No one tells a lie after he’s said he’s going to tell one.—“Rashomon”
Rhonda Vincent is the biggest female star in bluegrass. The multi-talented singer, songwriter and play-anything-with-strings instrumentalist is an industry favorite who has won 11 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, including Best Female Vocalist for six consecutive years (and one for Entertainer of the Year), as well as a whopping 30 Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America awards, including four for SPBGMA Entertainer of the Year. Country musicians have also recognized Vincent’s talents. She has recorded with Nashville legends and contemporary stars like Dolly Parton, George Jones, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, and Martina McBride. Outsiders have acknowledged Vincent’s status, too. The Wall Street Journal dubbed her “The New Queen of Bluegrass”. Billboard put her face on the cover, and she’s been featured on television broadcasts by all the major networks and many cable outlets as well. And as for records, the blond haired, blue-eyed girl has a great discography. She played on her first album (as part of a group) when she was five years old in 1967, released her first single at age eight, and has put out a slew of estimable discs over the past four decades.
I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that Vincent’s latest effort isn’t a worthy effort, full of fine picking, clear singing, catchy hooks, and crisp production. So what’s the problem… it’s a good disc. But then again, what does good mean these days?
Contrary to popular opinion, music is not a timeless art, but one bound to time and place. Social and historical context are paramount to understanding why something might be considered rebellious in one era and cliché during another. Bluegrass, like all genres, faces the peculiar situation of being steeped in tradition and formula while an artist struggles to creatively express oneself. Vincent chooses to do so on this record by wrapping herself in the red, white, and blue.
Consider the self-penned title song, “All-American Bluegrass Girl”. The lyric’s conceit is a simple enough one. Bill Monroe may be from Kentucky, and Jimmy Martin from Tennessee, but by gosh, Vincent’s from Missouri, and while that might not be in the Appalachians, she’s an authentic bluegrass gal. True enough sentiments; one doesn’t have to be from any particular geographic region to be a real bluegrass performer. Heck, Vincent knows that, she’s won prizes from the major international bluegrass association, so why does she stress being All-American? She’s just being proud, but there’s a thin line that separates pride from prejudice. Maybe I’m being too hard on the girl, although she takes pains to celebrate her equality as a woman in the industry: “All my life they told me / You’re pretty good for a girl”, but she never explains what makes her American-ness special. The underlying assumption is that being an American makes her a better bluegrass artist, something that contradicts the stated message that it doesn’t matter where one is from (unless it’s not from one of the United States, I guess).
In these days of American international adventurism, that’s a jingoistic philosophy that panders to base populism, which brings one to the other song for which Vincent wrote the lyrics, “God Bless the Soldier”. Vincent sings that one should “stand and salute” and “praise” those serving in the military for “defending our rights”. Now, I owe the U.S. military more than most readers, as my parents were liberated from the Nazis by American GIs. I understand the sacrifices those in the armed services are making, but in these days of our national incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq, I don’t believe these troops are defending our rights. Actually, I don’t know what they are doing there, but I do know that by oversimplifying the situation into such black and white statements, Vincent does a disservice to those who fight. This isn’t art, but propaganda that leads not to thought and dialogue, but to mindless patriotism.
Vincent includes another tune about those in the military, Byron Hill and Mike Dekle’s “Til They Came Home”, that presents the pain to families and communities caused by wars fought abroad. The song equates World War II, Vietnam, and Desert Storm for full emotional effect (“Some came home as heroes / Happy to be back / Some came home as heroes / Covered with the flag”), as if it doesn’t matter for what cause one fought and/or died, since fighting and/or dying in a war automatically makes one a hero. By this logic, soldiers from both sides are heroes, which is an odious, relativistic sentiment.
Deciding whether music is good based on political merit is stupid, and I’m not judging Vincent according to a where does she stand on Iraq litmus test (Toby Keith on one end, Dixie Chicks on the other). Vincent’s problem isn’t that she’s pro-Bush. She might not be, as his name is never mentioned. The issue is that her music reduces the perspectives on America and the war into simple-minded, one-sided issues. The truth is more complex than that, no matter what side you look at it from. You can tell Vincent intuits this. The third song she composed on the album is an instrumental, “The Ashes of Mount Augustine”. Her fingers fly along the fret board and engage the members of her backup band, the Rage, in a spirited conversation. The strings say more than her words express about the heart and soul of her art, bluegrass, and the state of the world.
Vincent does have an excellent voice. I don’t want her to shut up. I just wish she would think about what she’s singing more before she lets loose.