After a disappointing and disillusioning attempt at the brass ring in Nashville—two straight country albums for James Stroud’s Giant Records, Written In The Stars (1993) and Trouble Free (1996), both under-promoted commercial disasters that deserved better, especially the latter, a gem of a country record—it’s not surprising that Rhonda Vincent’s new album is a return to her bluegrass roots, or that it’s titled Back Home Again.
Vincent has been playing bluegrass with her folks and siblings in the Vincent family band, the Sally Mountain Show, since she was a little kid. And before her ill-fated engagement with mainstream Nashville she released three respectable if, as she admits, unfocused records on the distinguished bluegrass label, Rebel. But it’s an older, wiser, and more mature Vincent that has returned to bluegrass with Back Home Again, and with its powerful singing, strong material, blistering instrumental work, and soaring harmonies it sounds every bit the record she has been preparing her whole life to make.
Vincent’s vocals and mandolin are backed here by some of the finest players a person can hope to get for a bluegrass session—guitarist Bryan Sutton and banjoist Marc Pruett, both late of Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, Ron Stewart and Glen Duncan on fiddles, and Jerry Douglass on dobro, among others—and under her direction they sustain a hard-driving, tradition oriented sound on a mix of standards and contemporary songs. Vincent breathes fresh life into vintage material like “Lonesome Wind Blues,” “Pretending I Don’t Care,” “You’re Running Wild,” and “Out Of Hand,” and she delivers a sparkling cover of Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” that raises the question of what she could do with a whole album of Parton songs.
But the real highlights of Back Home Again are acoustic interpretations of two recent country hits—Kenny Chesney’s “When I Close My Eyes,” and “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are,” a hit for Patty Loveless, both fine cuts in their original versions—interpretations that blur the boundary between bluegrass and country music. They are both tender, blue ballads featuring Jerry Douglass’ aching dobro and the stunning harmonies of Rhonda and brother Darrin that rip the heart wide open ever so gently. This is what country radio could sound like if it was about music rather than advertising.
To paraphrase Alison Krauss, it’s about time for folks to catch on to Rhonda Vincent and find out what they’ve been missing. Vincent has kept her part of the bargain with Back Home Again. If anybody’s planning on putting out a finer bluegrass record this year they’ve sure got their work cut out for them.
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