Rhonda Vincent Goes All American on New Album

Bluegrass Diva Reflects on Her Work and Friendship With Dolly Parton

If Rhonda Vincent wants to sing about being an All American Bluegrass Girl — as she does on her new album of that title — then who can fault her? No one tours harder or more brilliantly to keep the bluegrass banner waving.

But as she sees it, the tag refers less to her growing national popularity than it does to her thoroughgoing spirit of Americanism. The album is built around a core of “God and country” themes, she explains. Besides writing three songs for the project (including the title cut), she also co-produced it with her brother, Darrin Vincent.

CMT.com reached Vincent by phone as she rushed from her home in Missouri to catch a plane to Nashville for an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Does she ever rest? “Rarely,” she says. “But that’s my favorite thing — performing. Recording I don’t enjoy as much, but I’m working on that. I have my own studio now.”

As country superstars have done for years, Vincent has taken much of her career direction in-house. Her husband, Herb Sandker, manages and books her. And last year, he set up a travel agency to enable her to host her own bluegrass cruises. For five years, she’s represented Martha White Foods, and she’s just extended her contract with the company for another five years.

Incessant travel is “no problem,” Vincent insists, “because we have our brand new Martha White Bluegrass Express [bus]. … It has granite flooring and marble showers. The pie lady [Martha White logo] is etched into the granite flooring when you first walk into the bus. … [It has] state-of-the-art electronics and pushbutton blinds. They’ve really spoiled us. It really makes our travel easy. … Beyond the bus, there are other things that they do for us. They helped us get on the Holiday Celebration on Ice [that] was on NBC-TV on Christmas Day.”

The genesis of the new Rounder Records album, according to Vincent, was “God Bless the Soldier,” which she wrote after performing for the troops and visiting the military hospital at Fort Hood, Texas. Although she and her band were exhausted after 10 straight days of performing, this encounter inspired her to pen a personal tribute to the soldiers. There is a second tribute, “Till They Came Home” (which Vincent didn’t write), that conjures up images of married couples separated by other wars.

All American Bluegrass Girl features two duets, one with Grand Ole Opry star Bobby Osborne and the other with Dolly Parton, Vincent’s friend and longtime recording partner. Vincent first met Parton when producer and picker Carl Jackson recommended that Parton ask the rising bluegrass star to sing on her 1993 album, Slow Dancing With the Moon. Jackson “fudged” the facts by telling Parton that Vincent would be in Nashville the next day, even though she really wasn’t scheduled to be there until two days later.

“I was home in Missouri, and I had this call on my answering machine,” Vincent recalls. “It said, ’Hi, this is Dolly Parton, and I want you to come to Nashville and sing with me.’ I thought it was a joke, but I called back the number and, sure enough, they said Dolly wanted me to be at the studio at 10 o’clock the next morning. This was like at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and I’m eight and a-half hours from Nashville. But Darrin and I packed a suitcase, and we drove all night long. I think we got in at 4 in the morning. They left a tape at the hotel. We listened to that for probably an hour, and we were in the studio by 10 o’clock.”

That first recording session soon blossomed into a close friendship.

“[Dolly] is just the most incredible lady,” Vincent says. “One of my lifetime highlights was spending 10 days with her when we did [Parton’s 1994 album] Heartsongs. We were doing rehearsals and all that sort of thing. I think my daughter, Tensel, was about four years old at the time, and Dolly would put makeup on her and different things. She is so incredible because, being the world icon that she is, she can be anything that she wants to be. What amazes me is she’s so down to earth. She’s so kind. Last summer, when I was so sick, she came to my house. She drove to Kirksville, Mo., and said, ’I had to be sure you were OK myself.’ That was pretty unreal.”

The Rage — Vincent’s band featuring fiddler Hunter Berry, banjoist Kenny Ingram, guitarist Josh Williams and bassist Mickey Harris — play on her new album. Additional musicians include Dobro player Randy Kohrs, banjoist Charlie Cushman, mandolinists Adam Steffey and Andy Leftwich, bassist Kevin Grantt, accordionist Jeff Taylor, fiddler Stuart Duncan, percussionist Tom Roady and guitarists Bryan Sutton, Steven Sheehan and Cody Kilby.

There is an alluring photo of Vincent on the cover of All American Bluegrass Girl, the latest in a procession of such covers. She sits on the corner of a chair, her head cocked to one side and her eyes delivering a come-hither stare. Then there’s the bare shoulder and a bit of cleavage. To Vincent, the transition from the starched and pretty poses of her earlier covers to the glamorous cast of her recent ones was strictly for marketing purposes.

“There’s a lady in Ohio who’s responsible for that,” she says. “When I had The Storm Still Rages [in 2001], I had just kind of like a ’beauty shot’ on the cover. The woman came to the show, and after the show she came up to the Martha White boutique and said, ’I didn’t want to be here tonight.’ She said, ’I saw your picture in the paper, and I thought it looked really boring. I told my husband I didn’t want to go because it looked like it was going to be a boring show.’ She said, ’Your picture is nothing like what you are. You have energy. You’re fun. You need a picture to show that.’ I had no idea that people were making a judgment whether to come to my show based on a picture that was in a newspaper. I was amazed by that. So from that point forward, I wanted to portray [what I am].”

She says the more daring cover of her One Step Ahead album was made into a poster that “ended up in downtown New York next to Madonna’s. … When they ask what I want [in a cover picture], I say I want something that’s unique and something that’s going to prompt that person to pick up my CD and say, ’Who is this and what is this?'”

During the early-to-mid ’90s, Vincent was signed to Giant Records and promoted as a country artist despite her bluegrass background. She says she regards those four years with Giant as an “absolute plus,” even though she failed to chart a single record.

“I look at that as my musical college years,” she says. “It was four years of learning from the best of the best [including her producer] James Stroud and [manager] Jack McFadden. It was almost like having an internship. … They put me [songwriting] with Jim Rushing and Carl Jackson and Larry Cordle. I learned every aspect of the business. I remember the first time they took me out to get makeup. They tried a hundred different shades on my cheek to find the absolute perfect one.”

Asked if this is the year she’ll finally be invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, she replies, “I sure hope so. That would be great. But you know what? I’ve been very fortunate that … we’ve had, we’ve been invited to perform there.”

In the meantime, Vincent continues to burn up the road. She says she is already booked solid for the rest of this year and, for the first time in her career, has several concerts booked three years ahead. Sounds like something Dynamic Dolly would applaud.

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