Rhonda Vincent Once Again Entertainer of the Year at Bluegrass Awards

Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America Gives Two Awards to the Grascals

As customary, Rhonda Vincent and her band, the Rage, swept the annual awards show staged Sunday night (Feb. 3) by the (SPBGMA). The event was held at Nashville’s Sheraton Music City Hotel on the last day of the society’s four-day national convention.

In addition to Vincent winning the entertainer and contemporary female vocalist of the year trophies, her band copped the vocal group award and band members Kenny Ingram, Mickey Harris and Hunter Berry took the best banjo player, bass player and fiddle player honors, respectively. Vincent has been voted the SPBGMA’s top entertainer every year since 2002.

The only other multiple-winning act of the night was the Grascals, who scored the instrumental group and overall bluegrass band keepsakes, while band member Danny Roberts was crowned best mandolin performer.

Carl Jackson, who has distinguished himself as a musician, singer, songwriter and producer, was inducted in the SPBGMA Preservation Hall of Greats. His citation noted that he launched his professional career at 14 when he joined Jim & Jesse’s Virginia Boys band as a banjo player. He afterward worked 12 years with Glen Campbell, also as a banjoist.

Jackson’s collaboration with John Starling, Spring Training, earned him a best bluegrass album Grammy in 1991. In 2003, he reaped his second Grammy — this one for best country album — for producing Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers. Campbell, Vincent, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Diamond Rio and Steve Wariner are among the artists who have recorded his songs.

Performing on the four and a half-hour awards show were the Rarely Herd (who also served as hosts), the Lewis Family, Ronnie Bowman, the Grascals, Grasstowne, IIIrd Tyme Out and Vincent. Each act did a program of five to eight songs that was sandwiched between clusters of award announcements.

In spite of the competing Super Bowl broadcast, the show drew a crowd of several hundred. But it was not an especially demonstrative group. None of the acts really ignited the audience, even though all of them performed some amazing music.

Little Roy Lewis was at his peak, capering about the stage, spewing jokes like he was talking himself out of a fight and showcasing his unearthly picking skills on banjo and guitar. His nephew and third-generation Lewis Family member, Lewis Phillips, brought some reflection and gravity to the otherwise manic proceedings with his stark and vivid “Empty Fields.”

Rarely Herd were charmingly good-natured, funny and original, even with a few jokes that went slightly awry. Their propensity for transforming country songs to bluegrass shone through brightly in Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Harley Allen’s “The Waving Girl.” The latter was so melodically and wistfully delivered, it should have won an award on the spot.

Controlled and understated though it was, Ronnie Bowman’s singing had the power of a Shakespearean soliloquy. He brought an entirely new mood and pacing to the Jimmy Martin standard, “Mary Ann,” making it sound more stunned and contemplative than tormented.

“This is a gospel song,” Bowman said, as he introduced the most dramatic of his selections. “It’s not about joy, joy, joy. It’s the truth.” Asserting that Satan is a real presence, he then sounded his alarm in music via the apocalyptic “Here I Am,” a co-write with Blue Highway’s Shawn Lane.

The Grascals hit the stage determined to get the crowd’s blood circulating with the raucous “Happy Go Lucky.” And they damn near succeeded, eliciting what was, up to that moment, the loudest applause of the evening. They sailed into a lull, however, with the relatively slow “Feelin’ Blue,” “Indiana” and “The Sad Wind Sighed.” But they turned the corner once again with “Sally Goodin,” the aural equivalent of being caught in a buffalo stampede. It featured fiddle Jimmy Mattingly and mandolinist Roberts vying with each other to see who could do the greatest damage to their strings in the shortest amount of time. In more congenial climes, it would have brought the audience to its feet. As it was, it earned sort of a crouching ovation.

Grasstowne concocted a potent brew with “California Cotton Fields,” “Devil’s Row” and their chart-topping “Dixie Flyer.” But the most dramatic performance was lead vocalist Steve Gulley’s rendering of “Where No One Stands Alone.”

IIIrd Tyme Out brought another stellar vocalist to the stage, Russell Moore, who offered such well-crafted favorites as “Coal Mine Blues” and “John and Mary.” The group summoned their bus driver and newly designated bass singer, Doug Driscoll, to join them for a rollicking a cappella reading of “Rocked on the Deep.”

In closing the show, Vincent amply demonstrated why she keeps winning the entertainer of the year vote. Looking like she was having the best time of her life, she nudged great performances out of each of her players while still blending them into a single musical organism.

Vincent urged her new guitar player, Darrell Webb, into singing the old bluegrass chestnut, “Little Maggie,” and he made it shine like new. Whenever one of her band members took an instrumental break, she paid him her full attention, thus encouraging the audience to do the same. And her stage patter was as deft as her musical chops.

She called Carl Jackson up to help her sing “I’m Not Over You,” a tune he co-wrote and the one that — through the phrase “the storm still rages” — provided Vincent’s band its name. To close the show, she invited all the other acts to the stage to join her in a medley of “Amazing Grace,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Late though it was, the weary crowd stayed to cheer her on.

2008 SPBGMA Winners:

Entertainer of the year: Rhonda Vincent
Entertaining group: Nothin’ Fancy
Song: “Lefty’s Old Guitar,” J.D. Crowe & the New South
Overall 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): NewFound Road
Male vocalist (traditional): James King
Male vocalist (contemporary): Larry Stephenson
Female vocalist (traditional): Alecia Nugent
Female vocalist (contemporary): Rhonda Vincent
Album: The Road Headin’ Home, Grasstowne
Songwriter: Tom T. Hall and Dixie Hall
Bass fiddle performer: Mickey Harris
Dobro performer: Phil Leadbetter
Guitar performer: Josh Williams
Mandolin performer: Danny Roberts
Banjo performer: Kenny Ingram
Fiddle performer: Hunter Berry

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