Upper Management Music
Rhonda Vincent knows how to keep things interesting. In 1990 she began her solo career as a bluegrass artist—as she had been since childhood when she was part of her family’s band, The Sally Mountain Show—on Rebel Records, releasing four well-received traditional bluegrass albums between 1990 and 1991 that marked her as one of the genre’s most promising young artists. Then she jumped ship, signed with Nashville Giant Records and released two albums (1993’s Written in the Stars and 1996’s Trouble Free) of straight-ahead mainstream country. Those also generated good reviews but Rhonda and the mainstream country market of that time were not a good fit. When she surfaced next, it was 2000, she was on Rounder and had regrouped impressively with Back Home Again, a template for what she had in mind from that point forward: hard charging bluegrass barnburners and heart stirring bluegrass ballads that showed she was equally at home singing a heated, keening line or pouring on the ache of love gone wrong; moreover, she and her exceptional band’s freewheeling, energetic concerts—not to mention Rhonda’s glamorous but down-home image—caught the attention of fans and press not normally in the bluegrass camp. And how to calculate the inspiration her achievements have given younger bluegrass musicians of her gender aspiring to the heights she has climbed in a male-dominated genre?
The song that started it all: Rhonda Vincent & the Rage perform ‘When the Grass Grows Over Me’ at the Nothin’ Fancy Festival in Buena Vista, VA, September 28, 2013. Performing this number at the Grand Ole Opry in honor of the late George Jones gave Rhonda the idea to do an album of country and bluegrass tunes, now released as Only Me. Posted at YouTube by Mac Newell.
Now, after spending more than a decade polishing her bluegrass template to perfection on powerful albums such as The Storm Still Rages (2001), All American Bluegrass Girl (2006) and Taken (2010, released on her own Upper Management Music label), while also embarking on memorable detours into pure southern gospel on Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ (2012) and duet territory (Your Money and My Good Looks, with Gene Watson, 2011), she returns with a truly interesting double-CD set tellingly titled Only Me, with one disc being designated as Country, the other as Bluegrass. Curiously, the two discs combined contain only 12 songs. Why not a single CD then instead of this grandiose presentation? She told Billboard’s Edward Morris Only Me was inspired by George Jones, or rather by Possum’s passing. As a Grand Ole Opry guest the night after Jones died this past April, Vincent, like the other artists on the bill, was asked to sing a Jones song. While performing “When the Grass Grows Over Me,” she said, “I thought how fun it would be to do a project that was half bluegrass and half traditional country music.”
From Only Me: ‘I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing at All),’ Rhonda Vincent & The Rage (Hunter Berry, fiddle; Aaron McDaris, banjo; Brent Burke resophonic guitar; Mickey Harris, upright bass; Josh Williams, acoustic guitar)
I don’t want to say she was pulling our legs, but I believe there’s more to the story than she’s letting on. Reading how she thought “how fun it would be” to do this album, I can’t help but think of the scene in Citizen Kane when Mr. Thatcher, the banker who became Charles Foster Kane’s guardian, fumes over the young Kane wanting to spend part of his fortune on buying the failing New York Enquirer, because, as Kane writes in note to Thatcher, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” Just as Kane had bigger ideas, so, too, does Vincent. With no evidence whatsoever to prove my theory, Only Me strikes me as Rhonda’s revenge: on the one hand, its country is of the dyed-in-the-wool kind, not country with ‘80s rock, New Wave or hip-hop influences but the species of country she has always lived and breathed, the kind of country George Jones, no fan of what country had become in his later years, would recognize both stylistically and philosophically; on the other hand, its country is exactly what she could have done when Giant Records had her under contract, but didn’t want (a Giant executive actually requested she “get the bluegrass” out of her voice); and if there’s a third hand to consider, there is so little distinction between the country and bluegrass numbers here as to blur, if not obliterate, the line between the two genres and, in the end, make the album solely about its titular artist and the music she makes—it’s only Rhonda, as it always has been. As if to press the point, her two upper case guest artists, they being Willie Nelson and Darryl Singletary, who both know something about skirting the Nashville establishment’s idea of country music, well, they appear on the bluegrass disc. Said bluegrass disc features Vincent’s band The Rage, whereas the country disc features musicians steeped as much or more in bluegrass than in country, such as Tim O’Brien and Carl Jackson. I am loving the idea that Only Me is Rhonda’s way of telling Nashville to kiss her grits. She’s probably never felt better about continuing to live the small town life in her native Missouri instead of relocating to Music City
Ponder these fine distinctions between the country and bluegrass chapters, if you will: one has a resophonic guitar in its lineup, the other a steel guitar. One has acoustic guitar, the other, electric. Both have fiddles. On the Bluegrass disc, Willie Nelson offers a warm response to Vincent’s advances on the love song “Only Me,” whereas Darryl Singletary locks voices with his distaff partner on a touching George-and-Tammy-style ballad of marital reconciliation, “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds,” with Vincent’s own atmospheric mandolin augmenting the tear-stained mood. Although the Country side features tunes from reliable country songwriters (Bill Anderson, Dallas Frazier, et al.), Queen of Bluegrass Vincent’s own steel-drenched heartbreaker, “Teardrops Over You,” with its epically wounded vocal, is the album’s highlight. Which is not to detract from the compelling reading of Connie Smith’s monument, “Once a Day,” or the gripping emotion the singer and her bandmates bring to the abovementioned “When the Grass Grows Over Me.”
Visiting Cyber Country, Rhonda Vincent discusses the origin and evolution of Only Me against the background of her family band history and musical influences. Posted at YouTube by Lance Yelvington.
Beautifully realized as the Country numbers are, the Bluegrass selections are even more in Rhonda’s wheelhouse, allowing her to unleash that ringing, piercing mountain cry with impunity—what she’ll do to you in expressing the heartbreak of indifference in Larry Cordle’s “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing at All),” its roiling emotional undercurrent enhanced by Brent Burke’s weeping resophonic guitar and Hunter Berry’s softly howling long-bowed fiddle lines, is simply not fair. Conversely, the intensity of her anguish in Jesse Daniels’s “Busy City,” an evisceration of a fellow who “left a happy home for the city, busy city,” packs a real punch, especially when the hard charging arrangement gets goosed along by red-hot soloing from Berry, Burke, banjo master Aaron McDaris and acoustic guitarist Josh Williams; all the fury these gents generate creates a striking contrast in texture when the soothing, harmonized chorus comes around and Vincent and mates join voices to lament, “I can’t see why you would wouldn’t stay/in a life that you and I have made/safely tucked away from the city, busy city…,” the second round of which is immediately followed by Burke cutting loose with a dauntingly ferocious resophonic solo that rather says it all about the singer’s state of mind. Salvation is at hand, however, in the Bluegrass disc’s final song, “It’s Never Too Late,” in which an imprisoned but reformed murderer—he killed his wife (“she proved unfaithful/and I lost control/on the night that I killed her/I gave the Devil my soul”)–beseeches a prison chaplain for advice on getting into “that great place called Heaven…I want to meet Jesus, and look on his face,” begging the man of the cloth to be told redemption and salvation are still in play. Vincent invests the story with all the conviction she usually musters on such occasions, being a woman of faith herself, with the atmospheric soloing of Burke and Berry underscoring the urgency of the moment.
As if this weren’t enough, Vincent also produced the album, with Joey Crawford engineering. The least surprising elements here are the bright, crisp sonics and the hot vocals—behind the board Vincent knows how to put the kick into her driving numbers and the hurt in her sad songs. Only her? Who knew our gal had such a gift for understatement? And who gets the last laugh? Fun abounds, and wonders never cease.