Rhonda Vincent Interview: The Queen of Bluegrass Talks New Album, Defying Stereotypes + More
Rhonda Vincent is widely referred to as “the Queen of Bluegrass.” Since making her solo debut in 1988, she has built a career that has seen her emerge as one of the foremost singers and players in bluegrass — not to mention one of the only female musicians of her generation to make a significant mark on the male-dominated genre.
Vincent is not just a musician; since 2010, when she departed her longtime deal with Rounder Records, she has created a self-contained business model, recording and releasing her own products under the banner of Upper Management Music.
Her latest album, ‘Only Me,’ is set for release on Tuesday (Jan. 28). The two-disc set features one CD of Vincent’s trademark bluegrass, while the other showcases her traditional country influences. Daryle Singletary duets with her on ‘We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds,’ while Willie Nelson joins her on the title track.
The Boot caught up with Vincent recently to discuss the new album, her struggle to defy stereotypes in the world of bluegrass and much more in the following wide-ranging interview.
There’s been a dichotomy in how people perceived you for a long time, in terms of whether you’re bluegrass or country. Was it always your intent to eventually make a record that addressed that?
It never occurred to me to do that. It was not until the passing of George Jones — we were on the Opry, and they asked us to sing a George Jones song, and we did ‘When the Grass Grows Over Me.’ And when we did that, and it was met with such great response when we did it on the show, and I said, ‘Well, maybe there’s something here.’
And, coupled with the fact that on the ‘Country’s Family Reunion’ show I sing country, and people are always asking, ‘Can I get these songs?’ The song, ‘Beneath Still Waters’ . . . just from being on ‘Country’s Family Reunion,’ people are always asking me to buy that. So I said, “This is a perfect opportunity to do a double CD, and to put those songs on there.”
How did you go about picking the songs? That’s a pretty laborious process for one project, but you have two different focuses here.
It was pretty easy, because I basically just took the songs from ‘Country’s Family Reunion,’ so the country songs were very easy to select. Now on the other side, the bluegrass, that became a little more of a tedious process, because I’m always looking for something new, something different, something unique.
There’s kind of a formula that I do our shows with — starting out with a real barn-burner, and then bringing it down a bit to a song like ‘Only Me’ that’s a mid-tempo, and then all the way down to a ballad. It’s that basic template that we follow, trying never to have two songs in the same tempo, rarely two songs in the same key — but there are some that ended up butting up next to one another for whatever reason on this new CD.
You can do a typical three-chord bluegrass song like ‘Busy City,’ and yes, that’s all fine and good, but I always want to try to do something special, something unique, and something we’ve never done before, which number one, I think the song I sent Willie [Nelson] — ‘Only Me’ — it was reminiscent of ‘On the Road Again.’ So I thought that was a song that he needs to be on, and then also it was unique in that you would probably anticipate that Willie Nelson is going to be on a country song, not necessarily a bluegrass song. So I thought that in itself was pretty unique.
And the fact that he agreed to play guitar — when he plays, I would say from the first two notes, you know that it’s Willie Nelson. It’s just so unique. And I’m told . . . he played guitar riffs from ‘On the Road Again,’ and he doesn’t do that very often, or maybe even has never done that before, and I was so thrilled that he shared that on this particular song.
So his recording took place separately from yours?
Yes, he did that in a separate studio.
The other big collaboration on here is Daryle Singletary, which is just killer. I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s fantastic. That sounds like it was recorded together.
We actually did that together. We were in the studio together, and we sang both of our parts simultaneously. We haven’t sang that song before — we’ve sang together, but never that song.
Daryle was the the CMA Music Fest, and he stopped by after an event, probably around eight o’clock. And he said, “I thought I’d be in here and knock this out in an hour.” Well, three hours later, we’re still there. And I felt the same way; we both knew the song, we’d heard it for years by George Jones and Melba Montgomery. We were so confident that we would just knock that out, but when we got into it — and I found this with almost every one of these songs; there were so many intricacies in the songs, and especially that song, that we basically sang it for a couple of hours just getting acquainted with the song, even though we didn’t even realize.
"Probably the songs on this album were more difficult than anything I’ve ever sang before."
We sang it, and we came into the control room and listened to it, thinking, ‘We did a great job, we knew this, we knocked this out.’ And we listened to it, and we both looked at each other, and we said, “We’ve gotta go back in there.” [Laughs.] So we sang for another hour, just working out those intricacies. George and Melba made it look so easy. And we have yet to sing this live. That’s gonna be interesting when we do this live, because we haven’t done it since!
All of these songs, I found myself singing in a different way, and probably the songs on this album were more difficult than anything I’ve ever sang before, and as I got on stage and started singing them, there’s not just one song — I mean, it’s almost exhausting when you start singing these songs with all of the turns and the twists, and holding the notes out. We performed some of these for the first time last weekend, and singing is breathing — you have to know exactly where that’s coming, and when you have a new song . . . I ran out of breath.
What are some of the harder songs to sing live?
In ‘Busy City,’ on the chorus, there is only one place to get a breath. You sing that entire first half without a breath; then you have to get a quick breath and sing the rest of it, and it’s like, I had no idea. We hadn’t really listened to them and sang them since, to really map that out.
I appreciate the fact that you put a lot of artistry into the sessions, because as the technology to record has increased, all too often people just rely on it as a lazy tool to get around doing the hard work of recording.
Oh yeah, it would be easier to sing it once. We could have sung it a couple of times and left and said, ‘That’s okay.” But if it doesn’t — I have to listen and say, ‘Do I get this feeling of excitement? Does that impress me?” And if it doesn’t, I can’t just say, “Okay, we’ve done the work, let it go.”
This is more a function of commercial country, but there are so many instances in which someone might sing the chorus once, for instance, and then copy and paste it into the rest of the song.
Luckily, that’s not something that we’re dedicated to. It is more of an artistry. I’m creating this for the music, not a spreadsheet. Yes, we want it to sell, but also, I love the reaction when people come to a show, and the response that it gets. The song ‘I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You Than Nothing at All,’ I started doing that in the shows just as a test, and I was amazed at — they don’t know it, it’s not been hyped, it’s not been plugged, they’ve never heard it before. But you just put it in the middle of a show, and people react to it, and I think that’s a very good way to find out, do I have a great song, and is this the right performance of it. So it was really exciting to see people really respond to that.
Now that you’ve got your own label, you obviously have to think more in terms of marketing. Is it fair to say that bluegrass is more tied to physical product than mainstream country, because you’re selling it at the shows?
That is absolutely correct, you sell the physical product. In fact, the distributor told me, ‘You are one of the few who are still selling physical product.’ For a bluegrass artist, that is the lifeblood of what we do.
Does the internet then hurt you more, or help you more in terms of marketing independent music?
It helps very much. One of the great things I love about the internet is that people are no longer led just by what they’re hearing on the radio, or reading about. They can go online and search out the music everywhere.
Do you have less of a problem with piracy because you are more involved with physical product, and less with downloads?
I’m not sure about less piracy. I ended up seeing — I guess this is somewhat a sign of success – a guy brought a CD to my show, and I had no idea this was going on. He had me sign a CD that he had ordered online, and when I looked at it, I said, “This is not the product that came from the record company.” Someone out there is duping them — they basically took the cover and made a copy of it on a copy machine, and they’re selling the product, unfortunately. It’s very disappointing to know that people are doing that.
You’re one of the very few bluegrass performers who’s experimented with different types of imaging and visual appeal-based marketing materials, and I wasn’t really aware of this until I did the research for this interview, but that’s met with a really mixed response from some people who weren’t sure that belongs in the genre. What’s your take on that?
Well, to me, bluegrass music, every time it’s been in the mainstream — the two major times that bluegrass has been in the mainstream, represented in the movies, is ‘Deliverance’ and ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou.’ And both of those movies did bluegrass a disservice in terms of imaging, because it looks like if you’re singing bluegrass music you are toothless, barefoot, wearing a pair of overalls, and bearded and disheveled. And I think that’s something that is a crusade, almost, that we have tried to change.
Bluegrass has never been that way, really; maybe in the beginning it was hillbilly music, but I think even then, people just looked at it like that, and categorized it, and made up the imaging. And if you look at the Darlings on ‘Andy Griffith,’ there’s another representation that it wasn’t exactly a sophisticated music.
We always tried to show everyone, I can wear a Vera Wang gown, or a Jackie Roberts custom gown, trying to show that yes, we can wear designer gowns and play bluegrass music. And you know, some of them just don’t even think that even heels belong in bluegrass. It is a man’s game.
"It looks like if you’re singing bluegrass music you are toothless, barefoot, wearing a pair of overalls, and bearded and disheveled. And I think that’s something that is a crusade, almost, that we have tried to change."
I had a guy tell me recently, basically that I’m lucky that I’m a girl and I’m in bluegrass. Basically that I’m pretty lucky that they have accepted me and that I have success in that. In fact hang on . . . I wrote it down, exactly what he said, and put it on my refrigerator. [Laughs.]
He said, “You’re lucky to be in bluegrass, being a girl and all.” [Laughs.] Really?!
Wow. I thought there was sexism in mainstream country.
[Laughs.] Yeah. It’s still out there.
Once again, the internet is a great way to measure success; we now have almost 56,000 likes on Facebook, and these days that’s how they’re measuring a lot of the success; it’s how many likes do you have on Facebook, and how many Twitter followers do you have. And in all of the respects, whether it’s social media or the music, we want people to be aware as they can be by whatever means, whether it’s in print or on the radio, TV, the internet.
And that’s almost another disservice, because there’s such a glut of music that it’s hard to sift through; that’s the other side of that
Bluegrass is a genre where there’s a lot of great stuff, but wow, there’s also a great deal of truly mediocre material out there.
Yes, that’s with anything. I kinda despise Kickstarter; it’s kinda like, just because I want it, I want you to pay for it. It’s like, no, wait a minute . . . if you can’t sell the record, then maybe you shouldn’t be making them. [Laughs.]
Is there anything else that you want to say about your new album, touring or whatever else you have coming up?
If you can mention RhondaVincent.com, and our Facebook, that’s really great. The title of the CD is ‘Only Me,’ it’s a two-CD set featuring guess like Willie Nelson and Daryle Singletary — and Diamond Rio is singing harmony on ‘Once a Day.’
We had a record year of touring in 2013, and I think we’re going to surpass that in 2014. We’re very thankful.