Rhonda Vincent should have driven a forklift to the ceremonies.
The Missouri maelstrom picked up five major trophies Sunday night (Feb. 4) at the 33rd annual Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America awards show. Members of her band, the Rage, copped another three honors during the event at the Sheraton Music City hotel in Nashville. Even her parents won an award.
Other winning acts were the Grascals, Cherryholmes, Alecia Nugent, Russell Moore, James King, the Marksmen, Paul Williams & the Victory Trio, Tom T. and Dixie Hall and six individual instrumentalists.
Vincent collected markers for entertainer, album and song of the year, in addition to being named top contemporary female vocalist. With her band, she also snagged the prize for best vocal group. In addition, band members Mickey Harris, Josh Williams and Hunter Berry won in their instrumental categories for bass, guitar and fiddle, respectively.
It was a night of stunning performances, as well, notably those of Ronnie Bowman, Lewis Phillips (of the Lewis Family), Rarely Herd, the Grascals, B. J. Cherryholmes and Josh Williams (of the Rage).
SPBGMA is known for the intensity of the crowds it draws. This year, the awards show lasted for four hours and 45 minutes and suffered no significant audience erosion. It’s a measure of just how bluegrass-obsessed these folks are.
Even so, they were not a particularly demonstrative lot. While most paid attention to what was happening on stage, many others wandered around and in and out of the hall, much as they would do at an outdoor festival. There was no security — nor any need for it. Anyone who had a mind to could drift backstage without interference.
The ceremonies began with WSM-AM disc jockey and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs inducting Johnny and Carolyn Vincent, Rhonda’s parents, into the SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats. The Vincents, Stubbs related, established the Sally Mountain Show. It, in turn, incubated and polished the talents of Rhonda and her brother Darrin, who is now a record producer and member of Ricky Skaggs’ band. Even though Johnny had been paralyzed in a car accident in 1965, the family act persevered for years, appearing at festivals and working extended gigs at such venues as Silver Dollar City.
“After hearing all I did from Mr. Stubbs there, I’m kind of proud of me, too,” Johnny quipped as he and his wife accepted their trophy.
The Lewis Family was the first act to perform, opening with the title cut of their newest album, Flyin’ High. Little Roy Lewis was at his frenetic best, picking his banjo and guitar at blurring speed and singing like he was trying to make a point to the universe. But he faced some serious instrumental and vocal competition from Lewis Phillips, his sister Janis’ son. This handsome, third-generation bandsman earned the spotlight and the crowd’s affection with his gentle but heart-rending version of the doomed-lovers classic, “I’ll Be There, Mary Dear.”
Rarely Herd served as the show’s host as well as one of its principal acts. Vocally adept from gospel to doo-wop, the group was radiant in its rendition of Harley Allen’s immeasurably wistful “The Waving Girl.” Just as striking was dobroist Dan Brooks, who ventured a thousand miles from bluegrass with his shimmering cover of Santo & Johnny’s 1959 hit, “Sleep Walk.”
It was Ronnie Bowman, however, who gave the most arresting performance of the evening. After offering nuanced readings of such dependables as “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” and “Cold Virginia Night,” Bowman dismissed his band and stood alone on the stage with his guitar to sing “It’s Gettin’ Better All the Time.” His emotional immersion into the lyrics was a wonder to witness. And everybody listened. For the duration of the song, there was virtually no sound or movement in the vast hall.
Bowman has such exquisite understanding of his material and such understated mastery of vocal shadings that he turns songs into dramas. On this particular number, it was hard to imagine anyone else in bluegrass or country music who could match him.
James King, when accepting his award traditional male vocalist of the year, told the crowd he is currently recording his first gospel album and that Rhonda Vincent sings with him on one of the cuts. The album is due out next year.
The Grascals, who had flown back to Nashville earlier in the day from a show in California, exhibited no signs of travel-weariness. When they took the stage, they blazed through “Will You Be Loving Another Man” and “My Night to Howl” before cooling down with “Me and John and Paul.”
Bandmember Terry Smith slapped his upright bass into submission on “Hear That Whistle Blow,” warning the audience beforehand, “Try to contain your excitement.” The gem of the set, though, was an interpretation of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” that was several degrees more doleful than the original.
Cherryholmes charmed the crowd with a program of original and familiar tunes. It is astounding that the members of the Cherryholmes family have not only have mastered their instruments in such a short time but have also internalized so much of the bluegrass idiom. B. J., the youngest son, took a chance of losing the crowd by playing that over-roasted chestnut, “Orange Blossom Special.” But his fiddling was so adventurous and sure-footed that he made the song exciting again.
Said Rarely Herd’s fiddler, Jeff Hardin, after B. J. finished in triumph, “I’ve got a case with two fiddles and a lot of bows I’d like to sell.”
After all the awards were announced, Vincent and her band took to the stage to round out the evening. It was a relatively brief but energetic set. Josh Williams’ driving lead vocals on “Streets of Bakersfield” conjured up pleasant memories of the Buck Owens/Dwight Yoakam blend. Vincent brought her daughter, Sally Sandker, on to sing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a song, it turns out, that Sandker hadn’t heard until she went to college. For the finale, Rarely Herd joined the Rage for a majestic a cappella rendition of “Rise and Follow Me.”
By this time, the merchandise tables had been torn down and packed away, and the tour buses were sliding into the night.
Entertainer of the Year: Rhonda Vincent
Entertaining Group: Cherryholmes
Song: “All American Bluegrass Girl,” Rhonda Vincent
Bluegrass Band: The Grascals
Instrumental Group: The Grascals
Vocal Group: Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
Gospel Group (traditional): Paul Williams & the Victory Trio
Gospel Group (contemporary): The Marksmen
Male Vocalist (traditional): James King
Male Vocalist (contemporary): Russell Moore
Female Vocalist (traditional): Alecia Nugent
Female Vocalist (contemporary): Rhonda Vincent
Album: All American Bluegrass Girl, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
Songwriter: Tom T. Hall & Dixie Hall
Bass Fiddle Performer: Mickey Harris
Dobro Performer: Tim Graves
Guitar Performer: Josh Williams
Mandolin Performer: Alan Bibey
Banjo Performer: Cia Cherryholmes
Fiddle Performer: Hunter Berry