FOR THE 43rd year in a row, the New Year’s Bluegrass Festival is bringing some of the biggest names in bluegrass to Jekyll Island. This year’s incredible lineup boasts a number of headliners across the three-day span of the event, including Dailey & Vincent, The Gibson Brothers, and Danny Paisley & Southern Grass. The festival is being held from Jan. 3-5.
The final night of the festival will be headlined by none other than the critically acclaimed Rhonda Vincent, who’s had a storied and immensely successful career in all aspects of the music industry. Ahead of her performance at the festival, we talked to Vincent about her roots, the family business, and her incredible solo career.
How old were you when you started playing music? What instruments did you start on?
RV: Well, I grew up in a musical family. My daughter is releasing her first project, so she'll be the sixth generation of the Vincent family [in music]. As soon as I started singing at three years old, I joined a group that was playing long before I was ever thought of. For my sixth birthday, my dad got a snare drum, a stand, and a set of brushes – so I became the drummer for the Sally Mountain Show.
At eight, I started playing mandolin kind of by necessity. I kind of did almost everything out of necessity – it was like, “We need this? Okay, let’s do that.” We were at a country music show, and the promoter decided that if you didn’t play an instrument you didn’t get paid. I would sing and didn’t play anything, and there were a lot of wives who would come up and sing a song. So a way to cut the budget was to say that if you don’t play an instrument you’re not getting paid.
So my dad gave me a mandolin and said, “Here’s G, C, and D. You’re going to be playing this for two-and-a-half hours every Saturday night.” So that’s the way I got started playing. He’d pick me up from school each day and we’d play and sing until dinner, and then after dinner friends would come over and we’d play and sing until bedtime!
It was a very intense life of music, and one that I’ve come to be so thankful for. It prepared me for what I do today.
When you finally went out and embarked on a solo career, what prompted you to make that kind of move?
RV: I was with a major record label for five years – Giant Records, which is a sister label to Warner Brothers – and being on that label was kind my musical college years. James Stroud was the President of the label and he produced my projects. I was managed by Jack McFadden and booked by Stan Barnett – they were all at the very top of their field, so I learned from them. Songwriting, publishing, all of it.
It was a learning experience, but it was like coming out of college where you go, “Okay, now what are you going to do with your life?” So I put together my first band, and we were kind of just getting together to play for fun. We booked a few shows and then everything just fell into place. You have to be in the right place at the right time. From there I signed with Rounder Records and released my first album with them, then won my first of seven consecutive Vocalist of the Year awards.
I ended up traveling in the Martha White Bluegrass Express, and all of this just sort of seemed to be in the right place at the right time. At first, it seemed so much like what I did growing up – I realized that it was so natural and so fun, and almost felt like it shouldn’t be what my life’s occupation was. I’m not supposed to be this happy doing work [laughs].
It took me many years to go, “Wow, this is actually what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” It was really hard to wrap my mind around that fact, but now I love it and I couldn’t be happier.
There’s one album of yours I wanted to ask you about – in 2012 you released a live album of gospel songs called Sunday Mornin’ Singin’. What made you want to do that kind of thing? There's a strong line between gospel and bluegrass.
RV: That was a personal project! We went to my home church in Greentop, Missouri, and I'd always wanted to do an all-gospel project. When I was on Rounder they didn't want me to do that, so when I started my own label I decided that it was something I wanted to do. It was a personal project, but the next thing I know it's a number one album on Billboard.
The sales on that album exceed any other that we’ve done on my label. People always say, “I want what I hear on stage,” so we decided to just put on a show at the church and do it that way. It’s awesome to know that no matter what other album we release, people will buy that one too.
You’re someone who has been on major labels, had their own label, and been on well-respected labels like Rounder. Sometimes labels can be limiting in terms of creative control, and a lot of artists grow tired of the industry influence. What’s been the best thing about doing this on your own?
RV: I have to say that Rounder always allowed me to create the music that I wanted to create.
Which is rare and amazing!
RV: Yeah! But when I'm on my own, if I want to do a gospel project I'll do it. If I want to do a Christmas project, I can do it. Besides the gospel project, the biggest seller of all is the Gene Watson duet project. I went to Rounder, and they didn't think anyone wanted to hear a duet project. Thankfully, that was the second project we released and it's about to hit 75,000 or 100,000 sales. For a bluegrass album, that's almost unheard of.