Rhonda Vincent Rages With Aggressive Bluegrass

(Rhonda Vincent’s video for “You Can’t Take It With You When You Go” is currently being streamed at CMT.com. The track is from her brand new album, One Step Ahead.)

Rhonda Vincent is among the biggest stars in bluegrass music, but thanks to her 14-year-old daughter Tensel, she knows a little bit of country, too.

“She says Keith Urban is so hot, it makes her teeth sweat,” Vincent tells CMT.com, breaking into laughter. “And where she got that, I’ll never know!”

Vincent and her family reside in tiny Kirksville, Mo., where her two daughters attend a small public high school. However, Vincent spends most of her time on the road — last year, she spent 300 days riding the bus.

“I really didn’t get any downtime last year, because every waking moment when we weren’t on the road, I was in the studio. Even right through Christmas and on New Year’s Eve, we were in the studio still mixing and working on the record.”

She doesn’t talk about her workload with contempt or regret, however. If anything, Vincent comes across as incredibly focused. And the fruits of her labors continue to multiply. With three female vocalist trophies from the International Bluegrass Music Association (2000-2002), Vincent also won the IBMA award for entertainer of the year in 2001.

Growing up in a family bluegrass band and now headlining festivals across the country, Vincent’s pedigree has earned her a home at the Grand Ole Opry, where membership is likely only a matter of time.

“That’s one of my favorite places to perform,” she says with conviction. “I grew up listening to the Opry. I remember when I was 2, this man put me on his shoulders and we stood in line all day long to get in there. I always listened every Saturday to the Opry, so it’s like part of my life.”

During a performance at the Opry on May 3, Vincent was joined by one of her closest pals, Alison Krauss . The career paths of these two women have intersected for decades. Vincent went to work in Jim Ed Brown ’s band two weeks after appearing on the TNN show You Can Be a Star in 1985, and a 13-year-old Krauss stepped in for her in the Vincent family’s band.

“She wore my clothes and her hair color was the same,” Vincent recalls. “I saw a picture and I said, ‘That’s not me, that’s Alison in there!’”

After leaving Brown’s band, Vincent returned to Missouri. Yet, she gave Nashville another shot in the mid-1990s, releasing two country albums on Giant Records, then home to Carlene Carter and Clay Walker . The singles stiffed, and Vincent made a conscious decision to stick with traditional bluegrass.

Revitalized, her first album for Rounder Records, 2000’s Back Home Again, immediately brought her to the forefront of the bluegrass field. A year later, she released The Storm Still Rages and now returns with One Step Ahead. Her brother Darrin Vincent produced it, and Rhonda co-wrote five songs on it with Terry Herd — including a quick tribute to Martha White flour, a tour sponsor.

“Our heart and our gut have been our guide through every album we make,” she says. “With every record, there’s a little more pressure, and we get the magnifying glass out each time just to make sure we’re in the same perimeters music-wise.”

While her music remains pure bluegrass, Vincent’s image has slowly become more sophisticated. Like the Del McCoury Band and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage never step on stage looking less than their best.

“That’s something we make it a point to do, because the stereotype for bluegrass is overalls, bare feet, missing teeth and sitting on a hay bale playing a banjo,” she says. “And that’s what having teenage daughters has allowed me. … They got me these jeans [with a stripe of clear rhinestones running along the side] for Christmas, and they’re like, ‘Mom you need to wear this!’ They keep me up-to-date on what people are wearing.”

She continues, “It’s a known fact, no matter what genre of music, that if you want to appeal to more people, you’ve got to appeal to them visually first, hopefully. The ideal thing would be for them to hear the music, and it wouldn’t matter what you wear. But that’s not the case.”

Ah, so that explains the mandolin as well as the red halter-top featured on the jacket of One Step Ahead.

“I probably stepped really out on a limb with this cover, with the cleavage and the belly button,” she confesses. “And some people have looked at that and said, ‘Ooh, that’s a rock and roll cover.’ But that’s the whole thing. We do in-your-face bluegrass. It’s aggressive.”

As an example, she recalls an incident last summer on tour: “My last album cover was more of a glamour shot, and this lady came to the show and she said, ‘I saw your picture in the paper and I told my husband, “We don’t want to go to that. That looks boring.” … ‘But I got to the show and I said, “You’re nothing like that! You’re nothing like your picture!”’ So that’s the thing. If we’re doing in-your-face bluegrass, let’s get pictures that reflect that. This is what we do, and we’re serious about what we do.”

With a brand new album, Vincent’s not about to take a break now. A duet with Joe Nichols will appear on an upcoming Louvin Brothers tribute, and she hits the road with Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard ’s Electric Barnyard tour this summer. She’s also booked for Fan Fair.

“My daughters are coming to Nashville to spend the whole week,” she says brightly. “We have a couple of days with a light schedule, so I promised we would hit every fan club party we could possibly hit.”

Watch the full-length video of “You Can’t Take It With You When You Go.”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.