Country Music News - May/June 2004 page 4
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Rhonda Vincent

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By: Estella Pan (Article used with permission from

   Rhonda discusses the changing role of the bluegrass genre in a Click here to enlarge picture of bluegrass entertainer, Rhonda Vincent.predominantly mainstream country music industry, shares her insightful views on “marketability” versus “music,” and sheds light on the rigors of being on the road.

   CIO (Estella): Given the success of your previous album The Storm Still Rages and your current record One Step Ahead, did you approach the making of these two albums differently?
   Rhonda: No. That’s the amazing thing! People ask me, “What type of formula did you use?” I did the same thing I’ve been doing for all of my life. Basically, the main thing is I continue to record with my brother – he has a co-producing credit on this album. He works with Ricky Skaggs as a member of Kentucky Thunder. But, it’s the same things he’s always done; he just had more responsibilities this time. That’s the mainstay; I recorded with Darrin; he sings lots of the harmonies. We constantly search for the songs; he’s such a wonderful song guy – he finds the [best] songs! And, I think that’s the key element to what I do; he’s always a part of it. That’s the wonderful thing about Rounder Records. I don’t know another label that would just allow you to go in and you basically get to create what’s coming from your heart. That’s the thing these days is that you’re being dictated to by a producer who really doesn’t know what you do. Darrin and I have grown up together – we know each other’s limitations. Like, he always produces the vocals, and I’m like, “Ok, that’s good enough.” He’ll say, “Oh ok if you think that’s good enough, you can leave it. But, can’t you sing it one more time?” The things that I guess a brother could say, “That really stinks – sing it again!” But, I know he’s got a great ear. You have to work with someone that you trust and you know. You have to be sure there are no games – he truly has the same goal in mind and the same passion for the music that we’re doing. He wouldn’t ask me to sing it again if it didn’t need to be sung again.
   CIO (Estella): You have been performing, at first with your family and eventually on your own since you were three years old. When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in music?
   Rhonda: I still think it was really unknown until about six years ago when my first Rounder [Records] album came out. Before, it was a way of life; I had never put together my own band. More so than the music, there’s the business aspect. In the year 2000, my first Rounder album [Back Home Again] came out. I’d put my first band together a year previous to that, but was still trying to put all the pieces together. And then, with the success of that album, I think that’s pretty much what quenched it and I said, “Yes, this is going to work, and this is what I want to do!” See, the latest album, [One Step Ahead] is actually my 20th career album. So, Back Home Again would have been my 18th album. But [music] it wasn’t a thing that was strategically planned; it was just on-the-job training and was a way of life for me up until that point.
   CIO (Estella): Was it bluegrass music from the get-go?
Rhonda: We listened to all kinds of music. When I was very young, the music we were playing was considered country music. Anything that was on the Grand Ole Opry, like Connie Smith, Dolly Parton to Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe – we listened to a large range from country to bluegrass. So, it wasn’t just bluegrass; we were very influenced by country music.
   CIO (Estella): Besides mandolin, do you play any other instruments?
   Rhonda: Most any stringed instrument – some better than others. My main instruments are mandolin and fiddle, then I play rhythm guitar. Through my teenage years, I would take a spell with the banjo and one time I was really into the dobro. That’s the great thing about my daddy – he was wonderful about influencing us with a new instrument or album every time he thought we were about to lose interest. Or he would spark that interest – he would get us a new instrument, buy a new record, or take us to see somebody [perform].
   CIO (Estella): That’s a very neat thing to have been around music all the time!
   Rhonda: As a teenager, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have!
   CIO (Estella): In a recent article of Country Music magazine, you said, “I have people tell me in making this record, ‘Wow, you should listen to the Dixie Chicks.’ But I’m not about that. I’m not making my record to be like someone else.” And you mention someone once tried to tell you to take that “bluegrass thing” out of your voice.
   Rhonda: Yes! I couldn’t believe those people who told me that when I was making that record. I mean, I can only do what I do! But, I thank Rounder Records for giving me the opportunity and getting my music out there. Because you can make all the records in the world, but if you don’t have a great company who’s bringing it to the audience, they just sit in your garage.
   CIO (Estella): Majoring in Accounting during college, did that help with the business aspect of your career?
   Rhonda: It sure did! I took as many accounting and business courses as I could in high school. And then, when I went into college, my major was going to be accounting. I remember one of my favorite classes was Business Law. When they tested us – I think that was in 7th grade – they test you to see what your interests are. Music was the first choice, obviously, even in the test that’s what it pointed to. And the second one was Attorney. So, I guess the business part goes in with that. I’m just amazed! I have stacks of contracts now and it’s like I need to read through all these – the paperwork is just stacked up here! It becomes so little about the music and so much about the business of it – everything from a songwriting contract to a publishing contract. I’m in the new bluegrass documentary, and I have a duet with Joe Nichols on the Louvin Brothers tribute [album]. This is all separate from my band and my albums and what I do. That’s the great thing with success – the more and more success, the more opportunities are here.
   CIO (Estella): Was the business aspect something that surprised you when you first got into the music industry?
   Rhonda: I don’t think I really had a lot of expectations about what exactly I’m going to do. I knew this was something I wanted to do, but didn’t have any idea that it was going to be at this level. Even four years ago, for bluegrass musicians, the best that you could hope for would be to play bluegrass festivals. You might get an opportunity for the TV portion of the Opry occasionally. But now, where there used to be a brick wall, those doors are open and the opportunities are endless – it’s very exciting! There’s now a bridge there [between country and bluegrass], and that’s the wonderful thing about it. I get to record the music that I love, but yet, it can still relate to CMT and country music. People say, “Oh, you’re getting into country music.” But, I’m not doing anything different than I’ve always done. It’s just that there’s more visibility [to bluegrass music] now, thanks to CMT. We’re going back to some of the same areas, and people are saying things like, “I saw your video on CMT; I went out and bought all your records. This is the first show of yours I’ve been to” and “Thanks to the Internet, I have your [tour] schedule, and I’m going to be at every show I can!” That’s just wonderful to be able to build this audience! Look at Ralph Stanley. He’s been performing I don’t know how many years now. But, he’s still out on the road performing at 78. Of course, “O Brothers Where Art Thou?” really gave him a shot in the arm singing for that movie. At the same time, whether that movie had been there or not, he would still be performing. And, I think that’s the wonderful thing about bluegrass music is that it’s not dependant on age or image. Like the mainstream, if you’re not young and don’t have a nice body, a lot of times, you’re not going to succeed in that genre of music.
   CIO (Estella): So, would you say that bluegrass music is not all about the “fashion show” that other genres of music seem to have become?
   Rhonda: Well, let me say this so I don’t talk out of both sides of my mouth. [Image] is something that my group and I make a conscious effort. I wish bluegrass music would consider that a little more. I think we can reach a younger audience; I see in myself, we’re reaching younger audiences, and purely because of the image. Unfortunately, that’s the way the industry is. And, I’ve been on both sides of that, so I understand it. I do think that is something we need to work on for bluegrass music, because I do want to see it excel. But then, you have this die-hard [group] that says, “Oh, we don’t want that influence.” What I’ve learned – what it comes down to – is I have to do what works for me. We’re appealing to a younger audience. It’s the same thing with Nickel Creek. Now, they’re not really a bluegrass band, per se. But, Chris Thiele – who is in his 20’s now – grew up in bluegrass music, and he’s just an outstanding, accomplished mandolinist! And because [the three members of Nickel Creek are young musicians and singers], they’re really “hip” and “cool.” It’s attracting a younger audience that probably never would have listened to their music otherwise. It’s the image first – if you can do something that has someone pick up a CD and go, “Oooh! Who is this? Maybe I should give it a listen.”
   CIO (Estella): Allison Krauss sang on the latest album. Are there any artists you’d like to work with on future albums?Click here to enlarge picture of blugrass entertainer, Rhonda Vincent and country music entertainer, Lorrie Morgan.
   Rhonda: I saw Alan Jackson recently and every time he says, “You know, I would love to have you [on my album], but we need a song we can sing together!” So, I’ve made that my goal – I want to write or find a song that I could do with Alan Jackson. I just love singing with different people! Darrin and I were asked to sing on the tribute to Dolly Parton; we got to sing with Sinead O’Connor. I, in my wildest dreams would have never expected to sing with Sinead O’Connor; I would never have thought someone would pair us with her! But Steve Buckingham, the producer, goes, “I’ve got a song that I want you to sing together.” The song was “Dagger Through the Heart,” and I was just blown away! Then, Alison and I recently on Lorrie Morgan’s new album. And, oh, I’m really sad, because I left my cell phone in the car [one time] – and I had a call from Reba for her new album. Well, I missed that chance because I didn’t call back. So, my agent said, “Keep that cell phone by you at all times!” It’s always that one call – I could have been singing on [“I’m Gonna Take That Mountain”].
   CIO (Estella): What is your favorite part of what you do?
   Rhonda: Meeting the people. I found out long ago that it’s the people that make the places special. Like this past Saturday [NOTE: at interview time], the sun was blazing, it was hot, but I get in there and sign for two-and-a-half hours. Because there’s nothing more gratifying to stand there, and as far I can see, there are people who want to meet me, get an autograph, or came up and say, “I love your music” or “This song touched me.” One guy came up, he was shaking, and all he said was, “‘You Can’t Take It With You,’ that’s me.” And then, he ran off! Well then, he must have got the courage to get in that long line AGAIN. I think he must have said, “Ok, this is what I’m going to say to her.” Because probably thirty minutes later, he elaborated a little bit. He was still shaking, but he needed to tell me, “I want you to know how much this song has touched me and how your songs – they’re influencing people.” I am so thankful to have people who feel that way and who love the music and to know it’s touched their lives. It’s always interesting to me hearing what people’s favorites are.
   CIO (Estella): Do you have any long and/or short-term goals as a recording artist?
   Rhonda: Well, a lifetime goal of mine – I want to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. And, I want to be like Ralph Stanley. I want to be able to be in good enough health to continue playing good music until the day I die! I hope that’s a long time!
   CIO (Estella): You have two teenage daughters. Are either of them thinking about going into the music business?
   Rhonda: My youngest is thinking about going to Belmont [University in Nashville, Tennessee] to be a manager. They both have great voices so if they want to go into music, they can. And, you never know; they might change their minds.
   CIO (Estella): I heard that you’ve scheduled tour dates until summer 2004. Being on the road so much, do you have any funny or strange road stories to share?
   Rhonda: There’s been so many! We had a traumatic one that I continue to live with. In May of 2000, lights fell on the stage and cracked me in the head; it knocked me out and I had a ruptured disk. At one time, I had paralysis and I couldn’t move my right arm; I’m still regaining use of that. I think I’m going to end up having some permanent damage, but I’m just glad to be playing again! So, that was, I think, the scariest thing; they didn’t secure the lights. And then, two months later, the generator went out on the bus. So, we went by Home Depot and purchased another one. Well, it was the wrong kind; the bus started filling up with carbon monoxide. I’d never been in an ambulance in my life, and within three months, I was in two of them! We always end up having quite an adventure. Those are the most traumatic ones, and we’ve been pretty accident-free since then.
   CIO (Estella): Having had more than 30 years in the business, what advice would you give people who’d like to pursue a career in the music industry?
   Rhonda: Take every opportunity to perform. A lot of people want the biggest venues. The great thing about bluegrass is that they have open stages, they have all kinds of opportunities for you to learn. Take those opportunities when you’re young. Even if you have a talent, you have to really be determined because you listen to all those biographies from Alan Jackson to Garth Brooks; they pretty much were turned down by every major record label in Nashville and told to go home. You have to really have confidence in yourself and be determined to stick it out no matter what the cost.
   CIO (Estella): Then, they can get to where you are!
   Rhonda: Well, there’s still always a struggle; you would think, “Ok, the more success we have, the easier it’ll get. But, now there are so many more opportunities, and then there are all these contracts – the red tape and fine print. It’s exciting on one hand and sometimes it’s distressing. We just hope it’ll all balance out.

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Beginnings Of Country Music

When country music began in America, there were no professional musicians. The typical musician sang only to entertain himself, his family or at local events. There is evidence of square dance-like events as far back as the 1830s (with origins in European country dancing). At first, most country music was either sung by itself or played on a lone fiddle or banjo. A good fiddler was a very popular person and was often asked to perform at events ranging from weddings to cattle drives. There was no concerted effort to preserve the songs played, but the songs that people loved lasted as they were passed from town to town or generation to generation. Songs traveled with wandering minstrels and soldiers as well as those who moved across the country for the Gold Rush or in search of a new home. Often people didn't even understand the origins or meaning of the songs (especially when words were misunderstood and the mistakes persisted in newer versions of the songs) – they just liked the tune. The music of this time has been given several names, including old-time music and mountain music.
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