Performing has been a way of life for Rhonda Vincent. She has recorded numerous solo bluegrass and country albums while remaining a lifelong member of her family’s gospel band. Though proficient as a musician and well respected in the music community, stardom eluded her throughout most of her career. With her 2001 release, The Storm Still Rages, however, this award-winning bluegrass vocalist seemed poised for the public recognition her talent has long deserved.
Born in Kirksville, Missouri, in 1962, Vincent was the eldest child of musicians Johnny and Carolyn Vincent. Growing up in Greentop, Missouri, her family’s house was a hub of musical activity with people coming over almost every night to play music. The Vincent Family band included family members from three generations. Vincent started singing with the group when she was three years old after her parents noticed in amazement that she spontaneously harmonized to “Happy Birthday.” By age five she was performing with her family’s re-formed band, the Sally Mountain Show, on their KTVO television show in nearby Ottumwa, Iowa, and their radio show on KIRX in Kirksville, Missouri.
During the 1970s Vincent became an accomplished musician on both fiddle and mandolin. She won the Missouri State Fiddle Contest in 1973 and 1977 and began to attract attention as a singer. After graduating from high school in 1980, she continued to tour with her family’s band, even as she attended Northeast Missouri State University, studying accounting and data processing. In 1983 she married Herb Sandker, whom she had met while playing fiddle in his dance band. When Bluegrass Unlimited’s Jon Hartley Fox reviewed Sally Mountain Show’s album Lavender Lullaby in 1984, he wrote, “I have a prediction… Rhonda Vincent the excellent lead singer and mandolinist/fiddler with the Sally Mountain Show, will go solo within the next three years and become a bluegrass ‘star’….”
Although his prediction wasn’t entirely accurate, Vincent did attract the attention of host Jim Ed Brown when she appeared on the Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star in 1985.Brown was so impressed with her that he immediately hired her to play in his band. Within a month Vincent had moved to Nashville and was performing at the Grand Ole Opry as his backup singer. For the next six months she toured with Brown’s band. “That was a strange time,” she told Jon Weisberger of Bluegrass Unlimited. “I had just gotten married a little more than a year before that, and I think my family felt that I had jumped ship. I worked for Jim Ed, but I was still doing as many shows as I could with the Sally Mountain Show. Nashville was a huge place for a small town girl, and my hometown was 250 miles away.” Vincent decided to return to Missouri, although Jim Ed warned her against it. “[He] told me not to, that a record deal was a possibility and that if I left, I’d never get the opportunity, but I just felt that family was more
Born on July 13, 1962, in Kirksville, MO; daughter of Johnny and Carolyn Vincent; married Herb Sandker, December 24, 1983; children: Sally, Tensel.
Originally performed as part of her extended family’s band the Vincent Family; group reformed into the band Sally Mountain Show, 1965; released debut album, The Sally Mountain Singers, 1967;Vincent released first single, “Muleskinner Blues,” 1971; recorded eight albums with the Sally Mountain Show, 1974-86; signed with Rebel, 1986; released first solo album, New Dreams & Sunshine, 1988; released A Dream Come True, 1990; Timeless & True Love, 1991; followed up with a gospel release recorded with the Sally Mountain Show, Bound For Gloryland, on Rebel, 1991; signed with Giant, released Nashville debut album, Written In the Stars, 1991, followed by Trouble Free, 1996. signed with Rounder, released Back Home Again, 2000, and The Storm Still Rages, 2001.
Awards: Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America (SPBGMA), Best Single Recording for “Muleskinner Blues,” 1974; SPBGMA Female Vocalist of the Year, 1984-88; International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), Female Vocalist of the Year, 1991, 2001. IBMA Entertainer of the Year, 2001.
important—that I had to be able to achieve what I wanted to without having to let go of everything.”
Still, word was getting out about Vincent, and when she actively pursued a solo career after her return to Missouri, she got a record deal in 1986 with Rebel. Vincent released three solo albums between 1988 and 1991, New Dreams & Sunshine in 1988, A Dream Come True in 1990, and Timeless and True Love in 1991. Bluegrass Unlimited’s Weisberger called them “stunning collections of country and bluegrass material.” Vincent herself later described the albums as unfocused, but admitted they were a lot of fun to make. While they were being recorded, Vincent built relationships with other musicians like Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Charlie Louvin, and Alison Krauss (whom she had met years earlier when Krauss played with the Sally Mountain Show). It was also during this time that Vincent had the first of her three children. Sadly, her youngest daughter lived for only three days because of a heart defect.
In 1991, when Alison Krauss accepted the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Female Vocalist of the Year Award, she credited Vincent as her main influence. Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer J. D. Kleinke described Vincent as “an awesome vocal talent,” and the album A Dream Come True as “an absolute treasure for all aspiring singers and those looking for ‘real. country music. Ms. Vincent’s work is the kind we would, could and should hear on country radio.”
Apparently, Nashville producer and label executive James Stroud agreed. He met Vincent while she was recording Timeless and True Love, and as the new head of Giant Records in Nashville, offered her a record deal that gave her a shot at a significant career in country music. In 1991 she signed on with great hopes. “Reality set in when I got a letter from the label telling me what I would be doing,” she told Bluegrass Unlimited ’s Weisberger. “A lot of the songs were about drinking and affairs, and we argued about that… I’d had a lot of experience making records by then—but the hierarchy in the country music business works against that. I was used to going into the studio knowing what I wanted to do, but I was being treated as just another ‘girl singer.’”
Vincent released Written in the Stars in 1993 and Trouble Free in 1996. Although a strong promotional campaign preceded the first single release from Trouble Free, “What More Do You Want From Me,” the song was pulled, then rereleased, which hurt Vincent’s standing with radio programmers. As she told Weisberger, “There was talk about another single, but I was very unhappy. We had a meeting with the label’s management; I spoke my mind, and that was pretty much the end of that.”
What may have been a final blow for other performers was nothing of the sort for Vincent. With a life so solidly grounded in music, she knew what she wanted to do—and what she was no longer willing to do. In 1997 she returned to the bluegrass performing circuit with her band the Rage. They were known for their harddriving, high-energy traditional bluegrass. Her unique vocal style kept her a favorite with many Nashville artists as well, putting her in demand as a session musician; she recorded with such artists as Dolly Parton and George Jones, among many others.
With the release of Sally Mountain Show retrospective, Yesterday And Today: Thirty Years Of Music in 1998. Vincent attracted attention all over again. This album included a newly recorded version of Dwight Yoakam’s “I Sang Dixie,” and “Just When I Needed You Most,” both of which were included on other CD collections. In a remake of her first record, “How Far Is Heaven,” Vincent sang with her mother and two daughters.
Recommitting herself to bluegrass, Vincent signed a record deal with Rounder and self-produced her next two albums. Back Home Again, released in 2000, was Vincent’s most traditional album yet, described by Weisberger of Bluegrass Unlimited as full of “punchy banjo and powerful, full-throated bluegrass harmonies.” Rhonda told Weisberger, “There doesn’t seem to be a female out here that’s singing the hard-driving bluegrass and I love that, so it made sense to do it.”
Vincent followed up with her critically acclaimed album The Storm Still Rages in 2001. It drew raves from Newsweek’s Peter McGrath, who called it “everything bluegrass needs to be—hard-driving yet soulful, with silken harmonies and scorching string work—while adding a touch of country torch…. [The album] has precision, a quality not always found in the ragged-butright world of bluegrass. The song selections are shrewd. The vocal arrangements are subtle and the blends flawless.”
These reviews were a clear reflection of the artistic control Vincent had finally exerted over her own recordings. A veteran of more than 35 years of performing, she had earned the respect of both peers and fans. In 2002, after she received the 2001 IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year awards and nominations for similar awards by Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America (SPBGMA), it seemed an apt time to reflect back on Alison Krauss’s words about Vincent, included on the Northeast Missouri Rural Telephone Company website: “Rhonda’s music and voice have been incredibly important to me for the last ten years. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to catch on and see what they’ve been missing.”
The Sally Mountain Singers, 1967.
New Dreams & Sunshine, Rebel, 1988.
A Dream Come True, Rebel, 1990.
Timeless and True Love, Rebel, 1991.
Written in the Stars, Giant, 1993.
Trouble Free, Giant, 1996.
Back Home Again, Rounder, 2000.
The Storm Still Rages, Rounder, 2001.
Mansfield, Brian, and Gary Graff, MusicHound Country: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1997.
Willis, Barry R., America’s Music: Bluegrass, Pine Valley Music, 1998.
Bluegrass Unlimited, February 1991, p. 47; February 1992, p. 52; April 2000, p. 41.
Newsweek, July 2, 2001.
“Rhonda Vincent Biography,” Northeast Missouri Rural Telephone Company, http://www.nemr.net (December 14, 2001).
Rhonda Vincent Official Website, http://www.rhondavincent.com (March 27, 2002).
Rounder Records, http://www.rounder.com (December 14, 2001).
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