September 21 saw the release of Taken, the latest CD from Rhonda Vincent.
Musically, it doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it mean to. If you are familiar with Ms. Vincent’s music, you know what to expect: carefully chosen songs, all appropriately arranged, comfortably in the bluegrass/acoustic country wheelhouse, and featuring Rhonda’s immediately recognizable voice out front.
All 12 tracks were cut with her road band, The Rage, along with a number of guest vocalists. Aaron McDaris is on banjo, Hunter Berry on fiddle, Mickey Harris on bass, Ben Helson on guitar with Rhonda on mandolin. Helson and Harris handle the bulk of the harmony vocals, as they do on stage, with special contributions from icons like Dolly Parton and Richard Marx.
The music here is simply delightful, sure to please any of Rhonda’s legion of loyal fans, and anyone who appreciates excellence in bluegrass pickin’ and singin’.
Business-wise, however, there is much that is new here. Taken is the first project on Upper Management Music, the new label formed by Vincent and her manager/husband Herb Sandker, after many years with Rounder.
We had the opportunity to speak with Rhonda at some length a week ago, and we discussed the new record, the new label, and a number of other things while she relaxed before the show at the Nothin’ Fancy Festival.
First off, we talked about the differences she has experienced with this project on her own label. Upper Management has arranged for distribution through Universal Music, the same company that handles this for Rounder, so Rhonda said that making this move was something of a no-brainer.
“Being the bank is the greatest difference. In reality, the label serves primarily as the bank. So this is the first time in 11 years of recording that we have covered all the expenses ourselves, right from the first dollar.
The process left me thinking many times ‘Should I be spending so much money?’ There just wasn’t a template for us to follow since we haven’t done this before. And remember, we were planning our daughter’s wedding at the same time. It was really challenging from a financial standpoint.
Musically, though, it feels the same; we picked good songs and set to work on them in the studio. But making all the decisions by myself was new.
When I was deciding on the cover, I would stop random people at airports and ask what they thought of different photos. I’m not really a pink person, but that version of the cover just seemed to stand out. My daughter Tensel really has an eye for this, and the designer really felt like the it was the best.
There is a freedom being able to say… ‘I’m going to do this,’ without having to get approval, and an efficiency to having all this control. It has given me a new confidence to just go with my heart, and be honest about who I am and where I’m going.”
The CD opens with a bouncy, rollicking number from Mike O’Reilly called The Court Of Love. It perfectly sets the tone for the album; Rhonda is in fine voice and the band simply kills it.
The Court Of Love: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/court_of_love.mp3]
The title track features pop/rock artist Richard Marx joining Rhonda on harmony vocals. She tells us that despite Marx’s multiple hit albums in the 1990s – and his 2005 co-write hit for Keith Urban (Better Life) – Rhonda had been unfamiliar with his music until he contacted her a few years ago.
“A mutual friend got us in touch, and Richard asked me to sing on one of his albums, but we couldn’t work it out at the time. He and I have been phone and email pals for a while now, but have never met.
I just felt like he would be great for this song, and he was gracious enough to fit it into his schedule.”
The album also includes an autobiographical number, Ragin’ Live For You Tonight, written by Ragers Harris, Helson and McDaris. You might think of it as following in the footsteps of Bill Monroe’s classic Heavy Traffic Ahead. It’s a rip-roaring, hard-driving bluegrass cut.
Ragin’ Live For You Tonight: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/ragin_live.mp3]
For Vincent, the track that really touches her the most deeply is When The Bloom Is Off The Rose (by Roger Brown), on which she trades lead lines and harmonizes with her two daughters, Sally Berry and Tensel Sandker.
“That was my proudest moment. I realized what my parents must have felt when Brian, Darren and I sang with them in Sally Mountain Show. It was a really moving moment for me.
They were on the road with me and Sally Mountain Show until they were school age, and I am so thrilled that later, they now find music as something they love. They are both studying in the bluegrass program at ETSU, and really have the bug now, performing with their own group, Next Best Thing.
The girls don’t advertise the fact that they are my daughters, wanting to go through school as their own people. Tensel called me not long ago, excited to tell me that her teacher had used one of my songs to demonstrate something in her music theory class. That was pretty cool.
But she didn’t pipe up and say, “That’s my Mom!”
It is interesting to note both the similarities and differences among their voices, and the blend on the choruses is family harmony at its best. Take a listen: Tensel (22) sings lead on the opening chorus, and the first half of the first verse, with Mom catching the back half.
When The Bloom Is Off The Rose: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/when_the_bloom.mp3]
The rest of the track finds Sally coming in to sing the second half of the second verse, and lead on the rest of the choruses.
For the official launch of Taken the last week of September, Vincent took a slightly different approach to media publicity than is the norm for bluegrass acts. She packed up the band, management, and her promotions team and headed for New York City. New York City?!
That’s right, music fans. She had media availabilities on September 21 in Times Square, and then on the observation deck atop the Empire State Building. Later that evening, they held the official CD release party at Sweet Caroline’s in Midtown. Rhonda said that it was an exciting – and eventful trip.
“New York was awesome – the record release was really great. We had photographers and reporters from the Associated Press and several others following us around.
Then we went to Boston – a sold out SRO show – and came back to New York City the next day. The bus dropped us off for some sightseeing, and our driver went to get some water for the bus. We did the tourist thing downtown, and then headed for our show in the afternoon.
When we got to the venue, the bus wasn’t there! No instruments, no clothes, no CDs! Here we are promoting a new CD in the big city, and we didn’t have any product!
So… I called the driver, who was stuck in traffic in New Jersey. When he hadn’t showed by 5:30 I called him back, and he had been in a wreck in the Lincoln Tunnel.
We started frantically calling friends to find some instruments. One guy brought a banjo and guitar, and a zydeco band lent us a fiddle and an electric bass. There was no mandolin, so I started looking for how many a cappella songs we could do.
Here we are at Joe’s Pub in New York, and we went on at 7:30 in our street clothes with borrowed instruments. I had a special dress made for me by Constance McCardle just for this show, and it was sitting in the bus!
The bus finally arrived with 20 minutes left in the set, banged up but still intact. I ran off stage while the guys played an instrumental, and got into the dress and made it back to the stage in time for the last few songs.”
This all came at the end of a tour that had them out for 24 days straight. And the very next week saw them heading out for another 10 days, hitting Chicago and a number of cities in the upper Mid West. Talk about a trooper.
That 10 day swing also found Rhonda taking a different path from the rest of the bluegrass world, most of whom were settling in at the IBMA World Of Bluegrass Convention in Nashville. She had a public split with IBMA in 2007, revolving around a decision by the Board of Directors to eliminate the individual announcements for the pickers of the year, lumping them together for a single presentation without acceptance speeches.
This change was advocated at the time with an eye towards streamlining the show for television. A broadcast agreement was never reached, and the awards show reverted to its earlier format in 2007, but Rhonda has not reconciled with the organization.
“IBMA is totally about money, and it’s very unfortunate. That’s not what bluegrass is all about. I can’t support something I don’t believe in, and I don’t want to use my popularity for something I don’t support.
What made IBMA before was the pickers, the camaraderie at The Galt House when the event was held in Louisville. SPBGMA [Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America] feels like what bluegrass is supposed to be, and I take part in their annual convention instead.
No one loves bluegrass more than I do. No one is a bigger fan than I am. IBMA does things the way their membership chooses, and that’s fine, but I don’t choose to participate.”
And it seems that the feeling is mutual. Since 2006, Rhonda has not been chosen for an IBMA Award, nor has she appeared on the program – though she had been scheduled to perform on the 2007 Awards Show, but had to cancel at the last minute due to illness.
She had been their Female Vocalist of the Year from 2000 to 2006, Entertainer of the Year in 2001, and had picked up multiple other awards for various albums and songs. Her band members were also perennial winners, but in 2010, neither Rhonda nor any of her band mates were even nominated. That’s hard to fathom for a bandleader and artist who worked more dates in 2010 than most any other act in bluegrass.
But both sides soldier on. For her part, Vincent is well pleased with where her career is going.
“Thank goodness for the music industry. I just love the friends I’ve been able to make.
I’ve never been happier. I want to be Ralph Stanley when I grow up.”
Taken is available wherever bluegrass music is sold. Additional audio samples can be found in iTunes,