Bluegrass is no-fooling-around music. There is no faking it. Lean, no fat on its bones: bluegrass is stripped down to the basics and requires serious chops. Rhonda Vincent and her band have them.
Vincent has a long history as a recording artist. She started in bluegrass, got “noticed” by Nashville, and recorded several mainstream country records, then came back to the fold by signing with Rounder Records and embracing bluegrass again. Destination Life is the eighth of these renaissance discs dating from 2000. It is also the first to feature her hot touring band, the Rage. Though the 12 songs cover plenty of stylistic territory, the essential approach on every one is true to the bluegrass model: stacked harmonies and pure string band music (guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass, no drums).
From the start, this music has gallop and charge a-plenty. “Anywhere Is Home When You’re With Me” is a fired-up love song taken at a serious clip. Ben Helson picks a fleet guitar solo and also provides keening harmony vocals. “Heart-Wrenching Lovesick Memories” is the kind of fleet bluegrass that makes the music sound like an urgent joy, and it is performed with the locked-in precision of a 1950s jazz quintet. “Last Time Loving You”, the opener, is not quite as fast, but the band digs in with hill-country soul, and they hit the three-part harmony on the chorus with perfection.
Helson duets with Vincent on “Crazy What a Lonely Heart Will Do”, which is a clean country waltz. This song makes clear that Vincent’s voice has the virtues of a great country singer—she has a big sound, a soulful twang, and a true feeling for the lyrics. Helson harmonizes with grace and manages his solo verse, but he’s clearly the foil to Vincent’s star instrument.
For folks who don’t know Vincent (or bluegrass) all that well, it is useful to compare her to the slightly-more-famous Allison Krauss and the much more famous Dolly Parton. Like Krauss, Vincent is a sharp instrumentalist who got started young and then developed into a major talent as a singer. Krauss, however, has a delicate and sweet voice that puts across bluegrass with an unaffected, folk-line (that is: untwangy) simplicity. Vincent sings with much more body and gusto than Krauss. Her “Stop the World (and Let Me Off)”, for example, is sung with emphatic personality and bell-like clarity. The arrangement is played on bluegrass instruments, but it feels like country-fried calypso. On the other hand, her voice is not as sharp or strident as Parton’s—it sounds deeper and somehow more “modern” or cool. It’s a smart and pleasing middle-ground, and Vincent inhabits it with practiced ease.
Like any good bluegrass performer, Vincent is superb on the gospel material. “I Heard My Savior Calling Me” is a real workout for the singing of the whole band. Vincent reaches into her higher register with brilliance, particularly at the very end. And the Rage really gets to show their vocal stuff here, singing solo parts all around her as well as the stacked harmony. It’s a hoot.
There is one hot and show-offy instrumental that lets the whole band fly, “Eighth of January”. Fiddler Hunter Berry is easy and golden, and Aaron McDaris on banjo doesn’t miss a lick. Happily, Vincent also acquits herself on mandolin, and they make it all sound natural, easy, and fun, like a dance in a barn.
“When I Travel My Last Mile (He Will Hold My Hand)” is another gospel song, but this one is a cappella. The conscious programming of the disc is such that this is a last tune, giving the whole collection the feeling of a nicely thought-out concert. Vincent sings the first minute entirely solo, and the last 20 seconds are harmonized in dramatic high fashion, with the voices straining to reach the notes. But, being utter professionals, they actually reach each note perfectly. It is a stunning close.
Rhonda Vincent owns you with her eyes from the front cover of the disc, looking like a mixture of Jessica Simpson and Faith Hill. Her hair went blond a few albums ago, and on the back of the disc there is more Rhonda Vincent on display than seems purely bluegrass. But why not? Destination Life deserves to be heard widely and beyond a narrow bluegrass audience, and Vincent has the talent as well as the looks to make it happen. Here’s hoping that this veteran artist—more vital than ever, whether she’s dolled-up or not—sells a million. Or at least as many as Allison Krauss.