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February 14, 2014IM -
AFM Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member Rhonda Vincent is a fifth generation musician from the Vincent family that gained notoriety in the 1970s on their own variety radio and television program, The Sally Mountain Show. Dubbed “The Queen of Bluegrass” by The Wall Street Journal, Vincent has since carved out a successful niche for herself as a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist with multiple Grammy nominations, five consecutive Entertainer of the Year Awards from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America, and an unprecedented seven consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year Awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Vincent’s latest release, Sunday Mornin’ Singin,’ issued on her own Upper Management Music label, is her first ever Gospel music project. Rhonda and her band, The Rage, plow through hymnal favorites such as “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Just as I Am” with as much fervor as newly-penned songs like “Blue Sky Cathedral,” “Silent Partner,” and “Help Me to Be More Like Him.” International Musician caught up with Rhonda while on tour in Missouri.
When and under what circumstances did you first become a member of Local 257 and how has the union helped your career?
I originally joined in 1985. I did this show called You Can Be a Star on the Nashville Network and Jim Ed Brown, the host, said, “We’re going to play on the Grand Ole Opry and you’re going to need to be a member of the union.” Tennessee is a right to work state, but he said, “Still, if we’re going to be playing this every week, you need to be a member of the union.” That’s what prompted me to become a member.
I grew up in a musical family in Greentop, Missouri, so even the idea that I would ever go to Nashville was something I couldn’t even fathom. So my first night on the Grand Ole Opry, Jim turned to me during the first song and said, “You’re going to do the next song, what are you going to do?” It was an incredible experience. It was his prompting that made me join the union. They’ve helped me in many ways. If I have questions, or there’s something I’ve been wondering about, Dave Pomeroy [president of Local 257] has always been so nice and willing to help me. The union also has attorneys and people who will go to bat for you if you need it. It’s great to have an ally.
You did your first recording when you were five years old. Were you playing or were you singing?
It was a Gospel record. I sang the Hank Williams song “How Can You Refuse Him Now?” and I sang a song “How Far Is Heaven,” I believe that Kitty Wells did. At the time, we had a radio show called The Sally Mountain Show that included grandpa, mom, dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. It was basically a variety show and everybody took a turn, and so on this project, everybody sang and I sang two songs on the album, which was called The Sally Mountain Singers.
When and what was your first instrument?
My first instrument was actually when I was six years old. For my birthday my dad got me a snare drum, a stand, and a set of brushes. Uncle Pearl played the mandolin, grandpa played guitar, my dad played banjo and electric guitar—he plays like Chet Atkins too, he’s a great guitarist. Mom played the stand-up bass. I think snare was the only instrument not taken. Either that or he thought it was a good way to learn how to keep time. So, my official first instrument was the snare when I was six.
When did you first pick up the mandolin?
I started playing mandolin when I was eight by necessity, which is pretty much how I do everything. We played at a country music show in Marceline, Missouri, which is very significant in that it is the hometown of Walt Disney. We played there every Saturday night. The guy in charge, his name was Buck Cody, decided that whoever didn’t play an instrument didn’t get paid. And so, this was my dad’s answer to that. He said, “Here’s the mandolin, here’s the G, C, and D chords and you’re going to be playing this for two-and-a-half hours every Saturday night.” The wage was $10 per man. I don’t think I ever saw that $10 either. I might have to talk to my dad about that. That’s how I started playing mandolin.
Sounds like trial by fire.
I grew up in a very intense life of music. Every day my dad would pick me up after school and he, my grandpa, and I would play until dinner. After dinner friends came over and we would play until bedtime, every night. The living room was filled with people. Each person would take their turn singing and playing a song that everyone else would accompany. My dad would say, “Take it Rhonda,” and after a while it was like take it, what? And if you didn’t take it, things got a little more intense.
So did you spend time preparing for those moments, once you realized what was going to be thrown at you?
Eventually, yes, that’s what I started doing. Buck White is my favorite mandolin player of all time. He has such a unique style. And not only did I listen to his records, but I slowed them down to 16 rpm—this is back when there was vinyl—and I would work out, note-for-note every lick of his. We were playing festivals in Missouri at the time. One Sunday morning Buck White came up and swapped mandolins with me. I couldn’t believe I was holding his mandolin.
He showed me so much. He took about two hours. He said, “You’ve got to use your little finger. If you can play a song in one key, you can play it in any. Take a song you know, like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ whatever it is; you play it in one key, then go to every key and learn how to play it so that, if you’re called to play in F#, you’re ready to do that.” I credit people like White, who really took the time to show me and give advice.
When did you start playing fiddle?
I was about 12, I think. My dad said, “The fiddle is tuned exactly the same as the mandolin; there’s no reason you can’t start playing this.” There weren’t any fiddle players that came over to the house either, so he probably saw that need. I am the 1973 Missouri State Fiddle Champion. He started taking me to these fiddle contests all over the state.
I will never forget this—he took me to the Keokuk, Iowa, Street Fair, and in this tiny tent, standing room only, was The Stoneman Family. Donna Stoneman was dressed in a red leather mini-skirt, white go-go boots, with fiery red hair, playing the fire out of the mandolin, and I said, “I want to play like her.” I was so inspired by that. So I think that, when my dad saw I was getting a little disinterested he would introduce something new.
The fiddle just slays me. You have to play it every day or it is going to get the best of you. My dad bought me a double-record set of Benny Martin and boy, once again, I sat and worked out all of the fiddle tunes. “Georgia Moon” is a song on there and I love that song. I was always learning songs because we were also performing continuously and my dad loved that. Anytime you learned a new song you were going to do it at the show or at the house when we were sitting around.
You’ve done a lot of work as a guest vocalist for Dolly Parton of Local 257, Tanya Tucker, etc. Is it challenging to transition from front person to side person or vice versa?
Again, I think I can credit the training from my father. I always feature my band. It’s not a Rhonda Vincent performance. Everyone sings; everyone is featured. That comes from my dad. You never had to worry ,“When am I going to get my turn?” I’ve been with people who want the spotlight all the time, and I think my father trained me to know your song is going to come. You have your song ready, and when it is your turn, you step up and become the featured performer. When your song is done, you step back and support everyone else. Not everyone was raised in that environment, so I don’t think everyone understands that. Working with my family there was also the support of, “When dad is singing, I’m singing the harmony part.” We all sang different parts—you just grabbed whatever part fit in your range.
And working with Dolly? Who doesn’t love working with her? I’ve been so fortunate to work with Dolly, Faith Hill, and Alan Jackson [of Local 257]. As a bluegrass and country musician, the ultimate for me was the day I got called to sing on Kickin’ Out the Footlights … Again, the George Jones [of Local 257]/Merle Haggard [of Local 12 (Sacramento, CA)] duet project they did a few years ago. I got to sing harmony with those two. I love singing new music with new artists. It gives you new ideas for playing and songwriting.
What’s it like to carry on the Martha White Bluegrass Express tradition and how did you first get involved?
I signed with them 11 years ago and it is such an honor. I have a tremendous appreciation for Martha White. I had never been in a brand new tour bus before and they said, “You know what? We’re going to lease a bus for you. You go and design it however you want.” It’s a state-of-the-art bus with granite floors, marble showers, satellite, the whole bit. I am so humbled and thankful to them. How I signed with them was I recorded the original Martha White theme and then I looked for months for a contact and finally I found it through a friend of mine. So I wrote them a letter and said I grew up listening to The Martha White Show on WSM in Nashville, taught my daughters to cook using Martha White products, and I would love to represent your company. And the rest is history.