My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Rhonda Vincent

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Only Me’

onlymeAlthough she is primarily known as a bluegrass artist, Rhonda Vincent has moved back and forth between bluegrass and country a number of times over the course of her career. She’s done bluegrass albums and she’s done country albums, and she’s done albums that blended the two genres. This time around, instead of hybridizing the two styles, she has released a collection of twelve songs, six of which are bluegrass, and six traditional country numbers. In its physical form, the album was released on two discs, which seems a little odd when all twelve songs could easily fit on one.

Both Willie Nelson and Daryle Singletary appear on the album as Rhonda’s duet partners. Interestingly, both appear on the bluegrass part of the album. Willie, who has had a hand in almost every musical style over his long career, is not particularly known for bluegrass, but he sounds right at home singing the title track with Rhonda. Singletary lends his vocals to a remake of “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds”, a 1963 hit for George Jones and Melba Montgomery. One could argue that this one really isn’t bluegrass, but that would be nitpicking. Vincent and Singletary stick close to the original version and while this rendition doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it does give a deserving song a crack at reaching a new audience.

Although I’m a huge fan of Rhonda’s bluegrass recordings, on this particular album, the country songs are where she really shines. The country half of the album kicks off with her original composition “Teardrops Over You”. The rest of the songs on the album are remakes of country classics — with plenty of steel guitar that will keep purists happy. She bravely tackles “Once A Day”, and though she does a good job, nobody can sing this song like Connie Smith. I like her take on another Bill Anderson number — “Bright Lights and Country Music” better. She pays homage to Emmylou Harris on “Beneath Still Waters” and to George Jones (again) on “When The Grass Grows Over Me”, my favorite song on the entire album, and then kicks up her heels on the closing track, a barnburner called “Drivin’ Nails” which was a hit in 1946 for both Floyd Tillman and Ernest Tubb.

There are no surprises here, no real artistic stretches or groundbreaking moments, just some great bluegrass and country music. Sometimes that’s enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Christmas Grass: The Collection’

christmas grassThis two-disc compilation of the best tracks from a series of three Christmas Grass albums released in 2002, 2004 and 2007 respectively comprises equal parts instrumentals and vocal tracks, and mixes the reverent with the fun/nostalgic side of the season. Most of the material is fairly well known, but the impeccable, cleanly played arrangements and excellent vocals make these versions a welcome addition to your Christmas playlists.

Dolly Parton gets things going to a bright and cheery start with her perkily irresistible reading of ‘Christmas Time’s A-Comin’’, backed by the harmonies of Dailey & Vincent. The duo also back up Russell Moore on the briskly cheerful ‘Christmas Time Is Near’.

A charmingly nostalgic look back at Christmases past in Tom T Hall’s likeable ‘Oh Christmas Candle’ is attractively sung by the trio of Jamie Dailey, Barry Scott and Doyle Lawson. Rhonda Vincent is warm and tender on Amy Grant’s Southern-themed ‘Tennessee Christmas’, while the Larkins take on a bluegrass version of Alabama’s ‘Christmas In Dixie’, which is quite nice.

Larry Sparks lends an unexpectedly wistful melancholy to ‘I Heard The Bells Ring On Christmas Day’ (with a lyric comprising a Longfellow poem), which I liked very much. My favourite track is the most downbeat one, ‘Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho’, about a man facing his first Christmas alone, sung with a gentle sadness by Ronnie Bowman with supporting harmonies from Darrin Vincent and Sharon White.

John Cowan provides some variety by contributinga sultry soul-style vocal on ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, which works surprisingly well with the bluegrass instrumentation.

On the religious side of things, Dailey & Vincent sing a quietly reverent and beautifully harmonised version of ‘Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem’, set to a simple guitar and mandolin backing. This must be one of their earliest recordings together. Sonya Isaacs sounds lovely on ‘Mary, Did You Know?’, while Sarah Jarosz is pleasantly soothing on ‘One Bright Star’.

3 Fox Drive get two tracks, both rather forgettable: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’, which I usually find boring anyway.

Approximately half the tracks are instrumental versions of well-known Christmas tunes (the first of the three albums this compilation draws on was all-instrumental). I was initially a little disappointed by this, even though they are all flawlessly played, but they make for contemplative interludes. My favourite is a gently melodic performance of ‘What Child Is This’ (the Renaissance tune ‘Greensleeves’), featuring Alison Krauss on fiddle and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, which is quite lovely. The stately melody of ‘Silent Night’ (one of my favourite carols) is also very fine, while a bouncy ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is fun.

This is a very tasteful bluegrass collection, leaning more to the mellow and contemplative sides of Christmas than to revelry. I would recommend it to all fans of bluegrass and acoustic music at this time of year.

Grade: A

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis

it's all relativeLeaving Arista might have marked the end of Pam’s commercial heyday, but it led to a taking stock and artistic resurgence which began with a reflection on her roots. As a youngster Pam Tillis had wanted to separate herself from her father’s legacy, hence her brief unsuccessful foray into pop music. But as a mature adult her respect for her father’s remarkable legacy as both artist and songwriter led to her recording an entire tribute album to him in 2002, when he turned 70. The depth of his catalog is revealed by the fact that not only did Mel write every song on this album, half of them on his own, but Pam had to leave many more on the shelf. Some were hits for Mel, others were songs he wrote for others. This album was Pam’s last hurrah on a major-related label, on Sony imprint Lucky Dog.

I love the outrage of ‘Unmitigated Gall’ (a top 10 for Faron Young in 1966), where Pam tells an ex in no uncertain terms just how she feels about his nerve coming back around now. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks. Catchy and confidently performed by Pam, it was a canny choice for the album’s lead single and just a few years earlier could easily have been a hit single all over again. By 2002, however, the tide had begun to turn in earnest, and it was far too country for country radio, failing to chart.

This attitude rises to new heights with the snarling declaration of hatred and ‘Mental Revenge’ (a top 20 for Mel himself in 1976 but better known for renditions by Waylon Jennings and Linda Ronstadt). Pam’s version is sultry and bluesy, and all her own.

Another highlight is the understated yet deeply emotional take on ‘Detroit City’, which brings out the melancholy of the song’s depiction of homesickness and failure with a barely concealed desperation underlying the vocal.

The charming ‘A Violet And A Rose’ is beautifully realised by Pam, with the help of very pretty trilling harmonies from Dolly Parton and a delicate acoustic arrangement. The original was Mel’s first chart single in 1958, and the much-recorded tune also gave its co-writer Little Jimmy Dickens his first top 10 hit in eight years in 1962.

‘Not Like It Was with You’ is an excellent lesser-known traditional country number about the after-effects of a breakup, which I enjoyed greatly. ‘Goodbye Wheeling’ is another fine relatively obscure song (a top 20 for Mel) which really suits Pam’s voice better than Mel’s. Delbert McClinton guests on harmonica.

‘Heart Over Mind’ (‘#3 for Mel and #5 for Ray Price) is transformed from a traditional shuffle to a sophisticated ballad. It is beautifully sung, with Emmylou Harris on harmony, and works well on its own merits, but the melody is barely recognisable slowed down so drastically.

Four tracks were co-produced by Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson. He duets with Pam on an entertaining ‘Honey (Don’t Open That Door)’ (best known as a chart-topper for Ricky Skaggs); Trisha Yearwood and Rhonda Vincent sing close harmonies. The regretful western swing ballad ‘Burning Memories’ (a top 10 in 1977) is another delight with a delicately judged vocal and very retro arrangement, mixing traditional steel and fiddle with Nashville Sound backing vocals. The jazzy ballad ‘So Wrong’ is very much in the sophisticated later style of Patsy Cline, for whom Mel wrote it with Danny Dill and Carl Perkins, complete with a cameo by the Jordanaires. While it’s not my personal favourite sub-genre of country music, Pam sounds really good on this. It was the second attempt at a single to promote the album. Honky tonk classic ‘I Ain’t Never’ was one of the biggest hits for co-writer Webb Pierce, and is the only one of Mel’s own chart toppers to be included. Pam’s version is bouncy and entertaining but comes across as a little shallow emotionally, although I enjoyed the arrangement and instrumental work.

There are only a couple of duds. The singalong ‘Come On And Sing’ is a weak song featuring a children’s chorus, but it was a nice touch to include Mel on one track. I was bored by the very jazz ‘Emotions’. It had been a hit for pop and country artist Brenda Lee as a teenager, and has nothing to do with country music, although it does show the range of Mel Tillis’s talent.

Pam produced the bulk of the set alone, with help from Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson on a a handful of tracks. The result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Pam’s most traditional album, and a worthy tribute to a truly great singer-songwriter whose contribution to country music has sometimes been overlooked. Yet while it is always respectful, Pam puts her own stamp on many of the songs, not completely reinventing them, but definitely interpreting them in her own way. It is a highly recommended purchase; luckily used copies can be found very cheaply.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Timeless’

Timeless

Timeless

By 2005 Martina McBride’s music had seemingly progressed further and further away from her country roots. She showed she had not forgotten those roots by recording a classic covers album. Tt was received enthusiastically by her fans – in fact she achieved her highest ever first-week sales with this release, and the album was ultimately a platinum seller despite poor radio support.

The prospect of one of the finest and most naturally gifted country singers of her generation tackling great songs with mostly more traditional country arrangements was mouthwatering. There was also an exceptionally generous number of tracks – the standard US edition boasted 18 songs, with four added tracks on the European version. The vocals, as expected, are impeccable, and the beautifully realised arrangements are reverent recreations of the originals – but that is really the main criticism that the album faces – some critics complained that Martina was too faithful to the original versions and brought too little new. Martina had co-produced some of her earlier albums, but produced this one solo.

The lead single was Lynn Anderson’s signature song ‘Rose Garden’, which made it into the top 20 for Martina. This was probably a poor choice as it is one of the more dated sounding tracks with an efficient but somewhat anonymous vocal, and a timeless sounding ballad with more emotional weight would have been a more comfortable fit for Martina’s fans and country radio; my feeling is that this single choice set the tone for the album’s under-performance at radio., which was unfortunate.

The second, and much better, single was a beautiful version of ‘I Still Miss Someone’, with Dolly Parton harmonising. Unfortunately I think the poor showing of ‘Rose Garden’ meant radio had no enthusiasm for another cover, and it peaked at #50, but had this been the first release, I suspect it would have done better.

Another highlight comes with the beautiful, measured melancholy of Martina’s version of the Haggard classic ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’, where she brings out the sadness of the song’s emotion, and does succeed in making it her own (and entirely convincing). This is one of the finest moments of Martina’s career from an artistic viewpoint, and really deserved wider dissemination. ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and Tammy Wynette’s ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own’ are also exqusitely done with sensitively interpreted vocals and subtle interpretations.

A pensive ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ recalls the Nashville Sound with its dated backing vocals but lovely steel in the arrangement. Martina’s emotional vocal is one of her best performances, but this is a case where fidelity to the original version was unwise (because the strings overwhelm it towards the end).

The very authentic steel-heavy treatment of the Hank Williams classic ‘You Win Again’ is the most traditional Martina has ever been, with an arrangement identical to the original. What she does bring of her own to the performance, is a sensitive, believable vocal which works well.

Martina brings some personality to a perky ‘I’ll Be There’, backed up by Dan Tyminski and Rhonda Vincent. ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough’ (the third single) is confident and sassy but lightweight compared to Loretta Lynn’s original. Similarly, ‘Once A Day’ is fine, but not as good as Connie Smith’s peerless original and Martina does not convince the hearer of her emotional meltdown here. ‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down’ and a brisk take on ‘Thanks A Lot’ also sound a bit too upbeat for the material.

‘Love’s Gonna Live Here Again’ isn’t bad but feels a little characterless vocally. ‘Heartaches By The Number’ is more successful, sung with great energy and characteristic harmonies from Dwight Yoakam. ‘Satin Sheets’ boasts another excellent performance from Martina.

‘I Don’t Hurt Anymore’ (one of the less remembered songs today, it was a massive hit in the 50s for Hank Snow, staying at #1 for over 20 weeks) is done well, with a bright, liquid vocal and attractive melody. ‘Make The World Go Away’ is nicely done (but pales compared to the most recent version of the song by Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss).

Smoothly and sweetly sung, Buddy Holly’s ‘True Love Ways’ is rather reminiscent of some of Patsy Cline’s more sophisticated pop work from her later career; it seems rather a shame, in retrospect that Martina didn’t pick one of Patsy’s signature songs because I feel they would have suited her really well.

The European release included four bonus tracks. ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ has a very pretty piano-led arrangement and gentle, melodic vocal. An understated take on ‘Crying Time’ loaded with steel is very fine indeed, and I also enjoyed Martina’s version of ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’. The cheating song ‘Walk On By’ rounds out the selection with another fine performance.

Lack of originality aside, this album features great songs sung extremely well by a very fine singer, and is well worth catching up with, but get the European release if you can for the added material.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent and Gene Watson – ‘Together Again’

Rhonda teams up with one of the finest country singers of all time to sing a classic country duet on the Opry in 2007:

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Good Thing Going’

While 2006’s All American Bluegrass Girl wasn’t quite up to par with her previous work, Rhonda Vincent recovered nicely with her next project. Released in January 2008, Good Thing Going is a more eclectic set of songs than we’d heard to date from Rhonda, with elements of traditional folk, Western swing and contemporary country offered up alongside the standard bluegrass. The project was co-produced by Rhonda along with her brother Darrin. Her road band The Rage is also featured on the album, which reached #1 on the Top Bluegrass Albums chart and produced two non-charting singles.

The opening track “I’m Leavin'” is one of five tracks on the album written by Rhonda and is reminiscent of some of the lesser known songs in Dolly Parton’s catalog, such as “If You Need Me” and “I’m Gone”. It was released as a single but did not chart despite the excellent vocal performance by Rhonda and fiddle-playing by Stuart Duncan. The next track, the Western swing flavored “The World’s Biggest Fool”, is a far cry from bluegrass but Rhonda pulls it off with gusto. The wedding ballad “I Give All My Love To You” is exquisitely performed and produced but it is one of the least “grassy” songs here, despite the duet vocal from fellow bluegrass star Russell Moore of the band IIIrd Tyme Out. No complaints here, but hardcore bluegrass fans may have been expecting something different. Those traditionalists should be pleased, however, with the title track, which features more traditional instrumentation and high-lonesome vocals.

The most traditional bluegrass song in the collection is a spirited cover version of Jimmy Martin’s fast paced “Hit Parade of Love”, which is possibly my favorite song on the album, though “Scorn of a Lover” is also in contention for best track. The latter features a bluegrass arrangement but the lyrics owe more to traditional country and it sounds like something that Patty Loveless would have nailed on one of her nineties albums. Dottie Rambo’s “Just One of a Kind” is also a nicely done number that should please bluegrass traditionalists.

Rhonda’s albums usually contain at least one religious song. “I Will See You Again” fills that slot this time around. It’s definitely not bluegrass, but it’s a very touching story about an elderly woman who is about to bury her husband but who has faith that she will see him again soon.

Given its close relationship to bluegrass and country, it’s perhaps logical that Rhonda would choose to include some music of Celtic origin on her albums. Ironically, however, the traditional Irish air “The Water Is Wide” is stripped of most of its Celtic elements, and thus, the tune is this album’s biggest stretch. Featuring a guest vocal from Keith Urban, the song is very pretty but is also somewhat bland. I’ve always liked this song and was looking forward to hearing Rhonda’s take on it, but disappointingly, it comes across as an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, a la Alison Krauss. I highly doubt that was the intent, but the track is one of Rhonda’s rare missteps. The album closes with the self-penned “Bluegrass Saturday Night”, which describes the hectic lifestyle of a road musician.

Though not quite as strong as Back Home Again and the excellent The Storm Still Rages, Good Thing Going is nonetheless an enjoyable collection and that is worthy of inclusion in any country or bluegrass fan’s collection.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent and Rebecca Lynn Howard – ‘The Angels Rejoiced’

Abum Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘One Step Ahead’

One Step Ahead was Rhonda’s 2003 release for Rounder and the first of her albums to really showcase her skills as a songwriter. As always, Rhonda is accompanied by a fine cast of supporting musicians including such aces as Aubrey Haynie (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Ronnie Stewart (banjo), Stewart Duncan (fiddle) and brother Darrin Vincent (bass).

The album opens up with “Kentucky Borderline”, a fine breakdown composed by Ms Vincent and Terry Herd. You could describe this one as a train song in the finest tradition of Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff. The great vocal harmonies on this track are supplied by Jamie Dailey and brother Darrin.

“You Can’t Take It With You” is a gentle ballad from the pens of Curtis Wright and T.J. Knight about a love possibly about to disintegrate slowly.

I’ll give you my love
For the rest of my life
But I want to make sure you know
You can’t take it with you when you go

This song was released as a single to radio, reaching #58.

“One Step Ahead of The Blues” is another Vincent & Herd composition, an up-tempo tune featuring Alison Krauss on harmony vocals. This song probably should have been released as a single. Instead it was the second song on a CD single of “If Heartaches Had Wings” (a song not on this album) released in 2004.

Another Vincent/Herd composition is “Caught In The Crossfire” a rather sad story of divorce as seen through the eyes of a child

I’m caught in the crossfire
Of a world that’s so unkind
I love ‘em both but I can’t choose
Which one to leave behind

“Ridin’ The Red Line” is the song of a truck driver’s homecoming. Another Vincent/Herd composition, the song is noteworthy for the fine mandolin work by Aubrey Haynie with augmented mandolin fills by Cody Kilby.

Webb Pierce, June Hazelwood and Wayne Walker share the songwriting credits on an oldie, “Pathway of Teardrops”. This song has been recorded by many artists, but this version is very reminiscent of the Osborne Brothers recording of the song some years earlier.

The great female vocalist Melba Montgomery supplied “An Old Memory Found Its Way Back”. While Montgomery wasn’t a bluegrass artist, I’ve found that her songs lead themselves to bluegrass interpretations. This is a great ballad sung to perfection by Rhonda Vincent.

I don’t know much about Jennifer Strickland but she sure can write a pretty ballad, this one titled “Missouri Moon” about a love that has come to its end.

Who ever thought I’d be so blue
As I cry beneath that old Missouri moon

As I asked in a prior review, what would a bluegrass album be without a religious song? Much poorer for its absence, so Rhonda has chosen the old Stoney Cooper and Wilma Lee classic “Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill. No version will ever replace the Stoney & Wilma Lee version in my heart, but Ms. Vincent’s version comes close, with Darrin Vincent contributing an excellent guitar solo and harmony vocals.

Another religious song follows, this one penned by Becky Buller, “Fishers Of Men”. This song is performed a cappella by Rhonda Vincent with Darrin Vincent, Mickey Harris and Eric Wilson providing the harmony vocals. This is my favorite track on the album.

Cast your nets aside
And join the battle tide
He will be your guide
To make you fishers of men

Molly Cherryholmes composed the instrumental “Frankie Belle”, the only tune on the album to feature Rhonda’s own mandolin playing.

The album closes with a short rendition of “The Martha White Theme”, a tune long associated with Flatt & Scruggs, whose portion of the Grand Ole Opry was sponsored by Martha White for decades.

One Step Ahead is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a fully realized artist. I’d give it an A. The strength of this album’s songs is demonstrated by the fact that six of these songs would be reprised in her very next album Ragin’ Live.

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Is The Grass Any Bluer?’

Album Review – Rhonda Vincent – ‘All American Bluegrass Girl’

Released in 2006, All American Bluegrass Girl captured Rhonda Vincent at the height of her fame. A self-produced set, it features three songs either written or co-written by the singer and peaked at #1 on the Bluegrass album chart and #43 on the Country album chart.

Of note beside the music is the somewhat off-beat cover art, which came about after Vincent decided to forgo the glamour shot and try to act sexy. The cover image somewhat sets the tone for the project, as it’s just a little bit beneath the level of Vincent’s enormous talent.

But there are still some good moments. The excellent self-penned title track leads the album and unlike anything Vincent recorded prior, it details her life-story in song. In three minutes, Vincent perfectly captures the feeling of being one of a handful of female superstars within the bluegrass genre:

All my life they told me,

‘You’re pretty good for a girl

Some day you’ll play the Opry

just like Sonny, Bob and Earl’

I’m livin’ dreams I never dreamed

Mom and Daddy, they taught me right

To be an all American bluegrass girl

who’s singin’ here tonight

Another standout is Honey Brassfield’s “Heartbreaker’s Alibi,” a duet between Vincent and her hero, Dolly Parton. Led by Vincent’s impeccable mandolin picking, the tune details a wonderful story about a woman’s pain after catching her man cheating.

The other duet, Bobby Osborne, Peter Goble and Brian Vincent’s “Midnight Angel” is very good and the inclusion of Osborne as a guest vocalist gives the album an added texture never mind fulfilling a childhood dream of Vincent’s to sing with him. When first listening back in 2006, I wasn’t terribly accustomed to Osborne’s voice, and while his twang is an acquired taste, it adds an indelible magic to the song.

Also excellent is “Rhythm of the Wheels,” Al Wood’s chugging train song placing Vincent as an outcast, living on a locomotive, hoping she isn’t caught. The song succeeds because of the coupling of Vincent and The Rage’s tight harmonies with Charlie Cushman’s banjo licking. But the exuberant energy of “Rhythm of the Wheels” is what really helps it stand out, and cements its place as my favorite song on the whole project.

Unlike any record Vincent released before it, All American Bluegrass Girl takes risks with song selection and dives into subjects she hadn’t really touched upon before. “God Bless The Soldier,” the other self-penned tune, is heavy and clunky and while Vincent means well, the execution never quite came together for me.

On the contrary, Byron Hill and Mike Dekle’s “’Till They Came Home” works really well as a support the military song, and tells a multi-generational story that, in the chorus, gets to the heart of families emotionally effected by war. The effectiveness in storytelling, plus the understated quality of Vincent’s vocal make it my second favorite track on the album:

And as the headlines rolled

Every mother prayed

Every father lay awake

The whole night through

Every brother bragged

Every sister cried

Every hometown across this land held on

Till they came home

All American Bluegrass Girl also bustles with a few gospel songs. The most interesting is “Jesus Built A Bridge To Heaven” do to its funky dobro and acoustic guitar backed accompaniment. Connie Leigh’s “Don’t Act” is a standard Vincent bluegrass rocker, with fiery mandolin and banjo behind the cautionary tale of honoring the bible and being a Christian. It’s a fairly heavy-handed message, and won’t please everyone as it wears its faith too heavily on its sleeve. On the other hand, Val Johnson’s “Prettiest Flower There” is a beautiful story of seeing angels at a funeral but the steel guitar and fiddle mixture throughout bogs down the heavy arrangement.

The album concludes with the instrumental “Ashes of Mt Augustine,” later reprised on Your Money and My Good Looks, and a cover of Roy Acuff’s “Precious Jewel,” sung with her band, The Rage. They turn “Jewel” into a harmonious and classic bluegrass stunner and it works really well to close the album.

Overall, All American Bluegrass Girl is a mixed bag, poking holes in the consistently stellar bluegrass work Vincent was recording for Rounder in the last decade. She moves too freely between bluegrass and acoustic country and the results are good but not great. The religious material and songs about the military are often too heavy handed and polarizing, but there are some moments to treasure, namely the title track and duet with Parton.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind – Rhonda Vincent – ‘At The Corner of Walk and Don’t Walk’

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.

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Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent and Gene Watson – ‘It Ain’t Nothin’ New’

Rhonda recorded this one as a duet with Randy Travis when she was on Giant Records in the 90s. Here she is reviving it with her most recent duet partner, the great Gene Watson:

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent – ‘When The Angels Sing’

Classic Rewind – Rhonda Vincent covers Connie Smith’s “Once A Day”

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘The Storm Still Rages’

A year and a half after her triumphant return to bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent did the unthinkable and released an album that was actually better than 2000’s excellent Back Home Again. Like its predecessor, it is a collection of contemporary and traditional bluegrass songs, along with a handful of covers of country classics with acoustic arrangements. Slightly more traditional than Back Home Again, The Storm Still Rages was self-produced. Ronnie Light, who shared production duties on Back Home Again, acts as engineer this time around. Rhonda’s brother Darrin is once again in tow, playing bass and singing harmony. Also present are some of Nashville’s most prestigious musicians, including Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Sonya Issacs and Alison Krauss whose harmonies are what really give this album an edge over Back Home Again.

By 2001, bluegrass was on a hot streak and the rising tide that lifted albums by Alison Krauss and the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack to the top of the charts also benefited Rhonda, who had an album on the charts herself for the very first time. The Storm Still Rages reached #59 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and #9 on their Top Bluegrass Albums chart.

In addition to her roles as lead singer, mandolin player and producer, Rhonda is also credited as a songwriter, having had a hand in creating three of the album’s songs — the opening track “Cry of the Whippoorwill” and “On Solid Ground”, which she co-wrote with Terry Herd, and “When The Angels Sing” which she co-wrote with Herd and her brother Darrin.

One of the album’s standout tracks is “Is The Grass Any Bluer”, which is a tribute to the late Bill Monroe. Addressing the father of bluegrass directly, Vincent asks:

Is the grass any bluer on the other side?
Did it look like old Kentucky when the gates swung open wide?
Bet the good Lord’s got you playin’ somewhere up there every night.
Is the grass any bluer on the other side?

Rhonda also pays tribute to Lester Flatt with the album’s closing track “The Martha White Theme”.

My favorite song on the album is “Don’t Lie”, which had been a single for Trace Adkins two years earlier and ranks among his most underrated recordings. Rhonda’s version was also released as a single but it did not chart. The album produced two more non-charting singles, “I’m Not Over You” and a cover of the Hank Williams classic “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. Also among the country classics Rhonda covers is a version of the Jack Clement tune “Just Someone I Used To Know”, which was originally recorded by George Jones and is best remembered as a hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Rhonda’s version reminds me of the version Lee Ann Womack would record a few years later for her There’s More Where That Came From album.

Two gospel tunes are included in the set, the aforementioned “When Angels Sing” and “If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor You Don’t Love God”, a rousing toe-tapper that is probably the best known of Rhonda’s religious tunes.

The Storm Still Rages is one of those rare albums without a single misstep; the singing, playing, production and the songs themselves are all top-notch. Even if you think you don’t like bluegrass, give this one a listen and you may find that you’ve changed your mind.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent – ‘You Beat All I’ve Ever Seen/Trouble Free’

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Back Home Again’

Although Rhonda Vincent’s pursuit of a mainstream career resulted in only two albums, it took her away from the bluegrass scene for nearly a decade. With the major label phase of her career now over, Rhonda returned to the indies and began a decade-long association with the roots-based Rounder Records. The aptly named Back Home Again, released in January 2000 was her first project for the label. It was an exciting time in bluegrass, as the genre was enjoying somewhat of a commercial resurgence. Dolly Parton had released the first album of her bluegrass trilogy a few months earlier, and the following year the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack would be named Album of the Year by the CMA.

Back Home Again was produced by Rhonda with Ronnie Light. In addition to singing lead vocals, Rhonda also played guitar and mandolin on several tracks and was also joined by her brother Darrin who sang harmony. Many of Nashville’s finest musicians, including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Glen Duncan on fiddle, also participated in the project.

Rhonda and Darrin’s vocals soar on the opening, banjo-led track “Lonesome Wind Blues”, a cover of a Bill Monroe classic. Equally good are their take on Jimmy Martin’s “Pretending I Don’t Care”, and “Out of Hand”, a cover of a Louvin Brothers song on which Rhonda and Darrin are joined by their father Johnny Vincent. “Passing of the Train” is an updated version of a song that Rhonda had included on her first mainstream album, Written In The Stars.

Like most of Rhonda’s albums, not everything on Back Home Again is strictly bluegrass; three contemporary country songs are given bluegrass arrangements, with stunning results. “When I Close My Eyes”, my favorite track on the album, is far superior to Kenny Chesney’s 1996 original and Rhonda’s take on “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” is equal to Patty Loveless’ 1993 recording. And after hearing Rhonda sing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, it’s somewhat surprising that Dolly herself never did a bluegrass version of the song. I’d never thought of it as a bluegrass tune, but it works extremely well with an acoustic arrangement and soaring harmonies on the song’s chorus.

The album’s only misstep is “Little Angels”, a song sung from the point of view of a child sexual abuse survivor. The tune is pretty and it is well sung and played, but it all sounds a little too pleasant for a song about such a weighty and uncomfortable topic, and as such, it doesn’t quite work.

While it’s regrettable that Rhonda didn’t enjoy the commercial success she deserved in mainstream country, after listening to Back Home Again, one can’t help but think that perhaps things worked out for the best, as bluegrass is where she truly belongs. Some mainstream country fans are resistant to bluegrass, but there is much to like in this collection, so it’s well worth keeping an open mind and giving it a try.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Rhonda Vincent – ‘This Heart Of Mine Can Never Say Goodbye’

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

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