At 4 o'clock in the morning, while other kids were fast asleep, 5-year-old Rhonda Vincent was sitting in her parents' car, wedged between relatives and musical instruments, making the 60-mile drive from Kirksville to Ottumna, Iowa. The trip was worth it, though--she got to be on live television.
The Sally Mountain Show aired Friday mornings on KTVO-TV. It was exactly the kind of lovably eccentric variety program you'd expect to find serving a farm community that tuned in at 6 a.m. A big cardboard sun hung in the background. A station employee would read the farm report. The Vincents would sing a song, then there'd be a weather forecast; and another song from Rhonda's aunt and uncle ... or their kids ... or Rhonda.
"Everyone got their turn, I guess," Vincent recalls of that first 1967 appearance. "It was quite grueling, but, hey, we had a TV show; it was live, and it was exciting. At the same time, my mother and my aunt had a job at the shoe factory, so as soon as we got off the show, we'd beat it back to Kirksville and they would all go to work."
For Vincent, who performs with her group The Rage at Raleigh's Tír na nÓg Pub on March 22, music wasn't a career--it was a way of life. In fact, music has been traced back through five generations of her family. When she was growing up, her grandfather, Bill (who played guitar and bass), and her dad, Johnny (who "played anything with strings"), would be waiting for her every afternoon when she got home from school, ready to jam until dinner. After dinner, friends would come over and they'd jam until bedtime.
"Dad was the one who said, 'Take it Rhonda!'" she recalls. "After a while of hearing that, and the mean look you got if you didn't 'take it' properly, you learned to play something." What she learned to play was the snare drum at age 6, the mandolin at age 8 and the fiddle at age 10. Today--like her dad--she plays anything, but it's the mandolin she loves the most. It's also the instrument that brought in her first paycheck.
"We played at this country music show in Marceline, Mo., when I was eight," Vincent recalls, "and the owner decided that whoever didn't play an instrument didn't get paid. So next week my dad said, 'Here's the mandolin. Here's G, C and D. You're going to be playing these three chords for two-and-a-half hours every Saturday night so we can draw this money.' We got $10 apiece, and I brought in my $10 for the family." The Vincents became the house band for Marceline's Frontier Jamboree, later backing up every country music star from Ernest Tubb to Bill Monroe. Mother Carolyn played bass and sang; brothers Brian and Darrin played mandolin, fiddle, guitar and bass.
They also started attending bluegrass festivals, first in Ottumna, and later, in Knob Knoster, Mo. Here they entered the band contest on Vincent's 11th birthday (which turned out to be Friday the 13th), wound up in a tie, and emerged victorious from the playoff. They won $100 and a booking for next year's gathering, cementing their love for the festival circuit. "Knob Knoster was huge," Vincent says. "It was the first time I had ever seen Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, or Jimmie Martin. The Bluegrass Alliance was there, with Vince Gill playing mandolin."
Inspired by Dolly Parton's cover of Jimmie Rodgers' "Muleskinner Blues," Vincent began playing it live at shows and recorded it as her first solo single in 1971. Three years later, it was pronounced "single of the year" by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA). By 1985, Vincent had recorded ten albums with The Sally Mountain Show, and continued to play at bluegrass gatherings. But fans encouraged her to take the next step.
"The crazy thing is, here I'm doing these festivals, and people are going, 'Man, you should be in country music, you have such a country voice,'" Vincent recalls. She responded by trying out for You Could Be A Star, The Nashville Network's equivalent to Star Search. She got on the show and won the first day, then lost the week. But it wasn't a total loss--she was offered a job as a backup singer for the show's host, Jim Ed Brown. "What a turning point," Vincent says, "not knowing--gosh--should I leave my family?" Two weeks later, she took the job--playing fiddle with Jim Ed Brown and the Gems.
"I was one of the Gems," she laughs. "It was two of us on either side of him. We had a little choreography that we did, and we sang the harmonies, some lead. We did a few steps; I cannot remember them, and I cannot believe that I did that. I'm not a dancer!"
She worked with Brown for six months, and continued to fly home whenever she could to play on The Sally Mountain Show. But when she was on the road, her father had to come up with a replacement. A friend suggested he give a 12-year-old fiddler from Champaign, Ill. a try. Her name was Alison Krauss.
"She wore my clothes," Vincent says. "The other day I saw a picture lying on my mom's table, and I thought, 'that's us.' But I looked closer and it was Alison! I couldn't tell her from myself at first: Our hair color was the same, and she was wearing my dress. After I came back, she went on a few shows with us, and we played twin fiddles."
Besides teaching Vincent how to work with people outside of her own family, her stint with Brown brought her to the stage of The Grand Ole Opry. But it also turned out--unexpectedly--to be her Opry debut.
"He came over to me and said, 'You're going to sing the next song, what's it going to be?" Vincent recalls of Brown. "I thought I was going to faint over," she says. The song she chose was "Country Rain." "My knees were knocking so bad, I didn't think I could stand up. You know, you see those cartoons where their knees are wobbling? I always thought that was funny, but let me tell you, I thought my knees were going to collapse."
Though Brown wanted her to move to Nashville to try and get a country record deal, Vincent decided to go home to Kirksville to spend time with her family and her new husband, Herb. Instead of waiting for a major label deal, she opted to record for Charlottesville, Va.-based Rebel Records, releasing three solo albums: New Dreams & Sunshine (1988), A Dream Come True (chosen as Billboard's Best Bluegrass Album of 1990), and Timeless and True Love (1991). Vincent wound up making her Nashville connection anyway through her work with legendary producer James Stroud. When Stroud became head of Giant Records, he signed Vincent to the label, where she released two "mainstream" country albums: Written in the Stars (1993) and Trouble Free (1996). But for Vincent, the Nashville scene was anything but trouble free.
Musically, it was an unfulfilling time for Vincent. "It was a very intense learning process, and I wasn't really sure it was what I should be doing. I felt, personally, like they wanted to use assembly-line production," she recalls. "What I wanted to do was really traditional music, but the market was becoming so contemporary." The music that Vincent was interested in making wouldn't have gotten played on the radio. But there was more to it than that--you might say she ran into the Faith Hill factor.
"There's so many aspects of country music that I was just not willing to do," she admits. "I was not going to unbutton my shirt, or my pants, or whatever seems to be the marketing strategy. That was my greatest disappointment in Nashville--that the talent has so little to do with it," she says. "I always heard that the cream rises to the top. But in Nashville, it's looked at as a business, and I just had a love for the music."
Vincent describes herself as being at a career turning point in those days: Would she continue to pursue commercial country music, or knock off of music altogether? Instead of making a decision, she put together a bluegrass band and went off to play a few festivals. Public response--again--gave her an epiphany.
"It was just like the water parted--like a piano hit me on the head--the response was so good," she said. "People said, 'This is what you need to be doing.' It was so natural, and so easy, and I was so happy."
The bluegrass community has been happy to welcome Vincent back. She's a seven-time winner in the "Best Female Vocalist" category at the SPBGMA Awards; she did a turn with Ralph Stanley on Clinch Mountain Country; and she frequently swaps harmonies (and compliments) with Dolly Parton. Vincent sings on Parton's recent Sugar Hill releases The Grass is Blue and Little Sparrow, as well as covering "Jolene" on her Rounder release Back Home Again. Brother Darrin Vincent, who currently sings with Ricky Scaggs, plays bass and mandolin on the album; father Johnny provides harmony vocals.
Her second Rounder offering, The Storm Still Rages (due in May), will find Vincent continuing to plow the traditional bluegrass field. Along with a new tribute written for Bill Monroe, "Is the Grass Any Bluer on the Other Side?," the album stands as her writing debut--she co-penned three of the songs. But music, Vincent emphasizes, will always be a family affair.
"I had on-the-job training for 30 years from my father and from working with my family. It's what I was raised on, it's what I was trained to do," she says. "And whatever you're trained to do, that's what you're going to do best."