Rhonda Vincent: Queen of Bluegrass
Cover Story - Volume 1, Issue 1
Before her performance at the 21st Annual Gospel Bluegrass Concert in the Davis Center auditorium at Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Mississippi, Rhonda Vincent slips into the backstage area dressed in one of her signature sequined gowns. Aromas of barbeque, casseroles, cakes, and cookies on the tables lining the back wall welcome those lucky enough to be backstage. Rhonda takes a seat at one of the round tables, like she has all the time in the world, as if she’s about to break bread with you, not to answer a bunch of boring interview questions. But here’s the thing you learn about Rhonda Vincent. She doesn’t answer questions…she steers you into intimate conversations about her, her family, her band, her work, and her role as the Queen of Bluegrass.
“It’s a wonderful title and its fun, but I don’t take it so seriously,” said Rhonda. “It is a great honor for someone to say you’re the Queen of Bluegrass, and very humbling, but there are children who are watching and listening to me. Being a role model takes on another level of responsibility.”
When Rhonda performs, the audience is probably too mesmerized by her voice, her mandolin, and her professional musicians to realize or even notice the time and planning Rhonda put into the show…the formula, she calls it.
“I learned it being brought up in a musical family that traces back five generations. It’s something my father always did… variety,” she explained. “We always had a variety of music from my Aunt Katherine who sang like Kitty Wells, then Grandpa Bill might sing a Bill Monroe song, and Uncle Pearl comes in with a gospel song. It was bluegrass, country, and gospel, and you never got bored with the show.” While performing, Rhonda studies her audience to stay in tune with them, “so that when the fiddler takes a solo and the place is going crazy with that or the dobro, or the banjo, whatever, we will try to feature that a little more.” The formula is a rotation featuring everybody. “I might sing four songs and then do a rotation, but a lot is simply an intuition I have myself. It’s something I grew up doing.”
Years of experience taught Rhonda to never do two songs in the same key or two songs in the same tempo. With the longevity with her band, there is a comfort level that erases worry and a calmness and confidence in knowing that everyone on stage knows what they’re doing.
“When you come out on stage you better wow them. I do a 90-minute set and, in theory, cut it in half. By the time we get halfway through the show, I can read the audience. I pretend we’re ending one 45-minute set and starting another, so we open with a thumping song, just like we’re starting fresh.”
Bluegrass continues to be a male dominated genre, but Rhonda believes there are more women in Bluegrass than ever before. One thing she wanted to change about Bluegrass was the stereotypical image often shown in movies and on television, which portrays bluegrass musicians and performers as backwoods rednecks with no teeth wearing dirty cut-off jeans or overalls. People are surprised when they see Rhonda wearing a Vera Wang gown or an Oscar de la Renta dress.
“I always look around to find a great gown, because we try to portray that we are professional.” Jennifer Kemp, Rhonda’s stylist often does Rhonda’s shopping. “In our Raging Live DVD, she went to New York and the dress I ended up wearing would never have been one I would have picked out. I thought it was the ugliest dress I had ever seen.” Jennifer replied to Rhonda with, “Humor me and put that on. I think that’s the dress.” And it was.
Entertaining the audience is one thing, but evoking emotion requires so much more than simply playing and singing. Performers must connect to audience and the audience must feel that connection and believe it’s real.
“At the Bluegrass First Class Festival, we played “Homecoming” about mid-way into the show. As I looked around there was not a dry eye in the house. Grown men were sobbing. I never realized how affective that song was,” said Rhonda. “You really don’t want to make someone cry, but I guess in this case you really do. I think that whatever is going on in their lives connected with this song.”
Her entire life, Rhonda played in her family band and she has sung harmony with many people. Harmony depends on the range of your voice. Since everyone in Rhonda’s group sings, there is a variety of sounds, but singing harmony with her daughter Sally has been different.
“Sally brings another dynamic,” said Rhonda. “The blend of our voices when they come together, they just automatically find a core. I don’t know of anyone else I’ve ever sang with like that.” Since Sally came on board, the group has been rehearsing to find where their voices should go. First, they must find their ranges and then they must be on pitch. After that, the main thing is phrasing, said Rhonda. “Mickey comes from Tennessee and he doesn’t talk like we do. Josh is from Kentucky. It’s taken many years to get to where we all enunciate together.”
At first, Sally didn’t want to travel and perform with the group, but now she loves the situation because she finds so many opportunities to witness about her faith. She welcomes people to see her after the show so she can pray with them.
“The Bible says not to not offend someone, so we don’t want to do that, but if it does, I’m going to have to say too bad. When I go to see the Isaacs, one of my favorite groups, I find myself in tears almost the whole show. I don’t know what that is, but I see other people there doing the same thing.”
Rhonda goes into every show assuming her audience doesn’t know who she is because an arrogance can grow if you think everyone knows who you are. There are always new people, said Rhonda.
“One gentlemen came up and said that his wife didn’t like bluegrass. He brought her last year and now she’s back.”
In Bluegrass, there’s an authenticity you don’t find in other music, except maybe the blues. Today’s technology can manipulate any voice, but it’s not authentic. Bluegrass portrays the realness of the music.
“If I were to sing to you right now, it’s going to be the same voice you hear on stage tonight.”
In 2014, Rhonda did a double CD and on one song she and Willie Nelson sing a duet. There is a Bluegrass/Country pattern to these songs and Rhonda realized that when she went from bluegrass to country, there was also a difference in the breathing pattern.
“When you’re playing every day, your breathing is in the rhythm,” she said.
Once Rhonda took off for three weeks at Christmas to relax and enjoy just sitting on the couch. After the holidays, the first show out, Rhonda decided they would perform their DVD, which starts with Mule Skinner Blues.
“I could not get my breath and I said, never will I do that ever again. It wasn’t something I thought about, but it’s a conditioning.”
A few years ago, Rhonda lost her dad, but his presence remains strong in her life and in her performances. When she steps onto the stage, she takes what he gave her …everything.
“The work ethic, the way we do our show. He was a daily part of everything we did. Every time I turn around, I see Dad. He could take his banjo out in the middle of the parking lot with everyone inside and within fifteen minutes he’d have a crowd. I think it’s because he welcomed everyone. He loved people, he loved to bring them close to him.”
As the Queen of Bluegrass and role model to young bluegrass performers, Rhonda wishes she could give to them one of the lessons her father taught her.
“My dad took us to Silver Dollar City and we were staff musicians. I was a teenager and it was the first time I had ever seen a time clock. We checked in and we were there for nine hours. We got a thirty-minute lunch. We had five one-hour shows per day, Monday through Friday, which gave us experience playing in front of people and gave us routine.”
On Friday nights, the Vincent family drove to a festival location. On Saturday, they played the festival and drove back to Silver Dollar City Saturday night. They were performing at Silver Dollar City when it started pouring down rain. No one was watching them perform.
“We were like, ‘Come on, Dad, let’s just sit here and wait for the rain to go away.’ My dad said ‘No, they’re paying us to pay and that’s what we are going to do.’ ”
They performed the entire hour show, which was about the time people started leaving the theme park to go eat dinner. The next week, Hal Durham of the Grand Ole Opry called Mr. Vincent and said he’d like for his family to perform at the Grand Old Opry. The Vincents had just met Charlie Louvin and thought that Charlie had recommended them to Durham. But Durham said Charlie didn’t have anything to do with it. He explained that he and his family had been on vacation last week at Silver Dollar City. While the Vincents were performing on the stage when it was raining, the Durhams were around the corner listening while waiting for the rain to go away.
“That taught me a life lesson. You always do your 100 to 200 percent; it doesn’t matter who’s there or how many people are there. You do your very best because you don’t know who’s listening.”
Take every opportunity to play, she added. Get with other people and play. Go to nursing homes or other places and just play. Sing everywhere, at every opportunity. There is no replacement for playing your instrument and singing. There are no shortcuts.
Life gets hectic on the road, especially when concentrating on several projects at one time.
“I’ve been working on eight projects and three were DVDs. Videos are very challenging and everything is tedious, but if something has my name on it must have a certain standard. It’s very personal.
Still, when things get too hectic, Rhonda hops in her car and heads for Missouri. “I go home, I stay in my pajamas, I don’t fix my hair, I don’t put on makeup. I reset my mind.”