Rhonda Vincent already had a handle on what was to be her newest bluegrass recording when she got the call to sing at the Grand Ole Opry the night after George Jones died. “They asked everyone on the Opry that night to sing a George Jones song,” Vincent recalled. “So I picked When the Grass Grows Over Me. Never sang it before, but I love the sound of steel guitars. The song just went so well.
“Then it occurred to me to have six bluegrass songs and six country songs on my album. It was kind of a gamble, but these styles seem to correlate with audiences. The record wound up debuting at No. 1 album on the Billboard bluegrass charts and got a Grammy nomination. So I guess it was a good move, but you don’t know that when you’re going into a project like this.”
It’s hard to imagine Vincent being anything but confident as she constructed the 2014 bluegrass/country hybrid album Only Me. Sure, she has been billed regularly as the Queen of Bluegrass thanks to a string of recordings with her longrunning band The Rage and a sackful of Grammy nominations and International Bluegrass Music Association awards. But as an artist who cut her musical teeth in a touring family band that regularly performed traditional country tunes, she was well versed in the sound of old school Nashville. Maybe that’s why country greats like Alan Jackson, Keith Urban and Dolly Parton, among many others, have enlisted Vincent for their recordings.
“Bluegrass has always been the sister to country music,” said Vincent, who performs a free convocation concert with The Rage at Berea College on Thursday. “There are so many similarities. When I was growing up in a musical family, the music that we did was considered country music, even though it might have been acoustic. To me, it was really all the same. That’s what this CD is an illustration of. There may be steel guitar. There may be banjo. The music is still me.”
While the Opry tribute to Jones may have triggered inspiration for Only Me, Vincent had already retuned her sense of tradition on a 2012 collaborative record with country music veteran Gene Watson titled Your Money and My Good Looks.
“The project with Gene gave me confidence. I knew there was an audience for this music. It upsets me when people say country music is dying. Country music is not dying. There are still fans of the traditional country music style. There are fans of the more contemporary country music style. They’re just aren’t many people making recordings and songs that bring something new to the table.
“For most people, if they want to listen to traditional country music, they’ll go put on an old George Jones album or an old Merle Haggard record. I want these fans to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to put on the new Rhonda Vincent album and hear new recordings of the traditional country music style.”
What surprises most about Only Me is how regularly country and bluegrass mingle. In theory, the two styles are grouped separately on the album. But the title song, which boasts help from Willie Nelson, along with an update of the vintage country duet We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds (performed on Only Me with Daryle Singletary) wind up among the bluegrass songs while Jerry Irby’s Drivin’ Nails, which Vincent cut over a decade ago with the Rage as a bluegrass romp has been retooled and cast among the country material.
“The obvious thing would have been to have Daryle Singletary on the country side and have Willie on the country side, but I wanted to do something really different. And as for Willie, he fits in anywhere. He’s the universal artist. He could sing with anyone and still be himself. He doesn’t alter his voice at all but always seems to blend so well. I was so amazed and so excited to work with him.”
Rhonda Vincent and the Rage perform at 8 p.m. March 12 at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College. Admission is free. Call (859) 985-3359 or go to berea.edu/convocations.