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Unheralded veteran singer finds her voice on new bluegrass-flavored collection

By Michael McCall

JANUARY 10, 2000:  After two failed stabs at country music stardom, Rhonda Vincent didn't get mad--she got better. The veteran bluegrass singer's new Back Home Again is the perfect retort to Music Row and country music radio, both of which have seen fit to ignore her talents in the past. Set for a Jan. 11 release on Rounder Records, the album banks on heartfelt material that deals with bedrock topics like relationships and family values as well as bold themes like child sexual abuse. Moreover, Vincent's voice, always an impressive instrument, owns a newfound beauty, control, and unbridled power; it's as if she's merged the character, expressiveness, and enunciation of Dolly Parton with the gale-force strength and edgy emotion of Martina McBride.

The album should finally give Vincent the lift to national acclaim she has long deserved. It should also embarrass Music Row power-brokers: How can an artist of Vincent's obvious attributes get pushed aside while vapid talents like Lace and Redmon & Vale receive the high-powered promotional support that only multinational companies can provide?

Once again, the commercial country music industry is making a self-destructive mistake by ignoring performers of Vincent's caliber. There's nothing wrong with Music Row executives working to develop young, pop-influenced singers with broad appeal; they'd be foolish if they didn't. But by leaving behind true country artists as undeniably capable as Vincent, the industry has stopped cultivating its core audience and has dropped its commitment to building stars of enduring value.

Fortunately, Vincent knew she could continue her career with or without Nashville's help. After all, she has spent her entire life performing. As bluegrass scholar Jon Weisberger points out in the liner notes to Back Home Again, Vincent was 3 years old when she joined her family's band, the Sally Mountain Show (named after a regional landmark located near the Vincent family home in northeast Missouri). Before turning 30, she had recorded six solo albums and 11 albums with Sally Mountain.

In the early '90s, Vincent signed with Giant Records after label head James Stroud heard her recording in a studio next to the one where he was working. Vincent recorded two albums for Giant. On 1993's Written in the Stars, she sang with distinctiveness, but too many of the songs were shackled with formulaic lyrics and stiff production. However, her versions of Lefty Frizzell's "I Do My Cryin' at Night" and a new song written by Melba Montgomery, "I'm Not Over You," proved she possessed enormous talent.

Her next album, 1996's Trouble Free, did a better job of showcasing what makes her special. Much like Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs before her, Vincent balanced new-traditionalist honky-tonk with bluegrass-infused country songs on her major-label follow-up. It should have been one of the most heralded albums of its time, and the work did receive widespread support from scores of leading country traditionalists. George Jones, Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam were among the stars who asked Vincent to perform with them, either as a duet or harmony singer or by inviting her to take part in a special project.

But Giant Records proved ineffective in establishing Vincent's potential. And when she left the label, no one else stepped up to take advantage of her availability. Vincent returned to Missouri, for a while feeling defeated.

With Back Home Again, she proves victory is indeed hers. The album may not rack up sales numbers to compete with Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks, but the quality of the music will likely put her on a career path similar to those of such prominent, here-to-stay artists as Alison Krauss, Iris DeMent, and Gillian Welch.

Vincent's sense of purpose is evident from the album's first line. She belts the words "I hear that wind a-blowin' through the lonesome pines" with such forceful emotion that she immediately reclaims everything the music business tried to deny her. It's a glorious moment--the kind that grabs a listener like only the rarest of performances can.

The album focuses on emotionally potent material and arrangements that stay stripped-down yet consistently inventive and fresh. The breadth of material is reminiscent of classic '70s albums by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt--Back Home Again weaves together well-chosen older material and newer compositions, all given a distinctly personal flavor by Vincent and her gifted band. As with Krauss and Bonnie Raitt, Vincent is an accomplished instrumentalist as well, which only adds to the uniqueness of her arrangements.

Her covers show her deep knowledge of the mountain-music canon, as she puts her mark on songs by Jimmy Martin ("Pretending I Don't Care"), Dolly Parton ("Jolene"), and the Louvin Brothers ("You're Running Wild," "Out of Hand"). The rest of album maintains the standards set by those songs--and the singular strengths of the individual songs are part of what makes Back Home Again such a watershed event.

The album's most unforgettable piece is "Little Angels," which, with bare directness, finds a young woman looking back at how the sexual abuse she suffered at age 9 has affected her self-worth. She now prays to God not to "let another stranger hurt one more little angel." It's the kind of unadorned, difficult sentiment that rarely gets addressed in the upbeat-and-positive atmosphere of modern country music.

Vincent's best vocal performance comes on "When I Close My Eyes." The song was a No. 1 country hit for Kenny Chesney not long ago, but Vincent conveys the quiet pain of the lyrics with a potency that underscores how Nashville's slick production techniques obscure the emotion of a song rather than letting it shine. There may be no better indictment of modern country music than to compare Vincent's version of this song with Chesney's: It reveals how much better off she is pursuing her music outside of commercial country music's restrictive confines.

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