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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 – ‘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

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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