My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Hunter Berry

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & The Rage – ‘All The Rage Volume 1’

all-the-rageMost bluegrass bands are at their best live, and great though she is as a recording artist, Rhonda Vincent and her road band The Rage are no exception. Her latest album, the result of a concert at Bethel University in Tennessee in May 2015, really allows her band the chance to shine on a selection of mainly lesser known tunes from Rhonda’s back catalog.

They open with a coruscating version of the Jimmie Rodgers classic ‘Muleskinner Blues’ with Rhonda wailing and yodelling impressively. This is a complete tour de force. In similar vein is ‘Kentucky Borderline’, written by Rhonda herself, while the closing ‘Mississippi River’ comes from the Mark Twain tribute album a few years back.

Slowing down the tempo, ‘Is The Grass Any Bluer (On The Other Side)’ is an affectionate tribute to Father of bluegrass Bill Monroe. There is an excellent version of the Barbara Mandrell hit ‘Midnight Angel’ (originally a bluegrass song, and also recorded by Highway 101). ‘Missouri Moon’ is a beautiful, melancholy ballad. The delicately understated ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is one of those songs which means the absolute opposite of its title.

Rhonda takes the lead on a traditional bluegrass gospel quartet for the cheerfully judgmental ‘You Don’t Love God (If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour)’. She also sings a devout ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.

The guys are allowed to sing lead on several of the songs. The bands newest member Josh Williams, is an excellent singer in his own right, and he takes on the much-recorded rambler’s song ‘Freeborn Man’. Dobro player Brent Burke (one of Rhonda’s sons in law) shows off an attractive tenor voice on ‘The Girl From West Virginia’. Bassist Mickey Harris sings his own ‘If We Would Just Pray’.

A couple of fast paced instrumentals round out the set, a fiddle tune composed by Hunter Berry (Rhonda’s other son in law) and a banjo one by Aaron McDaris respectively.

The concert is also available as a DVD. It is an outstanding set of performances which I warmly recommend.

Grade: A+

Album Review – Rhonda Vincent and The Rage – ‘Ragin’ Live’

Recorded at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis, MO, Ragin’ Live marks Rhonda Vincent’s first live album and first time she’s used her band The Rage on a recording. Released in the spring of 2005, it’s a “greatest hits” album of sorts as she and the band run down their most popular tunes with a palpable fiery energy and immaculate musicianship that comes from performing in front of a crowd.

The set opens with an introduction by Hank Janney, a Bluegrass DJ from Gettysburg, PA before the band rips into a spirited version of “Kentucky Borderline.” Excellent cover tunes follow, such as “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin,” and their versions of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Jimmie Rogers’ “Muleskinner Blues,” Flatt and Scruggs “So Happy I’ll Be,” and Bobby Osborne’s “Bluegrass Express.” Each bring something new to the respective tune and because of their consistently high quality, it’s difficult to pick a favorite.

As with her studio recordings, Vincent (and this time the band) shines brightest on the up-tempo material. Lyrical tunes such as “One Step Ahead of the Blues” and “Martha White Theme” are great, but the full breathe of their prowess as a band is best displayed on the incredible instrumental tracks. Hunter Berry’s fantastic fiddle lick at the start of the old-time country “Me Too” gives way to a fabulous mix of fiddle, mandolin and dobro while “Road Rage” makes excellent use of Kenny Ingram’s superb abilities with the banjo. “Son Drop In” is another fine showcase of Barry’s fiddling, and “Frankie Bell” makes sufficient use of Vincent’s other talent as a first rate mandolin picker.

I always felt the decision to pack the seat full of high-energy numbers works well because it gives the recording a sunny and upbeat disposition even if the lyrical content is decidedly somber. The record beams with the band’s enjoyment of playing and singing together and that combination bring a welcomed relaxation to the proceedings.

But it also works in favor of the slower numbers, which stand out against the rip-roaring backdrop. It’s been well documented that Vincent is one of the greatest country and bluegrass vocalists to ever live, and she shows that here.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ Live’

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.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Destination Life’

dest_life

Rhonda Vincent’s latest album underlines her status as one of the best of today’s female bluegrass singers. It is part of what has proved to be a very consistent body of work over the course of her career. The main innovation this time is that Rhonda’s road band, the Rage, takes center stage with her for the first time, providing every aspect of the music we hear. It almost goes without saying that the musicianship is impeccable. The band’s fiddle player Hunter Berry takes on co-production duties with Rhonda, a task borne for the last couple of albums by Rhonda’s brother Darrin, who is now concentrating on his own career with duo Dailey & Vincent.

One of my favorite tracks is ‘It’s Crazy What A Lonely Heart Will Do’, a lovely duet with the Rage’s guitar player Ben Helson.  The traditionally-styled country ballad, written by former Highway 101 lead singer Paulette Carlson with Nashvile writer Jimbeau Hinson, is perfectly suited to Rhonda’s bell-like voice as the lovelorn protagonists attempt to ease their loneliness in another’s arms. Helson’s pleasant and listenable voice is not quite in the same league as Rhonda’s, but he complements her well. I also really like Pete Goble’s ‘I Can Make Him Whisper I Love You’, another take on love lost as she wistfully fantasizes about a long-gone ex still thinking of her as she still does of him, but is forced to admit it is only in her imagination.

My outright favorite, though, is a delightful and committed bluegrass cover of the much-recorded country classic ‘Stop the World (And Let Me Off)’, which I like more every time I hear it. Rhonda’s voice also sounds particularly beautiful on 70s country-rockers Poco’s ‘Crazy Love’, perhaps a more unexpected choice of song, but one which she manages to make fit in well with her sound.

The title track, penned by New Zealand’s Donna Dean, offers a word-picture of a woman in the process of driving away from a neglectful and unloving husband one moonlit night. “He cannot criticize her if she ain’t around”, she notes bitterly, reflecting that they would have stayed together “if only he’d respected, loved and cared for her”. Although the overt message of the song is that there’s no going back and her future is a new life, in fact the lyric focuses more on what has passed than what may lie in store for the protagonist.

Rhonda co-wrote three of the songs, the best of which is the gospel ‘I Heard My Savior Calling Me’, a genuinely compelling first-person account of conversion at a country church revival. This track also features some of Rhonda’s finest singing, and traditional gospel bluegrass harmonies from the band. ‘What A Woman Wants To Hear’ is a pleasant but slightly old-fashioned sounding love song paying tribute to the kind of man who says and does all the right things. ‘Last Time Loving You’, the opening track, sounds beautiful musically, but is rather forgettable lyrically.

The fast-paced ‘Heartwrenching Lovesick Memories’, in contrast, has an interesting lyric but is taken at too brisk a pace for the lyric to make an emotional impact on the listener; I simply can’t detect any heartwrenching (or even mild regret) in the vocal delivery. It gives the impression of having been picked in order to allow the band the opportunity to stretch out and show off their impressive licks, and this may be the downside of not using an external producer. A better balance is achieved with the love-on-the-road ‘Anywhere Is Home As Long As You’re With Me’, which has some dazzling instrumental passages, but the best showcase of the band’s musicianship comes with a version of Chubby Wise’s brilliantly entertaining composition ‘Eighth Of January’.

The album ends with a slow, serious and really rather beautiful acappella performance of the hymn ‘When I Travel My Last Mile (He Will Hold My Hand)’, starting with Rhonda solo, gradually joined by the boys from the band.

Grade: A-