Rhonda Vincent

by Dan MacIntosh

Rhonda Vincent is the go-to-gal of Bluegrass. She's sung with some of country music's best, both old and new, blending her voice with everyone from Keith Urban ("The Water Is Wide") and Alan Jackson ("It's Just That Way"), to Merle Haggard and George Jones (five songs on their duets project, Kickin' The Footlights Out... Again)

And that's just as a vocalist. Rhonda is also a multi-instrumentalist who leads her talented band, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage. The Wall Street Journal (which apparently reviews music now - maybe Spin should offer stock tips), recently called her "The new queen of bluegrass," and her band just took home the Instrumental Group of the Year award from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. With five Grammy nominations and a litany of accolades, the music world has certainly recognized Vincent's talent.

In 2014, Rhonda released an album called Only Me, which is half bluegrass, half country music. Perhaps this unique project will finally make the country music crowd take notice of an incredible talent that bluegrass folks have appreciated all along.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): You didn't write a lot of songs on this album. Why is that?

Rhonda Vincent: I've written more for some projects and then less for others. I have to be inspired to write. I'm not someone who says, Okay, let's sit down today and write a song. It's usually not fruitful for me. I've sat down with some of Nashville's best songwriters, but everybody's cut out for different things, and that just doesn't seem to be something I'm cut out for.

Now, if I get inspired to write a song, it usually comes together pretty quickly, and I've done that. But if I co-write, I usually work on it, then email it or sing it into their voicemail and work on it and send it back. I'm not much into collaborating like that.

It just depends on the project and what songs there are. There's really no method to it.

Songfacts: Would you rank your strength as a songwriter below your talents as a musician and singer?

Vincent: Most definitely below that, yes.

Songfacts: When it comes to songwriting, I imagine there are songs that you've written that you're particularly proud of.

Vincent: Oh, absolutely.

Songfacts: What are the songs that come to mind when asked the question: What are your proudest achievements as a songwriter?

Vincent: That would be a song called "His Promised Land." It was on my previous project, called Sunday Morning Singing Live. I started writing it probably eight years ago in Las Vegas. We were getting ready to go to one of the shows and I just started singing a few lines. We'd go to soundcheck and I would sing the four lines that I had written, but I couldn't seem to get any further with them.

Throughout the years I'd work on it or I'd think of it. So I got ready to do this all-gospel CD - it was recorded live in my home church in Greentop, Missouri. I was meeting with Lisa Shaffer, and I love Lisa's voice and I love her writing. She said something about co-writing and I just said, "You know, I have a song I started many years ago. Would you want to take that?" I kind of write by necessity like that: We're doing a project, so I need a song. And either let's write it, or I'm inspired to write it. I get a thought for something.

But I asked her if she wanted to write that with me, and she took it. I sang her what I had written. She took it, added to it, brought it back, and I worked on it some more.

And that single song and on those shows; I had never had a song that I had written that will move people to their feet. I mean, how amazing is that to have a song like that?

Songfacts: It's a part of the bluegrass tradition, but I get the sense that you are a deeply spiritual person. Would you describe yourself as such?

Vincent: Absolutely. Utterly and completely. Grew up in church, I'm a strong believer. And I don't think it's something that I go and force in people. I think we witness through our songs, when we sing our songs. But also people are free to make their own choices, so we don't turn our shows into "going to church." But we do a lot of gospel songs, and that is some of our most requested music is the gospel music.

And that CD is going to end up being one of our best selling CDs, too.

Songfacts: How often do you play in churches as well as concert halls?

Vincent: We do not play in that many churches. But people come to our shows, and they know our music and they expect that.

Songfacts: You said that this song that you wrote became one of the favorites in concert. What are some of the other songs that you just can't get off the stage without doing?

Vincent: Well, "Beneath Still Waters" is one right now. There's a song that was song of the year for us at the Bluegrass Music Awards called "Kentucky Borderline." If we don't do that, somebody's going to yell it before we leave. Usually, if we encore, they will yell for that song.

You know what, we haven't done this in a long time, but for a very long time, but we recorded "Jolene" - which Dolly wrote - several years ago and that still is a mainstay that a lot of people will say is their favorite. And Dolly says that's her favorite version of the song. She even invited us to go to Dollywood. She did some sort of a special press conference. She has that book program for the State of Tennessee, and she invited us to Dollywood and wanted us to sing "Jolene."

Now, I thought we were just going to back her up. She's there. Isn't she going to sing it? We got there expecting to back her up, and she goes, "Oh, no. I'm not going to sing it. You're going to sing it, and I'm going to sing harmony with you." And all I could think of is, "Please don't let me forget the words." Because we are nose to nose singing her song at the theater there at Dollywood to a full house. So it was a very memorable day for us. I was so glad I remembered all the words. There's nothing like singing with Dolly.

Songfacts: I think the White Stripes recorded it too. That song continues to reach succeeding generations.

Vincent: Oh, yes, definitely.

Songfacts: Now, your relationship with Dolly Parton, I know that she had some really nice things to say about you on the back of the new album.

Vincent: Isn't that amazing? She's the sweetest woman.

Rhonda is an example of how bluegrass families start their musicians young. She played drums – yes, drums! – in her family's band Sally Mountain Show at the ripe old age of five. By eight she was playing mandolin, and she graduated to fiddle at ten. In her mid-twenties, she appeared on the TNN show You Can Be a Star.
Songfacts: How did you originally connect with her? Did she discover your music and reach out to you?

Vincent: No. It was in 1992. I came home - and this was back when we had the corded phones with the flashing red lights - and I walked in the house and the red light was blinking and I hit the button. It said, "Hi, this is Dolly Parton. And I want you to come to Nashville and sing with me." I thought it was a joke, but I called the number back and, by golly, it was her. Carl Jackson had been in the studio recording with her on the album Slow Dancing With the Moon, and she asked Carl, "Who should we get to sing the other part?" And he said, "You should get Rhonda Vincent."

Carl has been so kind. A guy who's not afraid to connect people and to encourage people. A lot of people won't do that, but Carl's been really great at that.

Songfacts: You did a duet album with Gene Watson, right?

Vincent: I sure did.

Songfacts: And what was the story behind that?

Vincent: Well, I actually went to his show in Nashville and I had to leave on the bus. We were taking off that night at midnight, and his autograph line was so long that I finally had to leave. I didn't get to meet him that night, but I talked to his manager. He said, "You know what, Gene's recording an album and we'd like to get you to sing on it."

So I hadn't met him, but I went in, and it was the Buck Owens song, "Together Again." They had me sing the choruses, and then the producer went back and he said, "Okay. I want you to sing from the very top of the song to the bottom. Just sing all the way through." I thought it was going to be the oddest thing I've ever done. To sing from top to bottom seems really strange.

Also, Gene sings with a lot of vibrato, and I don't sing with any vibrato, so when I went to sing that from top to bottom, I was totally amazed. You could feel the special magic in our voices. They had me sing it through just twice. I was just kind of getting the hang of it, and they said, "That'll be fine, thank you very much." And I left.

And he tells the same story. He said he sang the song and he said, "I thought I did pretty good. And the next thing I know, they made it into a duet." It was weird - he's got this new record with all these guests and he's doing the Grand Ol' Opry, the TV portion. And they invite me to come to Nashville and sing that duet with him. And our voices had this really unique blend together. It's probably the most unlikely pairing that you would ever think, but when our voices get together there's just a special magic.

We didn't meet, and my plane was late. I flew to Nashville, and I figured that they had canceled the song. I walk in just as they are kicking off that song on the live television portion. I walk in, walk up to the stage, and we sang that song on live TV before we ever even said hello.

Songfacts: Oh, my goodness.

Vincent: And that is the first time we met, standing on the stage of the Grand Ol' Opry singing "Together Again."

He invited me to sing on another song on one of his projects called "Staying Together." And then there became this demand of people wanting to come see shows. I would show up at his show, we'd sing a duet. We just decided it would be a really great thing to do an all duet project.

Songfacts: Are there other singers that you would like to do a project with at some point?

Vincent: I would love to do a song with James Taylor. He's not really in country music, but I'm a big fan of James Taylor's. And I would love to meet him at some point. That's what I love about the music business; it lets you meet these other artists and get to sing with them. Like, Keith Urban sang on a song with me called "The Water is Wide" on one of my projects, and I sang with Faith Hill, Alan Jackson. I sang on the duet project of George Jones and Merle Haggard, and I said, you know what, this is as good as it gets. When you sing with George and Merle, that's as good as it gets.

Songfacts: Have you heard Suzy Bogguss' new one, her covers of Merle Haggard songs?

Vincent: I have not. Is it great?

Songfacts: It's really wonderful. And it's really kind of strange to hear from a female perspective. But I would think to sing with those two guys, George Jones and Merle Haggard, would be the ultimate. And you were pretty young then, too.

Vincent: Well, it wasn't that long ago. It was the second one that they did, just a few years ago.

Songfacts: Now, you started out extremely young.

Vincent: I did.

Songfacts: How did you turn out so normal?

Vincent: [Laughing] Probably because I still live in Missouri. I still call Missouri home. I don't live in Nashville. I feel like I go back to Missouri when I go home and kind of reset, you know.

Songfacts: And you have children that are musicians, too, correct?

Vincent: Well, they are. They're not doing it for a living, but they love it. They had a band through college. They said, "We're not Mom, but we're the next best thing."

Songfacts: You look too young to have children that are in the business.

Vincent: Well, bless your heart. Thank you.

Songfacts: What's next on your plate? Are you planning to do touring or is there more recording for you?

Vincent: We tour 11 months out of the year. We only take off for Thanksgiving to the first of the year. So we're in the heart, gearing up now for this new project and for a heavy touring season. Looking forward to it.

Songfacts: Do you like to play festivals and that sort of thing?

Vincent: I do. I love the festivals. There's a fine line that you have to kind of balance. We like to play festivals. We're playing mostly performing arts centers. This week we'll be in Texas at a performing arts center. So mostly in the winter that's what we do. And in the summer we move outside to the festivals.

Songfacts: When you play festivals as a musician, does it challenge you when you see younger players? Are you still competitive as a musician?

Vincent: Oh, I think you always want to excel at that. It makes me excited to see these young musicians. That amazes me. I love to see that. I travel with some very young musicians that are just amazing. I'm a fan of the music first, so it's enjoyable when you are introduced to a new musician, young world.

Songfacts: Would you say that the future is bright for bluegrass as far as what you see happening?

Vincent: It certainly is. There are some really amazing players, and they're very young.

March 9, 2014. Get more at rhondavincent.com.
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