In the waning weeks before Christmas, when the majority of America is stressing and fretting about holiday activities, Rhonda Vincent was kicking back. No snowy trip to the shopping malls for this bluegrass gal. After a year of nearly non-stop touring and recording a new album - which slipped into music stores last week - Vincent was soaking up the mid-December sun in Palm Springs, Calif.
But then, if this is her only serious break for the year, why was Vincent wasting some of it talking by phone to a journalist?
“Actually, this is perfect,” she said. “When we’re doing shows, it’s really hard to do interviews because I lose my voice if I talk all day and then sing that night.”
So, in the midst of vacation, Vincent seemed happy to allow her work life to intrude momentarily. Her conversational tone, much like her music, was upbeat, bright and cheery.
Maybe that’s because ever since she shifted back to bluegrass in 2000 after a brief detour into country music, Vincent’s popularity has continually gained momentum.
One star player after another has served time in her band, The Rage. Scores of awards have come her way, including seven consecutive trophies from the International Bluegrass Music Association as female vocalist of the year. And, to top it all, she wears - in very literal terms - her hard-earned crossover appeal very well. Just look at the back cover of her new album for proof. How many female bluegrass artists could pull off a leggy poolside photo in a sequined gown?
No wonder then that Vincent has called her new record “Good Thing Going.”
“This is where we are in life,” Vincent said. “We’ve got a good thing going. The album simply sums up everything about what we’re doing. I feel I live my dream every day.”
Within the album’s 12 tunes, Vincent paints broad but vivid string-music portraits in traditional settings that let The Rage stretch out, as in the dizzying picking and vocal harmonies of Jimmy Martin’s “Hit Parade of Love.” There is an update of the centuries-old folk song “The Water Is Wide” rooted in more contemporary times. Vincent said she learned the tune from a `70s record by singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff and was subsequently inspired to enlist country megastar Keith Urban as a vocal partner for her own version.
And then there are her own tunes. Vincent wrote or co-wrote five songs, although none is more commanding than the sustained vocal intro and mountain clarity of the album-opening “I’m Leavin’,” a tune that encapsulates all of Vincent’s bluegrass strength, vocal prowess and instrumental smarts. It is like an alarm clock going off. It’s that immediate and commanding.
“I have my own studio now called Adventure Studios,” Vincent said. “After all, it’s always an adventure each time I record. While we were working on the record there, one of the musicians said, `You’re not just recording. You’re creating something.’ And that’s what we want to do.”
Vincent co-produced “Good Time Going” with her brother, Darrin Vincent. The two began playing together as children in a family band called The Sally Mountain Show. Their collaborative spirit always has been strong, but making Rage records together presents a distinct technological challenge. Specifically, how do you take full advantage of the modern mechanics a recording studio can offer without drowning the natural, intuitive acoustics that are the heart of bluegrass music?
“I think we know our parameters,” Rhonda Vincent said. “Darrin and I have been creating music together since we were born. We were raised in a family group that allowed us the opportunity to make 10 albums where we had a lot of creative input. Making music is a very natural thing for us. But we also know when it starts to seem like too much.
Vincent cited the setup of her 2005 concert CD-DVD “Ragin’ Live” as an example.
“The technical people came in and set up a stage full of microphones and a full set of drums. We did a run-through and said, `This is too much. We’re going to have to downsize.’ So they took out about 50 percent of the microphones. And since we listen with our hearts as much as our ears, we used a cardboard box with duct tape around it and a pair of brushes instead of the drums.”
A similar practice was employed on “Good Thing Going’s” cover of Dottie Rambo’s “Just One of a Kind.” With Jessie McReynolds (of Jim & Jessie, the famed bluegrass duo that popularized the tune decades earlier) playing a feisty cross-picking mandolin lead, champion guitarist Bryan Sutton propelling the arrangement, and brother Darin and Kathy Chiavola fleshing out a rich vocal harmony, Vincent invited a guest, James Stroud, the celebrated country music producer for Toby Keith and Tim McGraw, among others. He also helped oversee Vincent’s country tenure in the `90s on the Giant label.
Stroud is also a learned drummer. But in keeping with “Good Thing Going’s” bluegrass makeup, he chose an unusual source for a lighter percussive color: Pizza Hut.
“James checked out all their pizza boxes for the right tone - small, medium and large. He chose the medium.
“And, no,” she added with a laugh, “it was not deep-dish.”