Rhonda Vincent - Music Is What I See
Upper Management Records
Rhonda Vincent has moved back and forth between the kindred fields of bluegrass and country music. She grew up playing bluegrass music in her family band, the Sally Mountain Show. Then her clear vocals and deft instrumental skills led her on an eight-year detour into mainstream country music. In a world littered with thin-voiced wannabes collecting most of the pop coins, Rhonda remains a cult icon with a vocal style to die for. She could, and should, have been embraced by the mainstream, but for whatever reason, Music Row never did get a handle on what Rhonda Vincent does best. 21 years ago she returned full-time to the bluegrass fold and hasn’t looked back, clocking up numerous awards from the IBMA and SPBGMA, in addition to a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. With her acclaimed band, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, she is one of the top touring and recording bluegrass acts in America. What makes Rhonda stand out is she has her own style of bluegrass with a hint of classic country, topped off by a healthy dose of reckless abandon … that said, this latest album is indelibly invested in the basics of bluegrass, with a distinctive contemporary edge.
She opens with the optimistic What Ain’t To Be, Just Might Happen. In addition to being a fast-paced toe-tapper, it represents one of those intangibles that helps Rhonda & her band rise above the crowd—the ability to find old songs and rearrange them in a compelling style. She probably heard this one from an old Porter Wagoner record, one of the few songs that the late Opry star wrote. They’ve grassed it up nicely but kept it true to its country roots with some tasteful fiddling and banjo picking. The title song is a tender and sweet yarn about a street singer. Co-written by Music Row hit-maker Tony Haselden, the arrangement puts Rhonda’s distinct and precise voice front and centre with restrained enhancements that are all the more effective for it. I’d Like To Be A Train is a driving bluegrass train song about a train having freedom and no relationship hassles. Rhonda’s mandolin drives the rhythm with the expert banjo of Aaron McDaris, fiddle of Hunter Berry, Josh Williams’ acoustic guitar and Jeff Partin’s Dobro, underpinned by Mickey Harris’ rock-steady upright bass. Bluegrass music has produced few bands with the instrumental virtuosity of this group, and their dexterity is well on display here.
Tim Raybon’s I’m Still Not Over You is a lovely ballad of heartbreak, which uses the familiar bluegrass instruments to create a delicate arrangement behind Rhonda’s vocal. Her crystalline, almost angelic voice has the potential to enrich souls and bring a listener to tears. She updates Slowly, Webb Pierce’s 1954 country hit. Hunter’s fiddle replaces the distinctive steel, that was such an integral part of the original, as she brings a high lonesome sound to the longing of the aching lyrics of unrequited love. From the same era is the much-recorded pop standard Unchained Melody. She sings it straight to simple plucked mandolin and sweet fiddle and Dobro. As with every other song here, it allows her to showcase her range with some powerfully dramatic notes. In contrast, she offers a re-written version of I’ve Been Everywhere, adapted to how the pandemic has affected touring musicians, to I Ain’t Been Nowhere. It’s very cleverly done and the late Geoff Mack, the Australian who wrote and first recorded the original, might well be smiling down with approval.
Rhonda has always been a devout Christian and loves to include gospel numbers in her repertoire. She wraps this album up with a couple of them. Imagine a back porch gathering after church has let out, and the folks are not ready to put the pervasive praise and effusive energy to bed yet, that’s just what you get with their joyful rendition of the standby standard Everybody Will Be Happy Over There. The final track, There’s A Record Book, is a beautiful ballad with just Rhonda’s acoustic guitar accompaniment and harmony vocals provided by The Isaacs (Ben Isaacs, Becky Isaacs Bowman, Sonya Isaacs Yeary) for a truly emotional and stirring performance. A record which is wholly new and yet immediately classic, MUSIC IS WHAT I SEE is an album sure to thrill existing Rhonda Vincent fans and bring new devotees to the fold. In a word, awesome!