Bluegrass bandleader Rhonda Vincent hasn’t seen O Brother, Where Art Thou? and she’s not on the million-selling soundtrack featuring Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss and other acoustic music stalwarts. But the mandolinist and singer can feel the excitement generated by the movie. If there’s a revival of interest in traditional acoustic music, she’s happy to be among the anointed.
"I’m as amazed as everyone else by the acoustic music trend right now with O Brother," she says during a phone interview from her home in rural Kirksville, Mo. "I have higher expectations, or goals, now than I ever dreamed I would have. I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time. My timing in country music wasn’t as good."
Vincent, 38, has moved back and forth between the kindred fields of bluegrass and country music. She grew up playing bluegrass music in her family band, the Sally Mountain Show. Then her clear vocals and deft instrumental skills led her on an eight-year "detour" into mainstream country music. She recorded two albums for Giant Records, released in 1993 and 1996, but had no hits, so she assembled her own top-flight band, The Rage, and returned to pure, straight-ahead bluegrass music.
Last year Vincent released her first full-fledged bluegrass album in almost a decade, fittingly titled Back Home Again. Its sequel, The Storm Still Rages, comes out Tuesday (June 5) on Rounder Records.
"The style of country music that I recorded [at Giant] would have fit right in during the Randy Travis era or when Alan Jackson was breaking in," Vincent says. "But I came in at a time when Shania Twain and pop-oriented music began to dominate. That’s just not me."
O Brother may give bluegrass a boost, but Vincent’s career was on a roll before The Soggy Mountain Boys and "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" propelled the movie soundtrack to the top of Billboard’s country album chart for nine weeks earlier this year.
Like Ricky Skaggs and Dolly Parton, Vincent has enjoyed renewed artistic and professional validation by circling back to her roots. In October, she edged out Parton, her longtime musical hero, to become the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) female vocalist of the year. Then in February, The Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA) named Vincent top contemporary female vocalist and honored Back Home Again as its album of the year. Back Home Again, which has sold just over 20,000 copies according to SoundScan, also earned rave reviews, and Vincent was featured in magazine cover stories and on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion.
The success of Back Home Again created added pressure as Vincent went in to make the follow-up, she admits. On the theory that you don’t mess with a good thing, she looked closely at Back Home Again, breaking down its essential elements and using what she learned as a formula or blueprint for the new CD.
On The Storm Still Rages she covers Trace Adkins’ recent hit "Don’t Lie" in the way her previous album included a bluegrass arrangement of Kenny Chesney’s 1997 country smash "When I Close My Eyes." Vincent recorded Parton’s early-’70s hit "Jolene" for Back Home Again and came back on the new set with "Just Someone I Used to Know," a classic Parton-Porter Wagoner duet from the pen of "Cowboy" Jack Clement. She dipped into the song bag of the "King of Bluegrass," Jimmy Martin, on the last record and draws from seminal bluegrass duo the Osborne Brothers ("Bluegrass Express," "Each Season Changes You") on the new one.
Vincent, who produced both albums, picks musicians with as much skill as she picks songs. In addition to banjo player Tom Adams and fiddler Michael Cleveland from The Rage, the album features ace pickers and singers Rob Ickes, Sonya and Ben Isaacs, Jim Mills, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton and Aubrey Haynie. The bandleader’s brother, Darrin Vincent, a member of Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, sings harmonies throughout.
Krauss adds vocals to "When the Angels Sing." A fellow bluegrass prodigy from the Midwest, she played twin fiddles with Vincent in the Sally Mountain Show as a kid. "I saw a picture the other day of my family," Vincent says. "I thought it was me in the picture until I looked closer and realized it was Alison. She was wearing my dress. We had the same hair color, so until they heard her fiddle, they didn’t know the difference," she chuckles.
Motivated to lead off The Storm Still Rages with as much gusto as "Lonesome Wind Blues" kicked off its predecessor, Vincent co-wrote "Cry of the Whippoorwill" with bluegrass musician-turned-broadcaster Terry Herd. Their creative partnership also spawned "On Solid Ground" and "When the Angels Sing."
"I feel this is my debut as a songwriter," Vincent says of the new album. "That’s the most exciting thing to me about this new record."
She wrote songs in her teens for her family ensemble but feels the Sally Mountain Show albums weren’t made with as much focus as her recent solo efforts. "Now I feel like I can contribute as a songwriter," she says. "This is the first time I’ve written songs and they had to [hold up] right beside Nashville’s top songwriters. My songs are on there with legendary writers like Hank Williams."
The Williams’ tune is "My Sweet Love Ain’t Around." Also from honky-tonk’s glory days, Vincent revives "Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin," a Top 5 hit for both Floyd Tillman and Ernest Tubb in the 1940s.
Vincent resurrected the Carl Jackson-Melba Montgomery tune "I’m Not Over You" from her 1993 release, Written in the Stars, which is no longer in print. Like all bluegrass mandolin players, Vincent owes a great debt to the late Bill Monroe, and she recorded a new tribute to him called "Is the Grass Any Bluer?"
The singer rounds out the collection with the minute-long "Martha White Theme," which will be used in national radio and TV commercials for Martha White Foods. As part of a new sponsorship deal, the company will present Vincent and The Rage with a tour bus.
A name as familiar in bluegrass circles as Gibson and Martin, Martha White earned international fame during its years of support for Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, who performed the theme song in thousands of performances, live and on radio, including their 1963 concert in Carnegie Hall. The company also has been a sponsor for Krauss and Jim & Jesse.
"My dream has been to record the ’Martha White Theme,’" Vincent says. She pauses and laughs as she realizes that the statement might sound funny to the uninitiated. "I know people have big dreams. That was one of mine."