Ragin’ with Rhonda
Queen of Bluegrass holds court at the Big Room
The last time I saw Rhonda Vincent perform live, I was in a terrible mood, though I no longer remember why. Fortunately, I hadn’t attended that show as a reviewer because there wouldn’t have been much chance I could have separated my personal grumpiness from what I saw and heard Ms. Vincent and her band play on that particular evening.
But I was in a good mood last Thursday, ready to be swept away by one of the great bluegrass/country bands currently making the rounds. In fact, as her fans know, Vincent isn’t just fronting a great bluegrass band, she’s the queen of the genre, a fact promoter Bob Littell noted when he introduced her, telling the sold out Sierra Nevada Big Room that there was “royalty in the house tonight.” From that moment on, Vincent held court, regaling her self-selected subjects with the pickin’ and grinnin’ they’d come to see and hear.
The Queen looked and sounded “real purty,” with the kind of voice that swoops and soars, with nary a false note anywhere. With her son-in-law, Hunter Berry, on fiddle, Mickey Harris on bass, Aaron McDaris on banjo, Ben Helson on guitar and mandolin, and Brent Burke, a dobro player new to the band, Vincent led her band the Rage through a rousing set that covered the bluegrass terrain from sweet gospel numbers through ragin’ instrumentals including a frenzied fingered medley that concluded with the traditional “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a perennial crowd pleaser.
Vincent and the boys toured familiar bluegrass territory, with covers of songs by everyone from Ernest Tubb to Dolly Parton, from Flatt and Scruggs to Kitty Wells.
In addition to their individual instrumental virtuosity, every one of the boys can sing like an angel, and they all got a chance to spotlight those talents.
It’s surprising how many rather sappy songs have been given deeper resonance when they get recast into bluegrass numbers. Vincent did that very thing with the old Poco song, “Crazy Love,” making it sizzle and pop. And, when she sang Parton’s signature song, “Jolene,” she put her own distinctive stamp on it.
About midway through the show, Vincent tossed out some Martha White T-shirts to the audience. As anyone who grew up in the American South knows, Martha White is the Betty Crocker of Southern baking products, a company that has been associated with the Grand Ole Opry since 1948, helping spread the bluegrass gospel to biscuit eaters and pie partisans through sponsorships of bands like Vincent’s. In the audience, Jeannine Olson donned one of those T-shirts, and then was invited up on stage to add train sound effects to one of the obligatory railroad songs always found on a bluegrass set list. Olson, an uninhibited Chico nurse, had both the band and the audience in stitches, flirting with the musicians and doing variations on a train whistle to punctuate the song—putting the hoot in hootenanny.
One of several highlights came when the band played “Northpointe,” a song written by McDaris, the banjo player. Vincent introduced the song, saying “it just brings joy.” It’s a tune with a rich celebratory air, so it was somewhat underwhelming to learn that the title was taken from the name of the subdivision where McDaris lives, proving, however, that joy can be found even in cookie-cutter real estate developments not usually associated with the Appalachian wellsprings of bluegrass music.
It was a grand night for music, and if anyone showed up grumpy, it’s a pretty good bet they didn’t leave that way. I know I didn’t. As I was leaving, one of the Big Room hostesses asked me if I thought I’d be writing a good review. “The creative challenge,” I told her, “would be to figure out how to write a bad one.”