For the last 19 years, Rhonda Vincent has been a leading act in bluegrass music. Her 2000 Rounder album, “Back Home Again,” prompted one reviewer to describe her as “the new queen of bluegrass music,” and that title has stuck with her ever since.
With a series of strong albums on the Rounder and her own Upper Management record labels, Vincent has racked up a number of impressive awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. She has won the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy six times.
While Vincent seemed like an overnight bluegrass sensation in 2000, she had been playing music professionally since the age of 5. She is the fifth generation of a musical family on her father’s side and joined the family band, The Sally Mountain Show, along with her brother Darrin in their hometown of Greentop, Mo.
“When I was 5, we had a television show, a radio show, made our first recordings,” said Vincent. “I was in the midst of on-the-job training right away. It was what we did. It was more of a way of life that evolved into a career. My dad would pick me up from school. We played after dinner and then friends would come over and we’d play until bedtime. It was a very intense life of music, but one that I am very thankful for now.”
In 1985 Vincent competed on The Nashville Network show “You Can Be A Star,” where she met host Jim Ed Brown. Brown immediately hired Vincent to tour with him.
“That was my first experience away from my family,” said Vincent. “It was playing country music. I played fiddle and mandolin with Jim Ed and sang harmony. I didn’t really leave my family band at that time. Jim Ed would play shows—he’d play The Opry a lot. Then when he wasn’t working, I’d fly in and continue to play the festivals with my mom and dad and my family with The Sally Mountain Show.”
At about the same time, Vincent began her solo career. It took her some time to find her own style. She released four bluegrass albums on Rebel Records in 1990–91, then tried to launch a career in country music. While she never became a country star, that experience prepared her for what would later become a successful career in bluegrass.
“I met James Stroud, and he signed me to a major country deal on Giant records,” said Vincent. “Clay Walker was also on there, Daryle Singletary and so many others. There was five years where I got to learn from the best of the best in Nashville, everything from booking to publishing to record producing, all those sorts of things. After that five years and two country albums, I came to a crossroads and I said, ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ It’s like coming out of college. That’s when I signed with Rounder.”
One key to Vincent’s success has been keeping an outstanding touring band. Her group, The Rage, has featured notable alumni over the years including banjo player Tom Adams, fiddle player Michael Cleveland and guitarist Audie Blaylock. Her band now includes stellar players Hunter Berry on fiddle, Brent Burke on dobro, Mickey Harris on bass, Aaron McDaris on banjo, and Josh Williams on guitar. Vincent leads the band on vocals, but is also an accomplished mandolin player.
“It wasn’t something that happened overnight,” said Vincent. “I would always try to keep an ear out for musicians. When I was in need of musicians, I would try to make sure I had someone already in mind. There’s great musicians but do they play the style of music that I want to play? It was a learning curve—I never had my own band before. It was learning the different personalities of people, the dynamics of these people working together, and their musicianship—does it fit the music? The main thing I think you have to find beyond all is that you are on the same page.”
For years, bluegrass was a boys-only club with an occasional woman, usually in a backing role in a band. Along with women like Alison Krauss, Claire Lynch, and Lynn Morris, Vincent led a new generation of women who were unafraid to step forward and become band leaders. Vincent said she has always let the music do the talking and found that things would fall into place.
“I heard a lot of festivals would say, ‘you’re the first female we’ve ever had to headline our festival,’ ” said Vincent. “I don’t know if they had a resistance to women. I see so many women who maybe they don’t perfect their craft and then they say, ‘they’re not going to hire me because I’m a woman.’ I try to encourage women to work on your skills. They always say the cream rises to the top, but if you have the talent and take the right opportunities, you will elevate yourself in the end.”