Rhonda Vincent - More than a feeling
There's a breathless quality to much of bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent's promotional material; "too good to be mortal," a choice quote from former Billboard country music editor Ed Morris, appears on almost every piece. But here's the funny thing: When you listen to her sing, it really does take your breath away -- at least, it does mine, and has ever since the first time I saw her perform at a small bluegrass festival in rural Illinois with her family band, the Sally Mountain Show. That was almost exactly ten years ago, and a lot has happened to Vincent since then. She spent a few years in the Nashville mill, making two badly mishandled mainstream country albums for Giant Records, and a couple more feeling her way back into bluegrass before emerging triumphant in 2000 with a stunning CD, Back Home Again (Rounder). The success of her comeback was ratified in the fall when she received the International Bluegrass Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year award, and she followed it with a showcase at the Americana Music Association's conference in Nashville that startled an audience largely unprepared for her blend of polished singing, instrumental virtuosity, traditional bluegrass drive and raw emotional intensity. That combination, polished and raw, is the key to Vincent's music. On closer inspection, it also challenges some assumptions about bluegrass, and indeed some ideas about roots music in general. Yet avoiding those challenges entails a considerable sacrifice, for as a growing number of listeners agree -- and as more will discover with the June release of her second Rounder album, The Storm Still Rages -- Vincent is making some of the most compelling and exciting music to be heard today. In some ways, Vincent is a kind of throwback to individualistic bandleaders of the past such as Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers. She knows exactly what she wants, and has worked and reworked the lineup of her group, the Rage, until she's only a member away (perhaps not even that) from getting it. "I don't think I really locked in on the sound that I was wanting to go for at first," she says of the early days of the Rage after she left Giant in 1996, "because at that time I would think, OK, it's a song I like, let's do it, here's the people that fell together, and let's just do that. "Then, when I went in and recorded the first tracks for Back Home Again, everything hit home, because I recorded about 24 songs and listened to what they told me: This is the direction I'm going. Here are the perimeters; I'm not going outside of them. I've got to find people who can perform this as well as or better than what's on the album, and can stay within these perimeters. "And since then I've had musicians who are not here because they stepped outside those perimeters. This was not...," she struggles to complete the thought, "We all have to have the same common goal. And now we do. We all think alike, everyone lives and breathes the music." She's focused on professionalism, too, in a way that resembles another country music generation's outlook -- she's not yet 40, but she's been a performer since the late 1960s -- and she bears the stamp of her experience in modern Nashville as well. Sitting in a dressing room at the Mountain Arts Center in Kentucky on a Friday night in early May, with her bandmates warming up and running over some songs at the other end, I ask her about what changes she sees in bluegrass now that she's back. "There seems to be a real trend right now," she replies. "And I feel something that's helped me is that I have experience, from dealing with Giant. Those were my college years -- and college is not fun, but you do it so that you can be that much better at your work and live your life a little better. At the IBMA they do seminars, constantly looking at what we can do to make this forge on, what can make it better. And I'm trying to help bring all these things. I'm going to do everything I can, from the haircut to the makeup to the music, to present ourselves in the absolute best way. And these guys are the same way. "I think the biggest change in bluegrass is that we have SoundScan now, to log these sales, and to say yes, put this album in your store because yes, it sold this many. And if we can get everybody to do that, it will give it more legitimacy in the market, in the worldwide marketplace. Realistically, I don't think everyone will, but I'm certainly doing my part," she concludes crisply. Roots musicians her age frequently sidestep such matters -- though perhaps less so in bluegrass than elsewhere -- but Vincent sees it as sensible, a way of supporting the music. "I want it to stay authentic," she says, and, and when I ask what that means, her response runs in a straight line. "No amplifiers. I hate amping things. We're carrying just a couple of good microphones, we don't have any monitors, and most of the places, I go out to the soundboard and ask them to run it flat. What you see and what you hear is what there is. "We invest our money and our time to have the very best instruments that we can afford, so I want people to be able to hear that. When we had eight mikes up there, they could tweak the EQ on that to where it would sound like an electric guitar. My mandolin, they could make it sound like something from outer space. And that's one of my pet peeves. Let it sound like what it really is, the way we play it and feel it. "So that's why I want to put our best foot forward. We have a first impression to make. If you don't like this music, don't dislike it because I have the wrong pair of shoes, or the wrong haircut, or the wrong shirt on. Don't like it just because of the music itself." That's a formal way of looking at authenticity -- locating it in the sound rather than in the lyric or the personality of the performer -- but it's also undeniably an artistic view. If Vincent frames it in terms of audience acceptance, too, it's acceptance of her music that she's after, and those terms have been instilled in her not by Nashville's oily marketeers, but by her own experience and upbringing. After all, she and her family were sharply dressed -- and sounded great -- on that Illinois weekend, too. "My dad was the greatest influence on me," Rhonda says, "because I performed with him for like 25 years. But it really wasn't what it looked like. There weren't categories; this was our lives, and it was just a way of life, and my dad is everything. He's the entertainer, he's the... He taught us morals; I've never drank, smoked, done drugs, cuss or anything like that. But at the same time, I had a man who's not only my father but who I'm also working with, and he's telling me... He said, 'I've never tried drugs either. If you ever want to do that, just bring it home and we'll all try it.' "So I didn't feel like I was suppressed in any way, because his outlook on this was open to anything. There were no limitations, there wasn't anything that we couldn't do, because it was constantly, 'Here it is. If you want it, then you can attain it.' And I really thank my father for that." Still, Vincent's most constant musical partner has been her brother, Darrin, a sensitive yet powerful bassist and brilliant harmony vocalist who spent years playing with fellow Missourian John Hartford and is in his fourth year as a member of Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder. He played on Back Home Again, as well as on Rhonda's earlier solo albums for Rebel Records, and performed with the Sally Mountain Show before that. For her new album, Rhonda says, "Darrin did a lot of consulting, too. 'What do you think about this? Can you come over and listen to this?' we'd ask each other. So I called him a consultant this time. To me, Darrin is the greatest harmony singer there is. He's the best, and I want the best." Which leads back to her band, and to the music. If there's a single distinctive characteristic of The Storm Still Rages -- beyond the compelling singing, that is -- it's what bluegrassers call the timing. It's not the rhythm, exactly; rather, it's the way the rhythm is executed, a matter of feel. Vincent says it took her a while to realize what she wanted, and even longer to be able to put a name to it. "It's the same sort of timing I had playing with my brother," she says. "That's the timing and the feel that I guess I have been going for and not realizing that it was the Jimmy Martin timing -- not putting the label on it, but always wanting this certain feel. There was always this timing issue, and I don't think I fully understood it until it became more and more clear as these guys joined. And what I've been feeling, they can explain it to you, or say, 'No, that's not right, it needs to be like this.'" The guys can do that because, for a couple of them, it was drilled into them by Martin himself. Banjoist Tom Adams, who joined the Rage at the beginning of October -- "his first day with the band was in the studio," Vincent laughs -- and guitarist/singer Audie Blaylock, who's been with her for a year and a half or so, are both former Sunny Mountain Boys. So, too, is the bass player, Matthew Norton, who is, depending on who you ask, making his debut this evening either as the newest member of the band or as a fill-in. Though the Martin timing forms the tough, exciting core of her sound -- you can hear it in, among others, the album's two originals, "Cry Of The Whippoorwill" and "On Solid Ground", and especially on "Drivin' Nails In My Coffin", a honky-tonk tour de force -- it's hardly right to see Vincent's music as a simple spinoff from the King Of Bluegrass, made with the King's musicians. Once again, as she talks about it, the line in Vincent's mind between deepest feeling and instinct on one end and a professional focus on quality becomes evident. Though the Rage already had most of its present members when Vincent began work on The Storm Still Rages, Adams is the only one who appears on even a majority of its thirteen tracks. Instead, Vincent leaned heavily on brother Darrin and studio guitarist Bryan Sutton, with supplementary contributions from Blaylock, Rage fiddler Mike Cleveland, former bandmember Randy Barnes, resophonic guitarist Rob Ickes, Scruggs-style guitarist Jim Mills, studio fiddle players Stuart Duncan and Aubrey Haynie, and singers Alison Krauss, Ray Deaton and Ben & Sonya Isaacs. Even her dad and other brother Brian climb aboard on a lively version of Jack Clement's Porter-and-Dolly hit "Just Someone I Used To Know". "I was going for feel," she says emphatically of this rare departure from bluegrass protocol, which -- though it's starting to change -- dictates that the band you have on the road is the band you use in the studio. "I always go for who is the first person who fits this song. Mike Cleveland rocks on 'Drivin' Nails'. He rocks. And that's how I pick the players, and the guys know this up-front. When I go in, I'm using the best person for the job; I love you guys to death, but if something else fits better, this is what I'm going to use. Because a recording is forever, and this is what I want. "This is my personal taste. If I record ten songs with the exact same band...I want different tastes and different flavors and to shake it up a little, instead of having the same thing all the way through. I do that even more with the songs, and then picking the musicians is the same way. I don't know that I can explain why I do, because most of what I do is from the heart. I instinctively do it, I do it from my gut and my heart, and not...I don't consciously say 'I only want to use this person,' or 'I only want to do this.' I go from the ears to the heart to the gut." If that approach means drawing on a wide variety of musicians for the album, it's largely because, as she says, its songs have different flavors. Here, too, the inadequacy of the Jimmy Martin "label" to capture the range of Rhonda Vincent's music is evident. For one thing, as she notes, "The Osborne Brothers are the biggest influence on my family's music." The truth of that is borne out by the fact that four songs recorded by Bob & Sonny appear on the album: Bob's "Bluegrass Express" (on which Adams deftly alludes to Sonny's idiosyncratic yet driving style), Hank Williams' "My Sweet Love Ain't Around" ("I got that one from them, definitely," she says), "Drivin' Nails" (of which the same is true), and "Each Season Changes You". Vincent wasn't aware the Osbornes had recorded the last of those, but her high lead vocal arrangement echoes theirs. Then there are "Don't Lie" and "I'm Not Over You". The former presented itself to her when she saw a video on CMT by Trace Adkins; the latter, penned by Melba Montgomery and Carl Jackson, appeared on her first Giant album. "Where Angels Sing" comes from an Oklahoma family band, the Nobles; written by singer Aubrey Noble and her mom Sheri, with help from Darrin Vincent, it appeared on a 1998 album he produced for them. On each of these, one can hear the ears-heart-gut progression at work. "I'm Not Over You" is perhaps the least transformed, not surprising given that Vincent is drawing on her own performance. But "Where Angels Sing" has new lyrics, written by Rhonda and her songwriting partner, bluegrass DJ Terry Herd, and the music has noticeably more energy and a faster tempo than the Nobles' more contemplative version. The greatest change is wrought on "Don't Lie", a good but not outstanding country radio single from last year. The quietly bitter edge to Vincent's lead decisively trumps Adkins' laid-back tone, while subtle inflections in the chorus harmonies drag a welter of emotions along as they crest and subside across the song's four minutes. What's perhaps most significant, though, at least for the long haul, is that The Storm Still Rages has two genuine originals written by Vincent and Herd. Songwriting is something Vincent has found difficult in the past -- and again, it was a practical need that set her to work on the first, "Cry Of The Whippoorwill". "I couldn't find a 'Lonesome Wind Blues' [which opened Back Home Again] to kick the album off," she laughs. "I looked high and low, I searched for albums, I listened to albums at home, I could not find a 'Lonesome Wind Blues'. So I'm driving along on the way to a show, and just started singing, and wrote it down. "I had a verse and a chorus, and when I got to the show, Terry Herd was there, hanging out backstage. And don't ask me why, we were just sitting around, and I said, 'Have you ever written any songs?' And he said 'Well, I've written one or two, I'm not really a songwriter.' I said, 'Man, I've got a verse and a chorus, and I'm recording in two weeks, I've got to finish it. I think it's good enough to put on the album, but I'm hung up on this.' He took it and the next morning he called me and said, 'I've got some lyrics you should take a look at.' He had five verses written! "What we did was finish it over the internet, we started writing over Instant Messenger, and then when we got really close, we'd get on the speakerphone and I'd get the mandolin and we'd sing and play over the phone, and then go back to Instant Messenger and just perfect everything. "So we've got this songwriting now; I finally found someone I feel comfortable co-writing with. The few songs I'd written before were done when I got a burst of inspiration. It's hard. I don't enjoy it very much, it's laborsome, but it's nice to have somebody else to bounce that off, and then just so easily go, 'Oh, this needs to go there. How nice!'" Spend enough time around bluegrass artists, and you'll learn that though it's a style in which feeling is paramount, surprisingly little is said about what that means. "She sings with a lot of feeling" is the ultimate compliment, but ask a singer how or why he does what he does, and "I just try to put the feeling in it" is about as deep a response as you're likely to get. It's as if there's a widespread but tacit agreement that it's something which simply can't be talked about in any detail. Instead, bluegrassers tend to invest their energy in working on their skills, trusting that the feeling will be there when the time comes to let it out. That's what Rhonda Vincent seems to think, anyhow. "I want them both" -- chops and soul -- she declares. It's as visceral and immediate a response as any she makes this evening, but it also reveals an absorption and sustained focus that involves the antithesis of those qualities. "The music has got to be right. I think my father instilled that in me, and when I listen to the musicians I admire, I hear them both. They had both. They got it right and they had the feel. So it can be done, it's just, do you want to discipline yourself to do that? "And in recording, a lot of it's who you work with. Ronnie Light, who has engineered all my albums, he will wear you out. You'll go, 'That is good enough,' and he'll say, 'OK, if you want to keep that...well, you know, I hear a little rasp in your voice.' And so you come back the next day and he plays it and says, 'This is what you sounded like last night, and this is what you sound like today,' and you'll go, 'He was right. Doggone him.'" That passion for getting it right in every detail, right down to taking out that little rasp, is shared by the rest of the Rage, whether it's the veterans, Adams and Blaylock, or young fiddler Mike Cleveland. Late one night at 1999's IBMA gathering, I watched as Cleveland -- not yet working for Vincent -- sat a couple of feet away from the legendary Bobby Hicks (who began his career with Bill Monroe at about the same age as Cleveland was that night) and grabbed a free lesson from the older musician. Hicks would play a tune or a solo he'd recorded, and at some point, Cleveland, who's blind, would stop him and ask for a repeat, quietly fiddling along with him on the particular passage that had caught his attention. If he still didn't have it right, they'd do it again (and, if necessary, again and again) until Cleveland could play it through by himself, which he'd do twice -- once to make sure he had it right, and then once more, presumably, to commit it to memory. It went on for a couple of hours. It's not hard to visualize Vincent learning in the same way, with the same intensity, as she grew up in the Sally Mountain Show. "We practiced a lot," Darrin Vincent recalls, "and we'd fight sometimes, because Brian and I didn't always want to practice. But Dad did, and Rhonda was right with him." And yet, when Rhonda and her band take the stage, the discipline, the attention paid to clothes and hair and makeup, the calculus of SoundScan, the careful considerations of band management, the lessons learned and re-learned and learned yet again -- all of those disappear. Or, to be more precise, they are transformed into a confidence that permits the group to give itself completely to each song. Cleveland's bow flies across the strings of his fiddle, and he knows just where it's going and what it's going to sound like. Adams reels off driving banjo solos and a stream of rippling backup licks that punctuate the music like a running commentary, while Audie Blaylock muscles a booming Martin rhythm stroke on his guitar and pushes his voice up to meet Vincent's soprano. It's an effort, but that confidence tells him he's going to make it and it's going to sound great. And it does, every time. In front of the ensemble, Rhonda stands with her mandolin and sings. Even now, her mind is working -- "every song I try to read the audience," she says, "and if they're really enjoying it, I'll have the guys play an extra break on it, and if I feel like it's not working, then hey, a verse and a chorus is enough and we move on" -- but there's no sign of it in her voice. There, in her singing, that confidence tells her anything is possible. No nuance is too small to be expressed, nor is there any emotion so overwhelming that it can't be shaped into something that reaches out to each listener to say: This is how it would feel if it were you in this story, this situation, this song. And that, just that, is what takes your breath away. "It's unexplainable," Rhonda Vincent admits when she talks about the profound effect she has on her audiences, both those familiar with her music and those who have never heard her before. "I guess I think the love for what we do comes through." ND contributing editor Jon Weisberger lives in Northern Kentucky, where he recently fulfilled two long-held ambitions by playing bass onstage with Jimmy Martin and Hazel Dickens. He recalls that when he first heard "Don't Lie," he thought it would make a great bluegrass song.