Rhonda Vincent Rules SPBGMA Awards Show

Rhonda Vincent and her band, the Rage, were the top trophy-winners at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America’s 29th annual awards show. The event was held Sunday (Feb. 2) at the Sheraton Music City Hotel in Nashville. Vincent won the entertainer and contemporary female vocalist prizes. She and her group took the overall bluegrass band award. “Is the Grass Any Bluer,” the tribute to Bill Monroe she recorded and made famous, was named song of the year. And her bandsman, Hunter Berry, was voted best fiddler of the year.

The show wrapped up four days of contests, showcases, trade exhibits, seminars and hallway and lobby picking sessions.

Songwriter and instrumentalist Carl Jackson hosted the awards gala which featured performances by Vincent, J. D. Crowe & the New South, the Lewis Family, Rarely Herd, IIIrd Tyme Out, Rock County and Honi Deaton & Dream. Stretching over four hours without intermission, the show has become something of a bluegrass death march, winnowing out by the end of the evening all but hardiest fans. Even so, a surprisingly large percentage of the audience of several hundred stayed until the last note, and many lingered even longer for pictures and autographs as the artists packed up to leave.

The music was first-rate without exception. But Vincent, Crowe and the Lewis Family were dead-on and dazzling. They each hit the stage with an explosion of music — no chatter, no easing into it, just a total immersion in sound. Vincent’s band isn’t simply one of the very best on the circuit. It’s also one of the sharpest looking, clad in black tailored suits, black shirts and vivid red ties. Sporting the same colors with an even better fit, Vincent was an absolute stunner, threading in and out of the line with her incessant mandolin, radiant with energy. In her all-too-brief closing set, she debuted two selections, “Kentucky Border Line” and “Fishers of Men,” from her forthcoming album. The latter, a gorgeously sung a cappella quartet, seems certain to become a gospel standard.

Crowe and company mixed their bluegrass with country music, as they always have. Ricky Skaggs ’ longtime fiddler, Bobby Hicks, joined them for their 11-song set and earned a standing ovation for his rendition of “Faded Love.” As one band member accurately remarked, “It sounds like three or four fiddles — and all of them in tune, which is a rarity.” “Lefty’s Old Guitar” paid tribute to one of Crowe’s abiding musical inspirations, Lefty Frizzell . The band’s version of Merle Haggard ’s “In My Next Life,” the tale of a hardworking farmer who dies counting himself a failure, could have drawn tears from stone.

The Lewis Family, which now contains third generation members, was a tad ragged in its pacing. But the music was so melodic and hard-driving, and Little Roy Lewis’ comedy bits were so wild and outrageous, that you wouldn’t have minded if they stopped to have a cup of coffee. A warm new addition to their repertoire is “The Old Family Table,” which Tom T. and Dixie Hall wrote especially for them.

To the delight of the historically savvy crowd, the group Rarely Herd invited 83-year-old tenor Curly Seckler to sing with them. Seckler is an honored alumnus of bands led by Charlie Monroe , Jim & Jesse and Flatt & Scruggs . Still crooning and picking right on the money, he delivered a dreamy “Moonlight on My Cabin” that brought the audience to its feet.

At the outset of the ceremonies, SPBGMA inducted into its Preservation Hall of Greats one of bluegrass music’s most distinctive but least remembered vocal stylists, the late Frank “Hylo” Brown . In addition to working with Flatt & Scruggs, Brown built his own band of distinguished musicians, the Timberliners, which, at various times, included Red Rector, Tater Tate, Jim Smoak and Joe Phillips. Brown wrote the bluegrass classic, “Lost to a Stranger,” an achievement that helped secure him a contract with Capitol Records and membership in the Wheeling Jamboree. Brown died Jan. 17 in Ohio at the age of 80.

List of Award-Winners

Entertainer: Rhonda Vincent
Song: “Is the Grass Any Bluer” (Cory Douglas Batten, Buck Moore and Troy Seals, writers)
Entertaining Group: IIIrd Tyme Out
Overall Bluegrass Band: Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
Instrumental Group: Blue Highway
Vocal Group: Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Overall Gospel Group: Lewis Family
Traditional Gospel Group: Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Contemporary Gospel Group: Mountain Heart
Traditional Male Vocalist: James King
Contemporary Male Vocalist: Russell Moore
Traditional Female Vocalist: Lynn Morris Contemporary Female Vocalist: Rhonda Vincent
Intrumentalists Of The Year:
Bass Fiddle: Mike Bub
Dobro: Rob Ickes
Guitar: John Chapman
Mandolin: Wayne Benson
Banjo: Rob McCoury
Fiddle: Hunter Berry

Album: Thirty Years of Farming (James King)
Songwriter(s): Tom T. and Dixie Hall
Newsletter: Bluegrass Breakdown (California Bluegrass Association)
DJ: Alex Leach, WDVX, Clinton, Tenn.
Radio Station: WDVX, Clinton, Tenn.
Promoter: Norman Adams

Special Award Winners

Preservation Hall of Greats: Hylo Brown
Grand Masters Gold Award: Charlie Waller, Rarely Herd, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Masters Gold Award: IIIrd Tyme Out

Set List

Rock County
“I Can’t Go on Loving You”
“Harvest of My Heart”
“My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”
“Sally Goodin”

Honi Deaton & Dream
“I’ll Be All Right in a Lifetime”
“What Should Have Been”

IIIrd Tyme Out
“You Can Take Your Nine Pound Hammer”
“What Was I Supposed to Do”
Untitled instrumental jam
“How Great Thou Art”
“White House Blues”

Rarely Herd
“Durham’s Reel”
“Bend in the River”
“Moonlight on My Cabin” (with Curly Seckler)
“Preachin’ up a Storm”

J. D. Crowe & the New South
“Blue Ridge Mountain Home”
“You Can Be a Millionaire With Me”
“Lefty’s Old Guitar”
“Gonna Settle Down”
“Faded Love” (featuring Bobby Hicks)
“Head Over Heels in Love With You”
“In My Next Life”
“Your Love Is Like a Flower”
“Shuckin’ the Corn”
“Fare Thee Well”
“Fire on the Mountain”

The Lewis Family
“Goin’ Up”
“So Many Years”
“I Plan to Meet You There”
“The Old Family Table”
“I’m Walkin’, I’m Talkin’”
“Old Black Blues”
“A Brand New Song”
“There’s Honey in the Rock for You”

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
“Kentucky Border Line”
“Drink Up and Go Home”
“Mighty Dark to Travel”
“Is the Grass Any Bluer”
“Fishers of Men”
“Orange Blossom Special”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.