me. “There are six bluegrass songs and six country songs on the album, ” she says. The idea of this way to present the songs, and which songs to choose, came together when Vincent was asked to sing at a tribute to country icon George Jones at the Grand Ole Opry. “They asked everyone to sing a George Jones song, so I picked When the Grass Grows Over Me. As I’m singing this, I’m thinking how cool it would be to do a traditional country music project -- I love these old songs and I don’t hear anybody singing them, and I’d love to record them.

“We had already started on a bluegrass project so I thought, maybe we could merge these. You know, it was kind of a gamble,” she continues, “but I felt it was an illustration I’d been wanting to make for some time.” Going back to her days growing up in northern Missouri with the Sally Mountain Show, Vincent was at home with the music of bluegrass musicians including Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin and equally at home with the songs of country stars such as Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

Before that performance at the Opry, Vincent was singing country music classics as part of her appearances on The Country Family Reunion Show, and had been including several in her bluegrass touring gigs. "Beneath Still Waters, just because of that appearance on The Country Family Reunion, became our most requested song --at our shows we‘ve just started doing it no matter what, because if we don’t people will just start yelling it out.” That is one of the songs on the country disc of Only Me, along with with the fast paced Drivin’ Nails and the honky tonk classic Bright Lights & Country Music. “I find that these songs are still new for a lot of people,” Vincent says. She is also finding that these listeners, as well as those who have loved these country standards for decades, are embracing the ways Vincent makes these songs her own.

You might think to find country legend Willie Nelson sitting in on one of the country songs, but instead, Vincent asked him to take a bluegrass turn as her duet partner on the title track of the album. Members of Diamond Rio and singer Daryle Singletary join in as guests, and for each group of six songs, Vincent chose a different set of band members. “My road band, ny regular guys, they could’ve easily played all the country songs,” Vincent says, “but I wanted to make more of a distinction, so I got different musicians for that.” Her road band, including fiddler Hunter Berry, Josh Williams on acoustic guitar and Aaron McDaris on banjo with Vincent herself on mandolin handles the bluegrass side of things . On the country songs, musicians include Carl Jackson on acoustic guitar, Tim Crouch on fiddles, and Catherine Marx on piano.

It is Vincent’s voice and vision which focus the material, though. She sees bluegrass and country both as parts of the music of the heart of America. “When I came back to bluegrass after being in country music for several years, I didn’t know how people would take me,” Vincent says, and at that time she herself was wondering if music was really her future. “We did some shows opening for George Jones,” she says, “and when we came off stage people came up said we love your country music. And I thought --wow! because that’s exactky how I see it.”

That encouragement not only called her on to a career that gives her joy, carries on family tradition, and has seen her and her band members win the recognition of dozens of top level awards, it fanned the spark which would years on turn into the class project that is Only Me. From her early days with the Sally Mountain Show to her current career as an internationally touring musician at the top of her game, Vincent has seen connections between bluegrass and country music, and the things their audiences hold in common. The music Vincent makes is music from the heart and heartland of America. As she was putting together Only Me it seemed the right time and the right way for her to point up and share these connections on record. “This is an illustration I’ve ben wanting to make for some time,” she says again. “Whether I sing with a banjo or with pedal steel, it’s still -- only me.” You couldn’t ask for a better guide to connecting with and celebrating the connections between the soul of country and the heart of bluegrass.

You may also wish to

keep up with Rhonda Vincent’s tour schedule at her web site
and connect with her FaceBook page where she often shares personal notes and thoughts from the road

you may also wish to see
Sunday Mornin Singin’
Rhonda Vincent: Beautiful Star
Julie Fowlis: Every Story

photograph courtesy of the artist

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