Since her decision to leave the confines of even a sympathetic label like Rounder, Rhonda Vincent seems to have discovered a new freedom to record as she wishes. The first album she released on her own label was the conventional (and very good) Taken, but her follow-up was her excellent country duet project with the great Gene Watson. Third time around, Rhonda has decided to go back home to record her first live gospel album. She has produced an acclaimed live album in the past, and she has always mixed in religious material alongside the secular, as well as releasing a gospel album when she was working with her parents’ family group, the Sally Mountain Band. This is her first combination of the two, and to do so she chose to record the tracks live at Rhonda’s home church, Greentop United Methodist, in Greentop, Missouri. It is not precisely a concert performance, as I gather breaks were taken between tracks. The church has very clean acoustics; indeed this sounds like a studio set with occasional polite applause. Rhonda is in predictably excellent voice, and The Rage play and harmonise impeccably throughout. The production and arrangements are all meticulous, thanks to Rhonda and her fiddle player and son-in-law Hunter Berry. Some of the material is familiar, having been picked out by Rhonda from some of her past recordings
There is a bit of a slow start, with the nicely done but unexciting opener, a revival of ‘I Feel Closer To Heaven Everyday’ which she sang as a youngster with her family’s Sally Mountain Band. A sensitive vocal then brings life to ‘Blue Sky Cathedral’, a pretty story song about an elderly relative feeling closer to God in the midst of the beauties of nature than in church.
Rhonda wrote the slow wailing acapella ‘His Promised Land’ (with Lisa Shaffer), but although I liked the swooping melody reminiscent of an 18th century hymn tune, unfortunately I didn’t care for the droning harmonies. ‘Fishers Of Men’, another acapella number later in the set, has a more engaging arrangement, and this version seems to have more vibrancy than her earlier cut of it, on 2003’s One Step Ahead. The pure bluegrass ‘Where We’ll Never Say Farewell’, an older song written by Larry and Eva Sparks, picks up the mood and tempo, with some great instrumental breaks and a committed vocal.
‘Silent Partner’ (written by Jeff Barbra and Darrell Webb) is also excellent; the partner is, of course, Jesus, and the lyric engagingly applies the metaphor of business life:
Now I’ve found my calling
I’m working for the Man
The pay is so much better
With the great life insurance plan
Me and my silent partner
We’re always side by side
He helps me run this business that I call life
He is the best advisor
And I can reach him any time
Me and my silent partner Jesus Christ
Turning to the hymn book, ‘Just As I Am’ gets a tasteful, rather subdued reading with soothing close harmonies. Rhonda’s heartfelt version of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ is beautifully sung. ‘Walking My Lord (Up Calvary’s Hill)’ is more upbeat musically despite the subject matter, and is sung partly as a tribute to Wilma Lee Cooper.
The charming ‘God Put A Rainbow In the Clouds’ (an old Johnnie & Jack number) features vocals from Rhonda’s band members, and is just great fun. The joyful narrative of the Old Testament story of ‘Joshua’ also features prominent vocals from the guys, and is a delight.
‘Prettiest Flower There’ is a pretty and sentimental story song which Rhonda recorded on All American Bluegrass Girl in 2008, and sings here as a tribute to her late grandmother. ‘The Last Best Place’ (included on her secular Raging Live set a few years ago) looks at the prospect of reuniting after death, with a lovely melody and solemn fiddle fitting the elegiac mood. Rhonda sings it quite beautifully. On a similar theme, Rhonda first recorded Carl Jackson’s lovely ‘Homecoming’ twenty years ago, and revives it nicely here.
The vibrant ‘Where No Cabins Fall’ harks back to traditional country gospel vocals with its call-and-response vocals. ‘Help Me To Be More Like Him’ is sweet and sincere, with particularly sympathetic backings, and I like this a great deal.
Not everyone is interested in religious music, so this album may appeal to a smaller group of Rhonda’s fans than her secular material. Committed fans may possibly be disappointed that a fair proportion of the material is familiar from Rhonda’s previous records. However, it is a beautifully produced, played and sung album from an artist at the peak of her ability, with very little to criticize.