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Estella Pan (Article used with permission from CountryInterviewsOnline.net)
Rhonda discusses the changing role of the bluegrass genre in a 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
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
CIO (Estella): Was it bluegrass music from the
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
CIO (Estella): Besides mandolin, do you play any
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
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
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
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
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
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
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When country music began in America, there were no
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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
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