Rhonda Vincent was being far too modest when she titled her new two-disc album Only Me.
That “me” is a pretty formidable one, encompassing a soul-stirring vocalist, an endlessly versatile instrumentalist and a bandleader who genius at picking and grooming talent puts her shoulder-to-shoulder with such other fastidious maestros as Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs.
To top it off, she produces her own albums, too, including this one. Only Me features six songs done bluegrass-style with Vincent’s road band, the Rage, and six country-flavored tunes on which she is backed by studio musicians.
Willie Nelson duets with her on the title cut, and Daryle Singletary chimes in on a soaring cover of George Jones and Melba Montgomery‘s 1963 classic, “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds.” Diamond Rio‘s Gene Johnson and Dana Williams supply vocal harmonies on the re-do of the durable Connie Smith hit from 1964, “Once a Day.”
“George Jones inspired [the album],” Vincent explains. “We were on the [Grand Ole] Opry the night after George’s passing [on April 26, 2013], and they asked everybody to sing a George Jones song.
“I chose ‘When the Grass Grows Over Me.’ While we were singing that, this idea occurred to me. We were getting ready to record a new album, and I thought how fun it would be to do a project that was half bluegrass and half traditional country music.”
Oddly enough, despite their country origins, Vincent arranged “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” and Jack Greene‘s 1973 standard, “I Need Somebody Bad Tonight,” as bluegrass numbers.
On the country disc, she revisits five songs made famous by other artists: “Beneath Still Waters” (Emmylou Harris, 1980), “Bright Lights and Country Music” (Bill Anderson, 1965), “When the Grass Grows Over Me” (Jones, 1968), “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin” (Floyd Tillman, Ernest Tubb, 1946) and the aforementioned “Once a Day.”
Growing up as a member of a family band in rural Missouri, Vincent says she was used to mixing country and bluegrass.
She says she separated the songs onto two discs to reach fans whose musical tastes might be less eclectic than her own.
Although Vincent has worked with other producers, she notes that her do-it-all mentality sprang from her father, who urged her and her siblings to take musical risks and be creative.
“Whatever we wanted to do, we were allowed to try,” she says. “And here’s the crazy part. My dad did that with anything. He said, ‘If you want to try smoking or drinking or drugs — whatever it is — bring it home, and we’ll all try it together.’ And because I had that freedom, I never tried any of it.”
Once having earned the right to produce her own records, she’s been reluctant to hand that chore to anyone else.
“When I’ve done that — when I’ve had other people create for me — we wound up not having the same vision,” she recalls. “They didn’t know what my capabilities were or the other things that I could do. I didn’t feel like they allowed me to do that. I know my limitations and the expectations I have for myself. So it just became an easier thing for me to do.”
Vincent has made occasional forays into country music before this. She recorded two country albums for Giant Records in the mid-1990s with producers James Stroud, Garth Fundis and Richard Landis. In 2011 she paired up with crooner Gene Watson on Your Money and My Good Looks to spotlight several Nashville nuggets.
Deciding on which songs to include in the new album came easy, Vincent says.
“When I was standing on that stage singing ‘When the Grass Grows Over Me,’ it was like everything came flooding at once,” she says. “The song choices for the country side [of the album] were so obvious.
“We had done the song ‘Beneath Still Waters’ on the Country’s Family Reunion [DVD series]. From that one performance, when Dallas Frazier [the song's writer] was on there, that became our most requested song.”
Vincent also picked songs for the albums from requests made during her shows and on Facebook.
“I learned that there’s a market for traditional country,” she says, “even though people say it’s dying and that no one wants to hear it. That’s just not true.”
On the question of which she chooses first — the song or the guest artist? Vincent replies, “You never know how that’s going to go. With Daryle, I’ve sung with him many times. And I’ve wanted to record ‘We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds’ with him for quite some time. I was looking for the right opportunity [because] it wouldn’t fit into every project.
“I didn’t want to do the obvious and put Daryle on a country song. I wanted to do something unique. I knew I wanted to do the version that George and Melba did but with a Dobro. But when we recorded it with the Dobro, it didn’t have the feel I wanted. So I ended up putting the mandolin on it and making it almost into a Louvin Brothers-type song.”
The Willie Nelson connection came accidentally.
“I was in Austin listening to the Haybalers [band],” she says, “and I started talking to [disc jockey] Dallas Wayne. He said that every time he talks to Willie about his channel [on satellite radio], Willie always said, ‘Play more Rhonda Vincent.’ I said, ‘I’m recording an album. Do you think he’d sing on my CD?’ He said, ‘Of course he would.’”
So Wayne made the contact with Nelson.
“I had already recorded all of the tracks,” Vincent points out, “but I thought that ‘Only Me’ had a feel like [Willie's] ‘On the Road Again.’ So I sent him the song, and he loved it. He came to Nashville, and I got to go into the studio while he was singing it.”
Vincent even persuaded Nelson to play some of his distinctive guitar licks on the cut.
“That was just a double treat,” she marvels, “because you know the minute he starts to sing who it is, especially with his guitar playing. … It’s everything I hoped it could be.”
In September, just as finishing touches were being made to the album, author Nancy B. Brewer asked Vincent to record an album to accompany her impending novel, The House With the Red Light.
“I asked her when her book was coming out,” Vincent remembers, “and she said in two weeks. So in the midst of doing this album, while they’re mixing a session in one side of my studio, I started recording this new CD on the other side. That one came out in seven weeks flat. I’ve never done that before.”
Thus was born Songs From the House With the Red Light.
The heroine of Brewer’s tale is a girl from North Carolina who sings and plays the mandolin. Vincent, who not so incidentally sings and plays mandolin, as well, took six poems Brewer wrote for her book and turned them into songs. The other six songs she recorded for the project include such old church standbys as “Amazing Grace,” “In the Sweet By and By” and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”
Vincent’s successes and widening reputation are exposing her to new audiences in new venues. She’s even played with a symphony orchestra.
“It was very, very intense,” she says. “I think that’s something that you probably need to do every day. The preparation involved in doing just one of those shows is tremendous. When we do our show, we might ad lib. We don’t use a set list. It’s pretty open. With a symphony, everything is on paper. And you can’t hold it out an extra meter without throwing everybody off. If I were going to do it again, I’d want to do several of them so we could get comfortable.”
For the past 13 years, Vincent and her band have toured under the sponsorship and logo of Martha White Flour. During that time she’s won armloads of bluegrass awards, the effect of which has been to keep her busier, even as her price for performing goes up.
“The more success you have,” she says, “the less it becomes about the music and more about the business. The simple fact is that as your price goes up, you price yourself out of certain venues. If you’re going to ask a certain price, you have to be consistent everywhere you go. So you can’t go back to certain places [you've played before], unfortunately.
“We’ve seen great growth. Last year was a record year for us, and 2014 is moving toward being another one. I’ll bet we have a quarter or a maybe third of 2015 already booked.”
Fortunately, the “only me” lady seems to be an infinitely adaptable one.