Street Date: March 8, 2005
Rhonda Vincent was born with music inside of her. She inherited timeless bluegrass strains from her family and the hills of her Missouri homeland. You can hear them echo every time she opens her mouth to sing, or when she runs her hands across a mandolin, guitar, or fiddle. Yet Vincent's music is a transformation of tradition – a very modern manifestation of her roots in classic bluegrass, refracted through her very real experiences as a bandleader, musician, songwriter, mother, wife, and woman.
Most musicians use concert albums as a chance to reflect back on a career, dredging up old favorites and surprise obscurities to the delight of their hardcore fans. Ragin' Live, Rhonda Vincent's new CD and DVD, is something else entirely. It's a compelling gaze forward, fearlessly leaping headlong into the future of bluegrass, the future of Rhonda Vincent. Recorded before a rapturous audience at Sheldon Hall in St. Louis, Ragin' Live finds Vincent and her band The Rage uncorking a dynamic, full-throttle performance that defiantly proclaims bluegrass's continuing relevance.
Vincent doesn't mince words. "To most people, bluegrass still has the stereotype of an old man with few teeth, in overalls, and bare feet. We've made a conscious effort to change that image. The Rage and I are trying to let the world know that you can play bluegrass and be on the cutting edge."
A glance at the setlist of Ragin' Live immediately defines Vincent's strategy. There are a few choice selections from her three acclaimed Rounder albums (Back Home Again, 2000; The Storm Still Rages, 2001; and One Step Ahead, 2003), revisited with unparalleled commitment and intensity. But there is more. "We have eight never-recorded songs on this project," Vincent says. "When I was selecting the songs for this, the entire concept was to present a well-rounded display of every element of what we do. From a typical Rage bluegrass-festival show, to our contemporary singles, to our witness of Christianity, to the grand finale 'Homecoming' – where I think all of those elements come together. To do so, I selected the musicians I felt would be best able to present such a wide range of styles. It was an extension of our normal presentation"
Vincent's skills as a bandleader made choosing such musicians easy – the majority of them were already by her side, playing with her nightly as members of her backing band The Rage. "I travel with an incredible group of musicians," she says proudly. "They are not only talented musicians, but also incredible people, and I think this comes through in our live shows. The individual personality of each member shines."
"Hunter Berry is an award winning fiddle player," she continues. "His gritty style is a perfect fit with the music. Recently, he started writing his own tunes, which are unique and really add a new element to our show." Two of Berry's tunes, "Me Too" and "Son Drop In", provide invigorating interludes on Ragin' Live. "Hunter has a great way with people. Everyone who meets him instantly loves him – including my daughter!"
Banjo player Kenny Ingram is firmly established in the bluegrass world, stemming from his tenures with legendary figures Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin. It is a testament to his continuing evolution as a musician that he immediately took to Vincent's more modern approach, enhancing it with his peerless timing and precision. "He's the first banjo player I've had in my group that grown men line up to get autographs from," Vincent says. "He's a quiet, gentle man, but an explosively loud and aggressive banjo player."
"Our bass player Mickey Harris," says Rhonda, "grew up in a musical family like I did. His earliest memories are of being on his uncle Carl Tipton's TV show, in the Nashville area, singing with his aunt and grandma. He met most every famous country music star as a child, as they appeared on the TV show. Mickey is key to the drive and feel of my music. He plays on top of the beat, which gives the music added excitement. He sings any vocal part, high or low, which gives us many options when arranging the harmony structure."
"I used to use just one mic for vocals," reflects Vincent. "That is, until Josh Williams joined the group. His height makes it hard to do that now!" The lanky, charismatic Williams is the newest member of The Rage. "When Josh joined the group," she explains, "it was like finding the last piece of the puzzle that made the entire picture complete. He plays virtually any stringed instrument – as does every member of The Rage, including myself. But Josh plays every instrument with incredible expertise. He's also an incredible vocalist and songwriter."
To the solid backbone of The Rage was added a wider range of instrumental colors, courtesy of guitarist Cody Kilby (Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder), drummer John Gardner (the Dixie Chicks), and a string trio composed of Chris Sexton, Molly Cherryholmes, and B.J. Cherryholmes. "Chris made an impromptu appearance with his cello during one of our performances," explains Vincent. "Since the cello isn't a prevalent instrument at most bluegrass festivals; it made for a wonderful change of pace. With him, Molly, and B.J., we have a chance to get a fuller sound and to be able to include the subtle fills we are accustomed to hearing on a studio recording, but which become very surprising and moving in a concert setting."
While Vincent is a consummate studio musician with nine solo albums, a Grammy nomination, and a host of awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association (including five consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year trophies) to her credit, recording a live CD and DVD that was up to her rigorous standards was a demanding task. "I had no idea there was so much involved with a DVD. This was a thousand times more challenging than recording a studio album. We were completely out of our normal work environment."
"The biggest difference," she continues, "is that in the recording studio you don't have to worry about visual. You can use as many microphones as you want; and they can cover your face, project shadows; and you can wear anything you want, and not worry about your hair or makeup. With video, our first hurdle was finding the balance between recording quality microphones, without compromising our stage animation. This resulted in many technical difficulties on the first night of filming, due to the unfamiliar set-up. I stayed up all night after the first night of filming, re-vamping the show to work more efficiently and cohesively with the new set-up. Another major concern, when you only have 2 nights to get all the vocals, is conserving the voice. I did a limited amount of talking during the day. In the studio, you can always come back on another day when your voice becomes tired."
Rhonda Vincent knows that such technical hurtles are just the building blocks of a great performance, and Ragin' Live transcends the challenges imposed and leaps from the CD or DVD as a vital, riveting document of an artist at the very pinnacle of her career, her abilities, and her chosen genre.
"There is a much larger awareness of bluegrass now than there was even ten years ago. We are seeing more and more new, younger fans at our shows and on our web site. More than ever, people are looking for authenticity in their music, an authenticity that can only be found in acoustic and bluegrass music. We live in a world of lip sync. But in a live bluegrass show, what you see is what you get. There are no enhancements or alterations."
None are needed.
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It's nothing like the country vibe we were anticipating.