Burlington, Vermont. Auburn, Alabama. Nashville, Tennessee at The Grand Ole Opry, on a cruise to Alaska, at a mountain winery in California, at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, at the Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Virginia: those a just a few of the places you might cross paths with musician Rhonda Vincent and her band The Rage.
Everywhere they go, Rhonda Vincent and her musical friends bring the stories and songs of heartland America with them. Vincent grew up in bluegrass, in northern Missouri, a place she still calls home. “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,” she recalls. She loved that so much that she ran home from school to do it, and it turned out to be a love that’s lasted, as the many time Grammy nominee continues to explore and share the musics of America’s heartland.
Her album Only Me points up connections and differences between two heartland musics. She offers two discs in the album, one called bluegrass and one called country. Rhonda Vincent’s voice and song selection anchor the ideas, with her road band backing her on the bluegrass songs and Nashville studio musicians on the country side. “My band could’ve easily played the country songs,” she says, “but I wanted a different sound, so I got a different band.”
These are songs that tell stories and evoke landscapes, through the words, the melodies, and the way Vincent and her musical friends offer them.
She had begun work on a bluegrass project when she was asked to sing on a tribute to country icon George Jones at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. “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. I thought, maybe we could merge these.
“This is an illustration I’ve been wanting to make for some time,” Vincent says. She knew it would be a gamble. Listeners of country music and fans of bluegrass are both intensely loyal, but crossovers between the two? It is a gamble whether either side will accept that. When recording was done, Vincent was happy with what they’d done musically. Somewhat to her surprise, Only Me was a quick success in sales too, rising to the top of the charts at Billboard its first week out.
Rhonda Vincent makes music that’s deeply rooted in both tradition and in her own life. That passion and connection come through, whether she is singing the classic country ballad Beneath Still Waters — first made famous by Emmylou Harris — or a story of hope and redemption called It’s Never Too Late, a newly written bluegrass gospel song by emerging songwriter Haley Stiltner. .
Love for music is a family connection that goes back a long way. “Music has been traced back at least five generations in the Vincent family, so it was something they were doing long before I was ever thought of, “ she says. “When you’re born a Vincent, you’re going to play and you’re going to sing. It’s just a way of life.”
It turned out to be a way of life she loved, and loves still. Fans and friends encouraged her to have a try at what Nashville could offer, too, and Vincent did, for a while. Though she found success there, she also found it wasn’t for her “though I learned a lot,” she says. “I think of those as my music college years.”
Vincent’s Nashville years reminded her once again of the ways a good song can be presented to varied audiences, too. It was only natural that she would consider this: as she was growing up her family’s band, the Sally Mountain Show, played songs from bluegrass master Bill Monroe right alongside songs from country singers including Dolly Parton and Kitty Wells. Still, it wasn’t then and it’s not now that common to make such connections. When Vincent included songs from the country side of things in her own shows as solo artist, though, she found the audiences liked them right along with the bluegrass material, just as, earlier in her career when she’d opened for country acts, she found country audiences liking her bluegrass music.
Vincent gets to the heart of the story in the music she offers, and that’s the connection that reaches audiences who like country, or bluegrass, or Americana, or some other sort of music entirely.
The musicians crisscross the country regularly on their Bluegrass Express bus. Every year around the fourth of July, the Sally Mountain Bluegrass Festival in northern Missouri — “the top of Missouri and the heart of America” as Vincent calls it — it’s her family’s festival — is a stop on tour. If you go,not only will you hear Vincent’s music, but “my mom bakes the pies — she picks the berries and bakes all the pies… ” and with a nod to the well known baking products company which is a long time sponsor of bluegrass music, “always baking right with Martha White!” Rhonda Vincent says.
Update: Rhonda Vincent and her band the Rage continue to tour, win awards, and release albums. You might also enjoy their recording Live at the Ryman, in which they team up with bluegrass legends spanning three generations.
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