Rhonda Vincent back for another session of Dollywood's annual festival
Early in her career, bluegrass musician Rhonda Vincent learned an important lesson.
When she was a teenager in the 1970s, she played five sets a day with her family’s band, the Sally Mountain Show, at the Silver Dollar City theme park in Branson, Mo.
One day it was pouring rain.
“I had this horrible attitude,” said the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who with her band, the Rage, performs June 2 and 3 at Dollywood’s Barbeque & Bluegrass festival. “My dad says, ‘They’re paying us to play.’”
The next week, her father got a call from Hal Durham, then the manager of Nashville’s storied Grand Ole Opry. Durham invited the family to perform on the broadcast. He had been vacationing at Silver Dollar City and heard the rainy-day set.
It was a big break. What did Vincent take away from the experience? “Always give your best,” she said. After all, you never know who might be listening.
The Missouri native has appeared regularly at Barbeque & Bluegrass, which runs May 25 through June 9. Also performing at this year’s fiesta of music and food are Ricky Skaggs (May 25-26), Riders in the Sky (June 7-8) and more than 50 other artists. Concerts are included with admission to the park.
Vincent grew up playing music, which she calls a way of life. She began playing professionally, with her family, when she was little.
Now the Grammy-honored performer is one of her genre’s premier artists – the “new queen of bluegrass,” as the Wall Street Journal called her in 2000. The International Bluegrass Music Association declared her Entertainer of the Year in 2001, and the association has named her Female Vocalist of the Year seven times.
Since 1990 she has released more than 15 albums. She recorded her latest, the gospel collection “Sunday Mornin’ Singin’: Live!”, at her childhood Methodist church in Greentop, Mo.
“It was something we wanted to do, always,” she said. “We sing so many gospel songs.”
She recalled playing her first album for her grandmother. “She listened to the whole thing, and when it stopped playing, she said, ‘You didn’t put a gospel song on there.’ From that point on, I always made sure there was at least one gospel song on every project, thanks to Grandma. She would be so proud.”
Vincent is currently recording new tracks at her Nashville facility, Adventure Studios – when, that is, she’s not performing live. “It’s going to be a record year,” she said. “We have our largest number of sold-out shows.”
Her success is notable in a genre not known for female bandleaders. “I didn’t realize I was a pioneer,” she said. “Now I have young ladies come up and say, ‘I learned to play mandolin because of you.’”
Vincent learned persistence from her father. “Don’t let anyone say you can’t do something,” she recalled him saying.
Still, she said, “You have to work at your craft. If men think you can play, they’re accepting. Women have to work 10 times harder than any man.”
She has a role model in another female musician, Dolly Parton. The two have recorded together, and in her sets Vincent performs iconic Parton songs like “Jolene” and “Mule Skinner Blues.”
“She has become such a dear friend,” said Vincent. About 20 years ago, she noted, Parton left an answering machine message inviting her to a recording session. “I hopped in the car and drove overnight.” In 2005, Parton visited Vincent at her home in Missouri when she was ill.
“There aren’t words to describe how kind that lady is,” said Vincent, who told of the time Parton invited her to sing “Jolene” at Dollywood. “I was thinking, please don’t let me forget the words!”
Vincent is bullish on the future of bluegrass, a genre that has remained notably vital since Bill Monroe and others created it in the middle of the 20th century.
True, she said, “I think bluegrass is still never going to be that mainstream, and thank goodness.” But, she noted, “I think it matters. There’s a core that never changes.”