Rhonda Vincent,
All American Bluegrass Girl
(Rounder, 2006)

Next to Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent is the most popular woman on the current bluegrass scene. Actually, since Krauss is only a part-time bluegrass artist these days (the rest of the time, she's fashioning a kind of acoustic chamber-pop heavy on love songs), you could fairly say that Vincent is the genre's foremost female figure.

Vincent, who grew up in the genre, performed with her family's Missouri-based band starting in her fifth year. As a young adult she recorded several bluegrass albums under her own name. After a short detour in Nashville and a failed attempt to become a mainstream country singer, she returned to her roots and set out on what has proved to be a thriving career.

She is very good, a vocalist who can handle slow, emotional songs, fervent gospel acclamations and hard-drivin' traditional bluegrass, and she is not a bad mandolin picker, either. In my opinion the best of her albums on Rounder, the label she shares with Krauss and on which she's enjoyed her greatest success, is 2001's The Storm Still Rages, the most rurally ambient of the lot, with one stirring song, arrangement and vocal after another, topped by a tour de force reading of Hank Williams's "My Sweet Love Ain't Around" -- my personal favorite of all his songs -- that Hank himself would have admired.

The follow-up, One Step Ahead (2003), was a solid album if not quite in Storm's class. A certain encroaching slickness -- which is to say the smell of larger commercial ambition -- was hard not to notice. And it wasn't just in the arrangements and song selection. It was right there on the cover, which -- as I'm sure it was intended to do -- sparked no small amount of attention and controversy. Clad in leather jacket and tight slacks, Vincent, her mandolin in hand, is crossing a busy city street. She wears a tank top with a plunging neckline and an exposed navel. If not for the mandolin, the photograph could have adorned just about any pop record. On the other hand, the bluegrass audience, many of whom profess conservative social values and reverence for rural and small-town ways, had never seen an album cover like this. Traditionally, bluegrass album covers have stressed the genre's rustic self-image -- backroads, not city streets -- and erotic stimulations are nowhere in view.

Vincent is indeed an attractive woman, but she is a middle-aged adult, a mother, a teetotaler and an intense Christian who never hesitates to talk about the Lord when the opportunity presents itself, which seems to be often. In other words, she personifies the old-fashioned values the bluegrass crowd professes to embrace. She is, no mistake about it, not to be confused with the hot chick in the photo.

Yes, all of this may seem quaint, even absurd, to persons not schooled in bluegrass' folkways, but it was Nashville marketing come to a genre that had been the original alt.country, that prided itself (rhetorically anyway) on pursuing music, not commerce. None of this would have happened without Vincent's full cooperation, obviously. What it meant was that bluegrass had now entered the 21st century, and that more than album covers were and are about to change.

The cover of All American Bluegrass Girl features plunging neckline, but no navel, though Vincent appears to be attempting, not persuasively, a come-hither look. Actually, nothing about this would stand out particularly amid cover art adorning products hawking any of mainstream Nashville's current female acts, where sexiness and babe-itude matter at least as much as -- well, more than -- vocal skills. Inside, Vincent and her band, the Rage (as in fashionable, not as in furious), alternate between a more conventional bluegrass approach and what Vincent calls "softer acoustic sounds" (e.g., Blake Williams and Wayne Southards's "Forever Ain't That Long Anymore," whose very title is as blandly generic as the song it represents).

Vincent's own composition "God Bless the Soldier," no doubt well-intentioned, is a numbing recitation of the martial cliches that under the present regime have plunged the nation into the abyss. The most charitable observation that comes to mind is that at least it's not as grating as a Toby Keith rant. There's the obligatory train song, Al Wood's "Rhythm of the Wheels," which doesn't miss a hackneyed lyric, though Vincent and the band make it a cheery romp with some amiable harmonies.

About halfway through, things more or less pick up, and the material -- with a dreary exception or two -- becomes less predictably anemic. On "Midnight Angel" Vincent sings with the venerated Bobby Osborne, whose keen (and undiminished) high-lonesome tenor recalls bluegrass glories past. There's no Nashville factory issue here, either; Osborne co-wrote the song. Connie Leigh's "Don't Act" reminds the listener that when she wants to be, Vincent is the equal of anybody who's ever sung a bluegrass song. She is similarly impressive on "Jesus Built a Bridge to Heaven," written by Mark Kevin Grantt and Glen Duncan in the style of an African-American spiritual. The CD ends resoundingly with a fierce Appalachian rendition -- bass player Mickey Harris sings the lead as if standing on a high mountaintop -- of Roy Acuff's "The Precious Jewel."

by Jerome Clark
27 January 2007

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