Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rhonda Vincent - Only Me: CD Review

Country music and bluegrass music have always been engaged in a somewhat difficult relationship based on style, content, instrumental structure, and more. When Bill Monroe joined the Grand Ole Opry, he called his music “country music” and Flatt & Scruggs also considered themselves a country music band. The country sub-genre came to be called bluegrass music, taking its name from The Bluegrass Boys, the name of Monroe's band referring to his home in Kentucky, the bluegrass state. None of this separation much bothers Rhonda Vincent, who easily, even seamlessly, fits her singing and musical choices into both areas and has now made a statement about their kinship through her very fine set of two six song CD's called “Only Me.”

While the material is presented in two CD's, the country side contains her rendition of “Beneath Still Waters,” which has long been a staple of her bluegrass shows at festivals, while the bluegrass disk is highlighted by guest appearances of country (and cross genre) great Willie Nelson and Daryle Singletary. With the aging of the baby boomer generation, and the deterioration of their hearing after years of rock abuse, bluegrass and classic country music seem to be riding a wave of popularity that, if well handled, could last for a generation. This resurgence will include the softening of rock standards as they are grassed and countrified to fit their newly softening aural tastes. Only Me is right in the pocket for this audience. 

Rhonda & Willie
The country disk in Only Me contains two songs that are familiar inclusions in Rhonda's bluegrass performances, “Drivin Nails” and “Beneath Still Waters” as well as a nice original written by Rhonda called “Teardrops Over You.” The Bill Anderson standard “Bright Lights & Country Music” is also a nice addition. The band for the Country disk contains a bunch of fine country musicians including Tim Crouch on fiddles, Kevin Grantt on the upright bass, Carl Jackson on accoustic guitar, Mike Johnson on steel guitar, Catherine Marx on piano, James Mitchell on electric guitar, and Lonnie Wilson on drums. Michael Rojas pitches in on piano for “Drivin' Nails.” Harmony vocals are provided by Gene Johnson & Dana Williams on the Bill Anderson song “Once a Day.” All six songs feature Rhonda's clean, clear voice in country mode with characteristic sliding into the note rather than the more bluegrassy trait of hitting the note dead on. I was left with a question in my mind about why producer Rhonda Vincent felt it necessary to replace instrumental stalwarts in her own band, who appear on the bluegrass disk like Mickey Harris on bass and the great Hunter Berry on fiddle. I bet Josh Williams on guitar is more than up to playing country electric guitar and Brent Burke, her regular resophonic player can, I'm certain, do a more than creditable job on pedal steel.

Rhonda Vincent.

In bluegrass Rhonda Vincent has nothing to prove to anyone. The title song, Only Me by Bill Yates and Roger Brown features Willie Nelson singing harmony and a solo verse. It's a good song, but the little twist of including country legend Nelson in a bluegrass song is particularly genre bending and effective. Larry Cordle and Lionel Delmore contribute “I'd Rather Hear I Don't Love You (Than Nothing at All) which adds another sly piece of genre bending. Played in a clear bluegrass style, it is still worth remembering that Cordle wrote “Murder on Music City Row” decrying the death of “real” country music. Rhonda's band “The Rage” consists of Hunter Berry on fiddle, Mickey Harris on bass, Aaron McDaris on banjo, Rhonda herself on mandolin, and Josh Williams on guitar. 80's country singer Melba Montgomery (who often collaborated with the late George Jones) contributes “We Must Have Been Out of our Minds” with country singer Daryle Singletary featured, which still comes out as a genuine bluegrass song. Meanwhile, Brent Burke's lovely tremolo on the resophonic guitar would do any pedal steel player justice. The final song on this disk is banjoist Haley Stiltner's waltz-like “It's Never Too Late,” which is a bluegrass gospel song, more traditional in bluegrass sets than it is in country music.

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
in their natural habitat
People wishing to do so can argue about these songs 'til the cows come home, taking the “it's not bluegrass” or “it's country” point of view. Better they should just sit back and enjoy this well produced, fun-filled set of two six-song disks. The production values are high and the packaging is effective and, I should think, expensive. There are two disks clearly labeled “Country” and “Bluegrass” packaged with pictures of Rhonda dressed appropriately for each role. The wholesome and attractive look of the album photos presents Vincent perfectly. The recording values are among the best I've heard recently, with clear dynamics and beautiful reproduction. OnlyMe represents a really good introduction for country fans to some fine bluegrass and a reaffirmation for bluegrass people who like to hear classic country mixed with their bluegrass. Perhaps the greatest differences between the material on the two disks lies in the instrumentation and the blinding speed in a couple of the bluegrass songs. Only Me is available by direct sale to fans attending Rhonda Vincent and the Rage performances as well as at all the regular outlets for recorded music. The street date for this CD is January 28, 2014. My copy of the CD was provided by Rhonda's publicist.