Only Me, the latest album from Rhonda Vincent — who’s been known as the Queen of Bluegrass ever since a major newspaper bestowed that honor upon her a half-dozen years ago — features a number of things that you wouldn’t typically expect to find on a bluegrass album.
One is a jazzy guitar solo that colors completely outside of the rhythmic lines. There are also a few country hits of the ‘60s recorded in the style of that decade’s pedal steel-drenched balladry.
It’s all on purpose, of course. Vincent’s the sort of seasoned pro and genre ambassador who makes deliberate moves with solid instincts. So it’s well worth hearing what sort of statement the mandolin-playing singer meant to make this time around.
CMT Edge: Your new album is framed as a response to the question of whether your voice is really more of a bluegrass voice or a country voice. You’ve sung both throughout your career. What brought that question of musical identity to the forefront recently?
Vincent: When I was growing up in a musical family in Missouri, as a teenager, people would tell me, “Your voice is so country. You should be in country music.” And then years later, I had the opportunity to be on [the country division of] Giant Records … As soon as we started recording, they brought me in the office and said, “Um, can you get the bluegrass out of your voice?” …
Those were my musical college years in country music. I learned from the best of the best in Nashville. It’s like, “OK, now what am I going to do with my life?” I had been with my family [in the Sally Mountain Show] and the country music albums but never really had my own band at that point. … And George Jones — I don’t know that he ever knew this — he defined that for me.
Later, I put together my first bluegrass band, the Rage, and we opened some shows for George Jones. We’re in Salem, Va., the first night out. You’re the opening act, and they’re usually like, “We want George!” But they were so receptive to our music. … In 15 minutes, they bought every CD we had. But they said, “We love your country music.” And I’m thinking, “What?!”
So I learned it was the perception of the listener. I never worried about it anymore from that moment. I always wanted an illustration of that — to show people I can sing with a banjo. I can sing with a steel guitar. But regardless of what the instrumentation is, the voice is the same, and it’s only me.
You have the album divided into a bluegrass disc and a country disc. Each one has heartache ballads that you probably could’ve recorded for the other, ballads you really sink your teeth into with those country-soul curlicues. That’s exactly the point, isn’t it? That you can change the setting of the song?
Right. And I purposely did [a country rendition of] “Drivin’ Nails” on this record because it’s such a prominent song for us in bluegrass. I thought that was the perfect illustration of, you know, sing it either way.
You’ve been presented as a different kind of performer at different times: a young bluegrass artist on Rebel, a country singer on Giant, a top-tier bluegrass frontwoman on Rounder. How has that shaped your perspective?
Well, I think I became more comfortable with who I am. That’s why I think this CD was important to show, “Look, I’m comfortable with this. You can be, too.”
I purposefully did two CDs. We went to extra effort to separate those because there are [bluegrass] traditionalists who may not want to hear traditional country music. And there might be traditional country folks who just want to hear the steel guitar and they don’t want to hear the bluegrass.
You know what? I’m finding that most people who like bluegrass also like traditional country music. And we’ve found a market. When we did the all-duet project with Gene Watson, Your Money and My Good Looks, we found a definite market for traditional country music.
There are early recordings of you singing country ballads with bluesy ornamentation, alongside songs with a more traditional bluegrass vocal attack. Did you have vocal touchstones at both ends of that spectrum?
Absolutely. There’s a song called “Teardrops Over You.” … It’s the first song on the country side [of Only Me]. I wrote that when I was 16 years old and, for some reason, forgot about it until all these many years later. It sounded like a George Jones song, and I tried to sing it like he would’ve sung it. … I’ve always loved his singing.
Willie Nelson seems like an unexpected choice for a guest on the bluegrass side of the album. How did that happen?
I had met Willie and we opened for him at the Ryman Auditorium. … But never sang with him. So I asked Dallas [Wayne, program director of Sirius XM channel Willie’s Roadhouse], “Do you think he would sing on the new album?” He said, “Of course he will.” The obvious thing would’ve been to put Willie on a country song. But I’ve always been the kind to say, “If this is the typical way to do it, let’s find a different way.” … Then we thought, “Would he play guitar, too?”
I have to admit, I was holding my breath because we hadn’t sung together before. I did not know how our voices would sound together. They told me, “Look, when he goes in to record this, it might not be exactly in meter.” I said, “I don’t care. As long as it’s Willie Nelson, he can sing anything that he wants, and he can play anything that he wants.” … The interplay of the voices and the interplay of the instrumentals, it just made the song for me.
Is that him trading jazzy, eccentric guitar licks with your mandolin licks?
That’s exactly what it is.
It’s worlds away from a flatpicking bluegrass solo.
We’ll have to research this, but he plays the riff from “On the Road Again,” and I’m told that he has not done that on anything else ever since “On the Road Again.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. But if it is, that’s really special.