Perennial prize-winner Rhonda Vincent pretty much ran the table again Sunday night (Feb. 7) at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America’s 42nd annual awards show at Nashville’s Sheraton Music City Hotel.
Individually, Vincent won SPBGMA’s entertainer of the year and female vocalist of the year trophies, while she and her band, the Rage, took the laurel for best instrumental group. In addition, her band members Mickey Harris and Josh Williams captured the best bass player and best guitarist honors, respectively.
It was almost as gilded a night for the Farm Hands. The band was voted best gospel group and best vocal group. Member Daryl Mosley copped the songwriter of the year award, and bandmate Tim Graves was declared the top Dobro performer.
Flatt Lonesome, which was voted the International Bluegrass Music Association’s emerging artist of the year in 2014, lived up to that designation by winning in the best album and best overall bluegrass band categories.
The show — always an endurance event — ran from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. and drew hundreds of bluegrass fans in spite of the fact it was going head-to-head with the Super Bowl.
The evening began with the induction of Ronnie Reno into the SPGBMA Preservation Hall of Greats. He is the son of bluegrass pioneer Don Reno and a formidable musician and record producer in his own right, having worked closely with the Osborne Brothers and Merle Haggard during the brightest periods of their careers. He also wrote Conway Twitty’s No. 2 hit from 1978, “Boogie Grass Band.”
Now 67, Reno has been performing publicly since he was 7. Since 1993, he has hosted and starred on the cable TV series, Reno’s Old Time Music Festival. In accepting his award, Reno observed that he was playing bluegrass music before it had the bluegrass label.
He continues to front the Reno Tradition band.
Highlighting the evening were multi-song performances by the U.S. Navy band, Country Current Bluegrass, Joe Isaacs and the Isaacs Family, Rarely Herd (which also hosted the ceremonies), Jimmy Fortune (formerly of the Statler Brothers) and Vincent and the Rage.
Dressed smartly in Navy blues, the five-piece Country Current ensemble demonstrated within its first three selections that it is one of the tightest, most versatile bands in bluegrass today.
Each man was a master of his instrument, whether driving it at breakneck speed through such a showpiece as “Catch Me If You Can” or insinuating subtle filigrees behind the vocals on “Hope It Grows” and “How Forever Ends.”
The crowd gave the band a standing ovation.
The Isaacs’ segment was altogether different and a bit ragged at times because ailing patriarch Joe Isaacs was rejoining his family — wife, two daughters and a son — for the show after a long absence. But there was such energy, vocal power and good humor within the group that even the occasional fall from perfection sounded artful.
Their set was heavy on gospel (“Do You Know That Man,” “The Garden Tomb,” “Shouting on the Hills of Glory”) and traditional fare (“Wandering Boy,” Dreaming of a Little Cabin”) but always lively and high-spirited.
Sonya Isaacs’ sky-shattering vocals had the crowd cheering mid-song. Yet she was just as emotionally effective in the quieter passages.
The elder Isaacs — in a joking mood — had the best line of the evening when he cracked, “I ain’t in it for the money, but if I don’t get some, I ain’t coming back.”
Departing for a few minutes from the hosting duties, the members of Rarely Herd turned in a solid performance with roots in both country and bluegrass. From the former category, there were tasteful covers of Terri Gibbs’ “Anybody Else’s Heart but Mine,” Marty Robbins’ “Bend in the River” and Harley Allen’s “The Waving Girl.”
They rounded out their set with such bluegrass-inflected gems as “Heartbreak City,” “Cecil Barfield’s Georgia Blues” and “Preachin’ Up a Storm.”
Jimmy Fortune — his voice as high and clear as ever — was a real dazzler. In a respectful nod to his Statler Brothers ancestry, he opened with their first hit, “Flowers On The Wall.” Although he did not mention the connection, that song, which crossed over into the pop stratosphere in 1965, was written by Lew DeWitt, who Fortune replaced as the Statlers’ tenor in 1983 after DeWitt was sidelined by Crohn’s disease.
From “Flowers,” Fortune moved on to “Elizabeth,” the first of three No. 1s he wrote for the Statlers. He told the crowd that the Statlers performed the song for actress Elizabeth Taylor on her 52nd birthday.
Fortune concluded his set with songs exalting patriotism (“More Than a Name on a Wall”) and Christianity (“I Believe,” “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” “He’s Gettin’ Me Ready”). The crowd endorsed his lyrical enthusiasm with a prolonged standing ovation.
As long as the evening was, most of the crowd stayed on after the last awards were announced to hear Vincent and her band, which now includes her daughter, Sally Berry, the wife of her long-time fiddler, Hunter Berry.
Vincent remains the glamorous and proud mother hen of the group, encouraging each member to shine. After opening with “Busy City” and “Heartbreaker’s Alibi” to parade her own chops, she surrendered the spotlight to Josh Williams to sing “The Girl From the Canyon” and, later, “Blue Railroad Train.”
Then Sally stepped in to lead a high-octane cover of Merle Haggard’s “The Fugitive.” Vincent’s five-stringer, Aaron McDaris, closed the show — and the evening — with “All About the Banjo.”
Here is the complete list of winners:
SPBGMA Preservation Hall of Greats: Ronnie Reno
Entertainer of the Year: Rhonda Vincent
Song: “The Last Parade,” written by Steve Bonafel, recorded by Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Album: Runaway Train, Flatt Lonesome
Songwriter: Daryl Mosley
Female Vocalist: Rhonda Vincent
Male Vocalist: Russell Moore
Gospel Group: The Farm Hands
Vocal Group: The Farm Hands
Instrumental Group: Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
Bluegrass Band (Overall): Flatt Lonesome
Instrumentalist: Mickey Harris (bass), Tim Graves (Dobro), Josh Williams (guitar), Danny Roberts (mandolin), Kenny Ingram (banjo), Michael Cleveland (fiddle)
Promoter: D.A. Callaway
Radio Station: Sirius XM 61
Disc Jockey: Kyle Cantrell, Sirius XM 61