Another night in another town and Rhonda Vincent is onstage leading The Rage through another set of tradition-based bluegrass. They’re at Nashville’s Loveless Barn, headlining this week’s Music City Roots radio and TV show. It’s ordinarily a pretty casual affair, the Wednesday night show presenting four or five national, regional, and local Americana and bluegrass acts. But there’s nothing casual about Vincent’s set. She leans into the microphone clutching her F-5 as if her life depended on it, her energy and enthusiasm so intense, she literally jumps in the air as the spirit moves her. And though it’s just a twenty-minute set, the spirit moves her often.
There’s no such thing as a slow night for Rhonda Vincent & The Rage. She plays every show like it’s her last and demands that same level of passion and commitment from her musicians. She’s just as much in charge of the business end, with an attention to detail that would be the envy of any multinational CEO. If Bill Monroe and Martha Stewart had a daughter, she would be Rhonda Vincent.
She learned the business on her own, but the music came from her actual parents, Johnny and Carolyn Vincent. Rhonda became part of the Vincent family band, the Sally Mountain Show, as soon as she could walk onstage. “In the Vincent family, the music is traced back five generations,” she explains. “It was a little more prevalent in our house, but I mean they all played. You could go any night of the week to my grandpa’s house. My dad would pick me up from school and we’d go over to Grandpa’s house, and Dad and Grandpa and I would play until dinner. And then after dinner, their friends would come over, and we played in their living room.”
Yet, this wasn’t just fun. The Vincents had bigger plans. “We had a radio show. They would clear the kitchen; take all the chairs out, and there was only the table, and that’s where they’d put the reel-to-reel recorder and we would record our radio show. By then, we were touring in a local capacity and working probably every Saturday. We had the radio show, we had a TV show. I was five.”
They were local celebrities around Greentop, Mo., part of a proud Ozark music tradition that goes back multiple generations of anonymous fiddlers. George D. Hay, founder of the Grand Ole Opry, credited his conversion to country music to hearing old-time musicians on the Arkansas-Missouri line when he was a young newspaperman. It’s a tradition that includes such country stars as Red Foley and Porter Wagoner and bluegrass musicians such as The Dillards, Buck White & the Down Home Folks, singer-songwriter Shawn Camp, and bassist Dennis Crouch.
For the older generation of Vincents, music was more a way of life than a career path, she says. “This is something that the Vincents did. They would play dances; they played in churches.” But, with an adorable firecracker like little Rhonda added to the mix (she was picking mandolin by the time she was eight), things started getting more serious. And as she grew, so did the family band’s ambitions. There was more touring, more recording, and as Rhonda matured as a singer, people really began taking notice, including producer/songwriter/superpicker Carl Jackson.
“The first time I heard Rhonda—to really know I was hearing Rhonda—was out at SPBGMA, probably around 1987-’88,” he recalls. “(Songwriter) Jim Rushing said to me, ‘You’ve got to hear this girl sing!’ She was singing with the family band, the Sally Mountain Show. She was just crushing it, just absolutely wonderful. It knocked me out. I just sat there and took in the whole show, very thankful to Jim for telling me about her. I got to know her and we became good friends.”
By then, the family band included her younger brothers Darrin and Brian, and Rhonda was no wide-eyed showbiz innocent, having been a contestant on the TV talent show You Can Be A Star. She didn’t win that pre-American Idol competition, but it gave her much wider exposure, at the same time showing her a very different side of the music business. She was paying close attention.
After the competition, she went back to touring with her family and began working with classic country artist Jim Ed Brown, whose love of female harmony goes back to The Browns (his group with sisters Bonnie and Maxine) that first brought him to the top of the pop and country charts in the late ‘50s with hits such as “The Three Bells.”
Makeover on Music Row
She was working a lot, but since she’d been doing that since kindergarten, Rhonda, like other child stars, whether in Hollywood, Nashville, or the Ozarks, wasn’t entirely sure that’s what she wanted to do the rest of her life. “Music was something we always did. It was our way of life. New opportunities would present themselves and we would participate in that opportunity, but still there was this core of this family music.”
She was starting to stretch out on her own, signing with Rebel Records as a solo artist, even as she continued working with the Sally Mountain Show. She was recording her third solo album, 1991’s Timeless And True Love, when her friend Carl Jackson changed her life. “I went from Jim Ed Brown back to Mom and Dad, you know, still touring with Sally Mountain. And, I did my first solo projects for Rebel Records and it was on the the third project that I met James Stroud, thanks to Carl Jackson. He was recording in Studio A, producing Clint Black’s very first album, and I was recording Timeless And True Love. We were in between the control rooms, getting coffee, and Carl introduced me and said, ‘Go get a CD for James.’ I didn’t know who James Stroud was. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, this CD cost me $8 and he wants me to give one to this guy?!’ That was my thought, but I didn’t say anything. I went out to Mom and Dad’s bus, which was Jim & Jesse’s old bus. I got the CD and gave it to him. And he came back the next day and said, ‘I want to work with you.’ And about a year later, he was president of Giant Records and signed me to the label. So there I am, working with the hottest producer in Nashville and James McFadden, the most sought-after manager, and I was just thrust into all this and didn’t even realize. It was a whirlwind.”
It was 1994, the height of the Garth Era and country was the biggest music in America. Nashville was a boomtown and, with the success of former bluegrassers Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Keith Whitley, Marty Stuart, and The Whites, mainstream country saw bluegrass as its farm team. Harley Allen signed with Mercury. Shawn Camp was on Warner Bros. Rhonda was on Giant. But, what her label didn’t tell her was that, in return, she had to forget her roots.
“The first recording with Giant, they brought me in the office and said, ‘Can you get the bluegrass out of your voice?’ And it was like, ‘Now wait a minute!’ For many years, people said I was country. I was kind of confused. For me, it was the same. It wasn’t until later, when I put my first band together with some friends and we opened some shows for George Jones with a bluegrass band. When we came offstage in Salem, Va., the first night, those people bought every CD we had. It was like a movie. Everything was in slow motion. There was cellophane and money flying everywhere. In 15 minutes, they bought everything. But they said, ‘We love your country music.’ And I was like, ‘I get it now. It’s the perception of the listener.’ They thought it was country music. Well great, ’cause it was bluegrass. It wasn’t what I perceived to be country music.”
That moment was the seed of her newest album, Only Me, a two-CD set that includes one six-song bluegrass CD and one six-song classic country CD. Hard-shell bluegrass fans who have no use for drums and steel guitar can ignore the latter. But for Rhonda, that musical mix is a Vincent family tradition. The title is the answer to the question she knew she’d hear when she released the project. “Is it country or is it bluegrass? No, it’s Only Me.
“Growing up, it was never clearly defined,” she says. “We were playing country music. My dad would play an electric guitar, and then he would grab the banjo and sing a Jimmy Martin song. My grandpa would sing Bill Monroe. Aunt Catherine would sing Kitty Wells, and my mom sang Loretta Lynn. These were all melded together. There wasn’t that defining thing.” That defining thing reared its head in two very different ways. Her country record label wanted her to be very much a modern pop-country singer, making glitzy videos and leaving her Ozark bluegrass roots behind. But her stricter bluegrass fans demanded she not get above her raisin’. “That’s why this was very strange to me. ‘Oh, you’re this or you’re that.’ No, I’m not, because this is my family, and this is what we do and it all goes together.”
Along with her music, her label was making the rest of her over as well, putting her through the Nashville star-making machinery. It was thrilling—at first. “The first thing that Giant Records did was send me to a stylist, and the first thing I learned was that I was wearing clothes two sizes too big. They always say whatever your size is, if you’re a two offstage, onstage you’re a zero. And they put a hundred shades of blush on my cheek until this is the absolute perfect color for your face! And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! I’ve never been anywhere except the local drug store and just picking out some color and wearing it. It was so enlightening, so exciting. ‘Wow, this is a whole new life for me.’”
However, like Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, she soon saw behind the curtain and realized that “whole new life” wasn’t the one she was meant to live. “They were a machine and they had it down to a perfect science,” she says. “And I think that’s what Nashville became, just this cookie cutter. Me being in a family band, we were all in this together. And I thought that was how this worked, but when I did voice my opinion, it was not met with a great deal of excitement.”
As important as looks and talent are, compliance is an even more highly regarded asset in the country music business. Rhonda Vincent simply would not let them turn her into someone else. “They wanted to put me in these silver space pants; they asked me to sing a song that said: Come over here, honey, and sit on my lap and open a beer. And I just called them and said, ‘I would never sing that. And I think that was the beginning of the end right there.”
Good to be a Queen
She made two albums for Giant/Warner, neither of which made much of a dent in the country charts. But Vincent says she took a lot away from the experience, including that shade of blush and other makeup advice. “I still go to the same place. They mix up the perfect color. You always want to go here to get your perfect color. Maybelline Mascara is absolutely the best that you’ll find. Lip color same thing. I took so much of that. And I mean I got to watch James Stroud in action. He’s a monster when it comes to recording or producing. And Stan Barnett, agent of the year. I got to watch him in action, sharing his philosophy of booking. He taught me that you have to build relationships and it’s not just, ‘O.K., book my band. I don’t care if you lose money or whatever.’”
When she lost her major label deal, she was ready for the next step, going back to her roots and taking more control of her career.
“When I was still a teenager and did You Can Be A Star, when I came back from that, I started learning the business more. My dad said to me, ‘You’re going to book us.’ And it all came from necessity. ‘You’re going to do this.’ And I started producing the music; I started booking us. So that was something I was doing naturally, anyway. I look at the time with my family as my musical college. So then, there I was. I made these two albums for Giant and I came to this crossroad: ‘O.K., I’ve learned all this. Now what am I going to do with it?’ And so, just for fun, I put together a group of friends. ‘Let’s get together and play.’”
They played bluegrass and her new group soon started getting booked on the festival circuit. But more important, she was enjoying herself again. Music was a joy again, instead of just a job. “It was so much fun and it was so natural. I thought, ‘O.K., is this what I’m supposed to be doing? O.K., God, what is your will in my life? I’ve done this and I’ve done that. I have all this information, now what am I supposed to do with that?’ And, at that point, it just seemed like I was just at the right place at the right time. Everything fell into place.”
Things again were happening fast, but this time, they were happening more on her terms. She signed with Rounder and her first album, the appropriately titled Back Home Again, brought her to the attention of The Wall Street Journal, which crowned her the “New Queen of Bluegrass.” She won the first of seven consecutive IBMA Female Vocalist Of The Year awards, a streak running from 2000 through 2006. And she earned the seal of approval from the ultimate bluegrass sponsor, Martha White, legendary sponsor of Flatt & Scruggs.
In true Rhonda Vincent style, she approached Martha White after she’d recorded the flour company’s iconic theme song on her 2001 CD The Storm Still Rages. “I wrote a letter and just basically told them I had grown up using Martha White and I had taught my daughters to cook using Martha White, and how I had recorded their song and how much I’d like to represent their company. And I guess they were postured to begin sponsoring bluegrass again. I was in the right place at the right time.”
In May, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage celebrated 13 years of riding around in the Martha White bus. For a while, they even sold Martha White products at their merch table and she still participates in the company’s annual National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tenn.
Wearing an apron and baking up a batch of Martha White cornbread in a black iron skillet is a pretty traditional woman’s role. And her music remains just as staunchly traditional. Even when she returned to country music for a duet album with an established Nashville star, it was veteran singer Gene Watson. But she knows that her dual roles as bandleader and businesswoman break new ground in bluegrass. “It was almost like it was, ‘Women belong in the kitchen and they certainly don’t belong in a bluegrass band.’ But I think my generation transcended that.”
One of those pioneering female bandleaders is Katie Laur, who toured nationally with her Katie Laur Band from the mid-‘70s to 1982. She counts herself among Vincent’s early fans, first playing her Rebel CDs on her radio show Music From The Hills Of Home, which has aired on WNKU (89.7) in northern Kentucky, across from Cincinnati, for 25 years.
Katie recalls, “I remember when I first played ‘I Do My Crying At Night.’ Man, that song grabbed me so bad, and her voice just soared. She just got it. She just put it out there. She is a roots bluegrass singer. She’s got it over all the rest of ‘em as far as being an Osborne Brothers-type bluegrass singer. She’s got it nailed. I wish for her to come up with that one great song and get what she’s really due, finally crash that glass ceiling.”
When she does, it definitely won’t involve silver space pants. She and her husband of thirty years, Herb Sandker, recently took more control of her career. Only Me is on Vincent’s new Upper Management label, so there were no accountants telling her why she couldn’t release that double CD. And she’s been proven right again. Only Me debuted at number one on Billboard’s Bluegrass Chart, ending the four-month run of Alan Jackson’s The Bluegrass Album.
Anyone who has seen a Rhonda Vincent & The Rage show knows she likes to be in charge. It’s not that she’s a control freak, but she learned the hard way that no one cares about her career as much as she does. “I’ve seen what happens when somebody else takes control of (my career) and it falls apart. And I did not like that. They did this, and it didn’t work. So O.K., at least when I do it, I have only myself to blame, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make it work, and I know where my motivation is coming from.”
Dealing with bandmembers was another challenge. Not surprisingly, in the tradition-minded world of bluegrass, some male musicians have problems taking orders from a female boss. “I think there have been a lot of people (in the band) who didn’t like that a woman was of the authority. They might have wanted to run the band or their idea for the band was another idea. But this is my band, so I’m running this.” And just like running her business, she had to learn how to lead a band. “I just kind of found my way with that. I’ve had a whole band quit on me. And everybody said, ‘Oh, I guess you’re gonna quit now.’ And I was, ‘Are you kidding me? I know what I’m gonna do.’
“What I learned then was, no matter how much you pay someone, if their goals are not the same as yours, if you’re not together as a group and if somebody is seeking to be a solo artist, it’s impossible to be part of the group and be a unit. I’ve had alcoholics, I’ve had everything (in the band)…sexual innuendoes. And I didn’t really, early on, understand all of that. I really didn’t know what was going on and then it was, ‘Ohhh.’ And so I think as the progression went on, my tolerance got lower, and I said, ‘I’ve helped you out, I pay you well, and now you want to quit.’ I really lost my tolerance for that. So then, I get a reputation for being a hard case. And I say, ‘Yeah, that’s right. I am, because I have high expectations and you better play well and dress well. There are these expectations.’ We don’t use a setlist, and I’ve had guys say, ‘I can’t work like this. We don’t use a setlist and I can’t do that.’ So I said, ‘Well, O.K. Then you can’t be here.’
“I have learned that you have to hire not only people who are great musicians, but great people. If you talk to the guys (current bandmembers), they’ll say, ‘This job is very easy. Do your job.’ This is just the best combination of great musicians and great people.”
One reason for that judgement might be the fact that The Rage has become something of a family band in its own right. Fiddler Hunter Berry, a 12-year member, is married to Rhonda’s daughter Sally, while the new guy, resonator guitarist Brent Burke (two years in The Rage), is married to her younger daughter Tensel. Josh Williams returned last year on guitar and vocals and has logged a total of five years, while Mickey Harris has ten years on upright bass. Banjo player Aaron McDaris is a five-year Rage veteran.
Along with her musicianship and business smarts, Vincent’s disciplined leadership is another reason she’s a role model. And not just for female bluegrass pickers. When Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent were thinking of starting a band, Dailey sought out his partner’s big sister. “I really didn’t get to know Rhonda that well until Darrin and I started hanging out together and singing. In 2002, Darrin was producing one of her records, and he called and said, ‘Rhonda and I want you to sing on this.’ And it was a song called ‘Kentucky Borderline.’ We both sang on it with her and it was (IBMA’s 2004) Song Of The Year.”
Both men were still in the bands for which they’re best known prior to forming Dailey & Vincent—Dailey with Doyle Lawson’s Quicksilver and Vincent in Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder. As Dailey’s musical bond with Vincent grew, he also got to know Rhonda better. “We were planning to start our band. I was gathering information from different leaders to get their take on the business, see how they thought things really worked, as opposed to what I thought. We actually met at O’Charley’s one time and ate and talked.”
She says she advised them both to let their bandleaders know about their plans as soon as possible and give them plenty of notice before they had to replace them. Rhonda Says, “I told him, ‘Go tell Doyle—and Darrin, go tell Ricky—and they might keep you on.’ And I think that was the single-most thing that helped launch them, because they were honest.” She says that’s good advice for anybody planning to leave an established band and start their own. “Number one, don’t go to the promoters and tell them you’re thinking about forming your own band. That’s just plain wrong. As a bandleader, I’m paying you, and you’re stabbing me in the back. Be up front, and (your bandleader) would probably love to have you (stay). And then you can say to the promoters, ‘I’m with so-and-so this year and, next year, I’m going to have my own band.’ That’s what Jamie and Darrin did and that really gave them a year to promote themselves before they were even in a band.”
Dailey says one of Vincent’s most admirable qualities can’t be taught. “One thing I love and admire about Rhonda is her strong work ethic,” he explains. “And her brother is the exact same way. That’s something that was built in them, in their DNA. In order to have a strong business, you can have a strong mindset, but if you’re not going to put in the hours behind it and work, it’s not gonna happen.”
Boy, does she ever put in the hours. When not on the road, she divides her time between Nashville and Missouri, near where she grew up. And along with all the work that bluegrass bandleaders have dealt with since Bill Monroe left Charlie—handling the band, overseeing the bookings, making sure there’s plenty of merchandise on the bus before you head out, and a thousand other details—she applies that “strong work ethic” to her fans, keeping in touch with them through social media, “I call her the Twitter Ninja,” says Carl Jackson, referring to her relentless attention to that method of staying close to her fans. She’s also an avid Facebooker. To her, it’s all connected.
“So much of music today, on stage or in the studio, it’s a production. It’s not the realness of the music,” she says. “What we do has become more of an experience. You’re going to come and see the music; we’re going to meet and greet you afterward. We’re going to sign everything, no matter how many hours it is. And then beyond that, you have the Internet and Facebook. I have all these women that I would never dream would even be on Facebook, older women. They say, ‘I had my kids get me a computer and I log onto your Facebook every morning and see what you’re doing. I’m living through you. I get to travel through you, because we can’t travel, but I can’t wait to see what you’re up to.’ I had a guy who was at the show Friday night, and he said, ‘Are you drinking enough water?’ And I said, ‘Probably not.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to put a message on your Facebook every day and remind you.’ And this morning, he did! Is that not the sweetest? Thanks to David,” she says, hoisting her water bottle. “I better have a drink.”
That mutual devotion between Vincent and her fans has not gone unnoticed by promoters. She was recently part of Larry Black’s Simply Bluegrass edition of his popular Country’s Family Reunion TV program/DVD series. And before that, she was such a favorite on the regular Country’s Family Reunion series that he added her to his Country’s Family Reunion cruises.
Black was new to the devotion and active participation of bluegrass fans in general and Rhonda Vincent fans in particular. “Rhonda was on our cruise last year and 11-12 o’clock at night, a lot of her fans on the boat brought their mandolins, their banjos, whatever, and they’d book the top of the ship, and they had their own little bluegrass jam. It was just amazing.”
It’s all part of the Rhonda Vincent plan for world domination. She drew some of her own fans, but her presence on the cruise was to convert those classic country fans into Rhonda Vincent fans. After all, they’d find a lot more to like in her music than in most of today’s commercial country. “The jam was so popular, we had it in the conference room and it filled up on the first night,” she says. “It was so packed that people couldn’t get in. We had Moe Bandy and Barbara Fairchild and Jeannie Seely. Mike Johnson brought his steel. And all these people joined in. Everybody got involved, and it was so fun.”
She picked the 12 songs on Only Me, which features guests Willie Nelson and Daryle Singletary, with that same audience in mind. “Those are all the songs from the Country’s Family Reunions. ‘Beneath Still Waters’ has become our most requested song simply from our appearance on Country’s Family Reunion. People ask, ‘Was it hard to pick the songs?’ No, because these are the songs people were asking for anyway.”
From the Vincent family’s Sally Mountain Show to Country’s Family Reunion, Rhonda Vincent’s musical life has been a family affair. But there’s one more she’d like to join, the close-knit family of Grand Ole Opry members. She estimates she’s guested there more than 150 times and, of course, she knows Flatt & Scruggs’ “Martha White Theme.” If she really sets her mind on Opry membership, don’t bet against her. It’s just one more world to conquer for a woman who has been a leader in a music genre with a history of not being very accepting of women in leadership roles. But from running a label to running a band to picking the mandolin and keeping that high, lonesome sound alive for another generation, Rhonda Vincent’s proven she can do everything that the best of her male counterparts can do, and she can do it in a sequined gown and stiletto heels.
If there’s been any lingering prejudice against women bandleaders, Jamie Dailey says, “Rhonda Vincent has conquered that, too. She has conquered it in a big way. She’s tough…she’s tough. I can tell you that. She can hang,” he adds with a laugh. “Her persistence and dedication is one of the biggest things that anyone can learn from Rhonda. But she not only has a great business sense and a great work ethic, she’s also a great singer,” Dailey says. “She’ll go down in the history of bluegrass music as one of the true greats.”