You didn’t grow up in the mountains, but you grew up with mountain music. How did that happen, and what drew you to bluegrass?
Well, it was a musical family, traced back at least five generations of the Vincent family, so it was a way of life, and just something that my family did. My dad had his first documentation on recording when he was 16 years old, when they brought by a portable machine that made vinyl recordings – so just this wonderful life of music that I grew up [in]…
I started singin’ when I was three, and when I was five we had a television show and a radio show and made our first recording. It’s just something that the Vincent family did. My mom, when she married my dad, you know, he taught her how to play the standup bass and realized that she had some natural talent because she already played the piano, and I don’t think he even knew that she sang as well as she did. So if you were born into the family or you married into the family, you were expected to play music.
What do you love about that sound, the instruments, the voices, the bluegrass sound?
Well, there’s nothing like it. There’s an authenticity that you’ll find in acoustic music that I don’t think you’ll find in anywhere else. It probably wasn’t so much analyzed until the current day because now we have lip synch and we have ProTools and we have tuners. There’s so many different electronics that you can involve in what a lot of music, a lot of genres of music, incorporate all of these electronics, and that’s ok, but when you’re performing or recording acoustic music, there’s an authenticity that I think has to stay in that, you know, in the basic core that you present, and I’m not sure it can be described.
I think when people hear it, they love it or they feel it, and that’s something that I love about it. I love gathering around one microphone – which we have a brand-new live DVD that just came out and there’s a song on there that we gather around one microphone and sing a gospel quartet. And it’s what you see is what you get.
Do you think there is a place for that other kind of music, the glossy, technological music, today?
Oh certainly! I mean, there’s a place for every style of music – there’s a fan out there for no matter what type of music. There’s so many different age groups – every person is individual and has their individual traits, so there’s something for everyone, and I think what really enhances that is the internet. Folks can go online and you can find any style of music that you want now. You can go to Amazon.com and you know, I don’t know how many styles of music they have – pretty much every style of music, so it’s not that any of it’s bad, good, right, wrong, it’s just that there’s something for everyone.
My personal preference is bluegrass and country – I also love James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt – I love different styles, but for me to perform, I probably don’t venture too far away from bluegrass music and acoustic music.
I was reading that in the ’90s, you moved into country music, and then you came back to bluegrass. Why did you move, and why did you come back?
Well, I think I was growing musically – I look at that as my musical college years – not necessarily learning music, but more or less learning the business. I was making my third solo project for Rebel Records, continuing to perform with my family, the Sally Mountain Show, and I met James Strauss, who is one of Nashville’s top producers, and Carl Jackson introduced us and said, “Give him a CD.” And I did, and he came back the next day and he said, “I wanna work with you.”
So I was in Nashville for about five years, learning, recording. Did the two country albums, videos, and I soaked in every aspect from management to agency to songwriting to publishing – all of the business part of that, and I’m very grateful for that… I think that’s brought me where I am today. That’s one element.
The other element is when I was performing at festivals with my family, people would say, “Your voice is so country. You should be in country music.” And I think I was a little confused by that, but then when I had the opportunity I went for it, and went into country music. As soon as I made my first recording in country music, my manager brought me in his office and he said, “Can you get the bluegrass out of your voice?”
And so from those two things, and also from opening shows for George Jones with my bluegrass band, and people [coming] up to us afterwards and [saying], “We love your country music!” I discovered that it’s the perception of the listener.
The voice is the same, a lot of the songs are the same – the only difference on a lot of things is the instrumentation that we have. So it’s the perception of the listener, and I think I was just experimenting and learning so much, and then came at a crossroads after those two country albums to decide which way am I gonna go, and that’s when I put together my first bluegrass band. The response was overwhelming and I seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and I signed with Rounder Records and with an agency, and everything fell into place from there.
It sounds like coming back to bluegrass was like coming home – it’s the music you grew up with – what was it about bluegrass, musically, that you knew that was where you fit best?
Well, it’s all acoustic, like I say, it’s what’s-you-see-is-what-you-get. For a long time I just used one microphone onstage. [Later,] when we would set up, we’re using multiple mics, we would do an extensive sound check and then we would get to our show and then the sound system would just be a disaster. And John Hartford – we were doin’ a show with him in New York City at the Bottom Line, and he was using one microphone, and we opened for him, and it was such a fiasco, he said, “Why don’t you try my one mic?”
And so we did, and it was the most natural thing, and I think that’s the way with the music. I just grew up with this acoustic music and one microphone – it just felt like we were standing in the living room like I did growin’ up, playin’ music – so that’s where’s I’m most at home. I have just never been happier [than] when I started back into bluegrass, so it was a natural progression.
I know this is a simple question, but beyond performance practice, the single microphone, etcetera, how do you describe the difference between country and bluegrass?
Well, the greatest difference is the instrumentation. In bluegrass, there is a set of instruments that are prevalent. You have the banjo, and acoustic guitar and acoustic bass, mandolin and sometimes a fiddle and a dobro. In country music you have a specific set of instruments – most likely a large set of drums, and electric bass, and electric guitar, and sometimes a piano and a steel guitar and a fiddle. So adding all those different elements – I mean, you could take the same song, which I have – “I’m Not Over You” is a classic case – that was my first single on Giant Records on steel guitar. I then recorded it with acoustic instruments and like I say, the voice is the same and the song is the same, it’s just basically the instruments that are different, and I think it all comes down to personal preference.
You say that bluegrass can be “cutting edge.” How do you make bluegrass different – how do you take it away from the stereotypes?
Well, I guess my voice is different, number one, and that seems to be something that’s missing a lot in country music. I’m glad that when people hear my voice they say they instantly know who it is, and I think that’s a very exciting trait, and I’m very flattered that they do recognize that. Um – and tell me your question again! [laughs]
How do you take bluegrass beyond the stereotypes?
So the voice is something that’s different, but I’m not sure that there’s ever been a secret formula or a specific formula – I pretty much do everything by feel – it’s something that I have to feel – and I’ve wanted to keep the real traditional sound. When I first signed with Rounder Records, Ken Erwin and I sat down to decide which direction… before, when I did solo projects, I recorded whatever I felt like – whatever song, whatever style, you know, ok, it might be contemporary, it might be real traditional. Well, we specifically sat down and he said, “you know, there’s a little void for any women who are playing straight ahead, traditional bluegrass music.” And there wasn’t anyone out here who was doin’ in-your-face traditional bluegrass.
So I had to find the parameters. I cut I think about 24 songs for my first Rounder album – I was searching. And some of those were real contemporary songs – one was called “Straight and Narrow” that did not make the record. Then I did “Lonesome Wind Blues” – that just – it was a comfort level, and something that just seemed to have what they would call a buzz, or a, a magical sound, and “Lonesome Wind Blues” became that prototype for what I do.
It’s like, ok, this is the opener, this is straight ahead bluegrass, and then… I would do a ballad, and it didn’t really change anything from what I’d been doing with my family, because with the different members of the family you end up doing a different variety of music, just because of the style of their voices…
So any song that I would do would be considered I guess more of a country song, and that’s the great thing about Rounder. They had been able, without compromising our music, to take those more contemporary songs and we would make videos and do country singles, but it’s been described that we do, you know, a traditional bluegrass with a fresh approach. Someone else is the one who described it in that manner, but I think that’s right, and I don’t know that it was a conscious effort to do that, but just trying to find a magic formula for what I was comfortable with, and what I found also searching with the audience.
You know, doing a song onstage, you kind of learn what is exciting to the audience, and I found they like “Lonesome Wind Blues” – we constantly get requests for that. They’re also requesting “I’m Not Over You” – they want to hear that song, and they love to hear the gospel songs, so learning that variety really has designed whatever fresh approach or traditional music that we have.
You pointed out that there’s been a gap in women bluegrass performers – from a personal standpoint, has it been a challenge, being a female performer in a musical world where at least the biggests figures have mostly been men?
I wouldn’t say it’s been a challenge. I guess there’s always a challenge in every aspect – probably more in a day to day business standpoint, you know, trying to put together the ultimate group, managing personalities and different, you know. I’ve faced everything from alcoholism to drug abuse on the road, and dealing with men, and I think they’ve all pretty much been respectful that you know, working with a woman. So I don’t think I can really say that there’s a gap there, you know, just the basic learning.
I think the biggest challenge was learning to go from traveling with my family to traveling with people who are not my family, but they become your family as you’re traveling on the road. There’s a stereotype always when a woman is traveling with men on the road. Now, I’ve been married for almost 20 – this’ll be 21 years, I guess, that I’ve been married, and very devoted to my husband. I have the utmost respect for the people I travel with – there’s a line that you know that is drawn that you don’t cross that line. There’s a stereotype obviously when there’s a girl in the band that she’s sleeping with the band, and that’s not so in this case, and I think it’s up to the female to establish that and know where that line is.
I’m sure it goes on, and sometimes it’s a thing that’s condoned, but not in my situation, that’s why I guess I’m getting off on this subject – that comes into play in all of this, on a personal level, and then in a business level, being accepted I think because I’m doing straight ahead traditional bluegrass. I’ve heard many festivals say, “I’ve never had a female performer at my festival. You are the first one.” Just last year, Darrington Washington stated that we were the very first female headline act that they had ever had at that festival, because they’re prevalently really traditional bluegrass, and there just isn’t any other females. Most of the other females out there are doing a more contemporary version of bluegrass.
You’ve collaborated with Alison Krauss – I was wondering how you all met, and is there any element of rivalry to your work?
We met in 1985, when I went to work for Jim Ed Brown. I did this show, “You Can Be a Star,” and when I was working with him there was a void in my family’s group, and that’s when my dad met a young lady. I think she was 12 years old, and her name was Alison, from Champagne, Illinois, and he hired her and she wore my dresses – I saw a picture of her posing with my family in my dress and at first glance I didn’t even realize it wasn’t me. Her hair color was the same, and she said that that when I bought blue shoes she went out and bought blue shoes… she learned from them. I don’t even think she was singing yet, she was just playing the fiddle. So that’s how we met. I then came back from Nashville and she even continued to travel with us, even when I came back from Nashville... and we played twin fiddles…
She moved. I watched her blossom into this incredible performer, and I feel she has created her own style of music, and not necessarily bluegrass music, so I don’t really think that there’s a competition. I think that the industry has put us as rivals a lot. There’s comparisons because we grew up together and she says that she learned to sing by listening to my records, so there’s a lot of similarities there...
...Why do you call your band The Rage?
When I came back from country music, I put together my first bluegrass band and did a few festivals, and that’s how I ended up in bluegrass – the response was so overwhelming. And as we’re sitting around the living room putting together material, looking for a band name, my husband came in and he said, “I’ve got the name of your group! It’s the Rage!” And he said, “R A J E,” and this was the members of the band – it was Rhonda, Alan, Joey and Earl. And that’s how I ended up with The Rage.
Eventually, Allen and Joey and Earl were no longer in the band, and there was always a mispronunciation, a misspelling of the group name. So just to make it easier – we liked the Rage – so we made it R A G E so it was easier to spell and people started understanding it was supposed to be pronounced that way… The name stuck after that.
Does it ever lead to any misunderstandings about what kind of music you do?
I guess maybe, until they discover what we do. I guess if you just saw Rhonda Vincent and The Rage you might think it’s another genre of music. I didn’t really think about it – I just thought it was a really cool name and because we’re very aggressive in what we do, I think it describes everybody perfectly. Most recently on this live DVD, Kenny Ingram, the banjo player, he wrote a song especially for the DVD and he named it in honor of the group and calls it “Road Rage.” And that’s exactly what these guys are – they’re very aggressive and they’re ragin’.
I understand you play mandolin, guitar and fiddle – which instrument do you love best, or feel most at home with?
Well, I play most any stringed instrument – I took phases as a teenager, even with the banjo, dobro – all the different instruments – so, mandolin is the first stringed instrument that I played so I’m most comfortable with the mandolin, I feel most secure. The fiddle is the least comfortable to play – it just absolutely slays me. You have to play a fiddle every day, and I don’t, so what I play is usually just onstage. I mean, I used to play it a whole lot more, back when I was about 12, I started playing it a whole lot, and ended up winning the 1973 Missouri State Fiddle Champion – I got a lotta fiddle contests then.
Once I started havin’ fiddle players in my group, I kind of migrated towards the mandolin and just play the fiddle when I need to. The guitar I started playing by necessity when I started writing songs as a teenager – I kinda needed somethin’ to guide me with the chords – it’s just easier to write a song sometimes with the guitar, so that’s just something I played by necessity when I need to. Josh Williams takes the mandolin on several songs, and so I play guitar. Mandolin, that’s my instrument.
When do you do your writing?
Well, I don’t consider myself a songwriter that can just say, ok, I’m gonna write a song – I pretty much have to be inspired by something. I’ll just start singin’ a melody – usually it’s a melody that hits me. There’s some I wrote for the new DVD out – I’m getting ready for a project needing songs, maybe not finding the songs that I need.
That’s how I started “Cry of the Whip-or-Will” – I wasn’t finding a “Lonesome Wind Blues” that I needed to kick off the album… so I started writing that by. I’m a person who greets the day with about a hundred things to do, and it’s whatever comes to the forefront, whatever the priority is, that’s what I’ll tackle first…
I think we were a week away from recording this live DVD. I’d told all the guys, I’d said, “You know, I’d really love for everybody to contribute a song to this,” for several reasons. So – Kenny had “Road Rage” and Hunter Berry had written two tunes that he had written previous to even knowing we were gonna do this, but they were the natural thing to put on there. Josh Williams and Mickey Harris… weren’t coming up with the right songs or anything …
We had just come over the Canadian border. I looked over at Nicky and it was his second anniversary and he wasn’t home with his wife and he looked so sad. I’d heard he was talking to her on the phone at one point – I came to the back of the bus and all of a sudden just felt compelled to get pen and paper, started writing, “on the road, so far from home, it’s a lonesome night, I’m all alone…”
Anyway, I started writing that, took it back up, said, “Nicky, I think I’ve started you a song.” Well, he’d started a song. He combined the two and he finished it up, and it’s called “Heartbreak and Old Achin’ Blues” and that gave us a song, and Josh was the same way. Right after I wrote this down for Nicky, I – I don’t know, I just started writing again, knowing that we needed these songs for this DVD, we were a week away. I started one, “Cheatin’ Kind of Life,” for Josh, and he had started this song and I gave him what I had started and he finished that up. There’s a necessity I think I always write from, and I’m getting’ ready to do the same thing – I haven’t written for a long time but getting ready for the next studio project, and I gotta have songs.
Does being on the road help or hinder being creative?
I think it does both – traveling is so busy. Last night we did a 90-minute show and then I signed for like two hours afterwards, and now I’m so tired – I slept all night, I woke up to the phone ringing, I’d been doing two hours of interviews so some days it’s impossible. And then – I almost have to have some quiet time, and I’m a workaholic, I work constantly, so when I do lay down for just a moment, the next thing I know an idea will pop in my head and I’ll jump and I’ll be back working. So I think it’s a little bit of both. Probably more hindering than anything – I need to end up getting away and having a little bit of quiet time to really get inspired.
Two more questions…
What do you miss most about performing and traveling with family?
I miss a lot of things with traveling with my family. There’s something about singing with your family, that three–part harmony that I have with my mom and dad that I’ll never have with anyone else. I miss that – I just miss getting up each morning and sitting there with Dad. We might not even say anything, but there’s a real special element to traveling with your family and especially as I get older it’s like, wow, those are some really, really special days when I had my kids. They’re there with my uncles, although my uncles tormented them and would have ’em do mean things to their mommy [laughs]… They had the chance to grow up with their grandparents. There’s just a closeness that you – I’ll never have with anyone else… there’s a special morning time that I used to have with Dad that I really miss.
In your opinion, what’s the future of bluegrass? Will it survive?
I think there’s even an ever more growing popularity for bluegrass and acoustic music, and I think because the internet keeps everyone so connected these days, I think that it will just continue to thrive. The shows that we’re doing and the festivals are ever more growing – there’s thousands of people at the festivals we go to.
The most exciting thing for me that shows me that yes, it does have longevity and a growing … We went into the major cities recently – into New York City, and sold out hard ticket shows. That’s your ultimate – I guess it’s a goal – I guess proof that you can go into a city and sell hard tickets. If you’re goin’ in there and they’re gonna buy a ticket to see you. We did that in Atlanta – New York City, Cleveland, Washington, D.C. – it’s good to see this ever more growing popularity from the little kids to grandpa.
It used to be that you’d just see the retirement age folks at our shows. And then when we started having videos, that has given us this broad audience…
We’re comin’ up on one million hits on our web site at RhondaVincent.com. There’s a group, they call themselves The Ragers, and they’re on the message board. I just read where somebody said that he knew that he was hooked – he’d just joined the message board and he got up to hit the restroom at 2 a.m. and on his way back to bed he stopped by the computer to check our message board – so [laughs] he knew he was really hooked when he’s doin’ that!
So I think that there is a wonderful future for bluegrass music we have – and with people like Molly Cherry Holmes – I recorded a song that she wrote on my latest album, which she wrote when she was 10 years old. As long as we have incredible musicians that are coming up – that’s the future of our business and I think that we’re in great shape.