Album Review: Rhonda Vincent — Only Me
Rhonda Vincent knows her way around a song, whether it’s a slow country shuffle drenched in steel guitars or a skittering bluegrass tune propelled by fiddles. A singer’s singer, her voice is the gold standard in bluegrass and country music, and on this new double album, Vincent not only demonstrates her vocal depth and breadth but also honors the music that has inspired her over the years. With one disc devoted to six bluegrass tunes and the other devoted to six country songs, she illustrates that the lines between bluegrass and country music are permeable; it’s her voice that lends these songs their beauty, character, and power.
The “bluegrass album” kicks off in overdrive with the good old mountain banjo hoedown of the Jesse Daniel-penned “Busy City.” Vincent’s voice flies along with Aaron McDaris’ driving banjo, her own sparkling mandolin lines, and Brent Burke’s glittering resophonic guitar riffs. On “I’d Rather Hear I don’t Love You (Than Nothing at All)” Hunter Berry’s tearful-sounding fiddle plaintively whines the first four bars, and we know we’re in for a sad country shuffle. In fact, the notes he strikes on the fiddle anticipate almost note-for-note Vincent’s emphatic, but mournful, tone in her first lines and the song’s chorus. Vincent’s soaring vocals, backed by those doleful fiddles and Burke’s pleading resophonic guitar, deliver a sorrowful breakup song with a twist. It’s the perfect “I-can’t-quit-you” song, cleverly written by Larry Cordle and Lionel Delmore. Vincent’s vocal delivery is perfect as she captures the rising tension of the conversation, wringing out the tears and the aching, throbbing heartbreak that comes from knowing what you have to do but being tortured by not being able to do it. The music starts out slowly, building to a crescendo of fiddles and resophonic guitar in the break, capturing the aches, pains, regrets, and even hopes of the lyrics.
Willie Nelson joins Vincent for a duet on “Only Me,” a south of the border bluegrass tune that’s as home in a Texas roadhouse as it is in a backwoods Kentucky bar. Nelson’s raspy voice weaves in and around Vincent’s crystalline vocal pipes, recalling Rodney Crowell’s duet with Emmylou Harris on “Pancho and Lefty” and Nelson and Harris’ duet on “One Paper Kid,” both on Harris’ 1978 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. In addition to his vocals, Nelson trades bright guitar riffs with Vincent’s shimmering mandolin licks as the band launches into a bluegrass ramble to close out the tune. Daryle Singletary plays George Jones to Vincent’s Melba Montgomery in the Montgomery-penned “We Must Have Been out of Our Minds.” Of all the songs on the bluegrass album, this one illustrates the porousness of musical categories; Vincent and Singletary’s emotion-drenched vocals can’t get the country out of the original, but Vincent replaces the steel guitars of the intro of the Jones-Montgomery version with her mournful mandolin.
The country album opens with a heart-rending, soulful tearjerker, “Teardrops over You,” a previously unreleased song that Vincent wrote when she was 16; Mike Johnson’s aching steel guitar mirrors the pain in the singer’s voice. No other song on the entire collection captures the raw emotion, soaring beauty, and soulful phrasing of Vincent’s voice, and this tune alone is worth the price of admission. Vincent slows down slightly the tempo of Connie Smith’s “Once a Day,” yet she still captures the song’s achy-breaky irony of the singer’s inability to shake off an old love. Emmylou Harris’ well-known version of Dallas Frazier’s “Beneath Still Waters” propels itself through the placid rivers of sound with thumping guitars and steel guitars; Vincent’s languorous take on the tune features Catherine Marx weaving her elegant piano lines underneath and around Mike Johnson’s steel and Tim Crouch’s fiddle. George Jones’ “When the Green Grass Grows Over Me,” inspired the entire album; she sang it on the Opry the night that Jones died, and Jones’ voice and his music became the thread that runs through Only Me. Johnson’s throbbing steel takes us back to John Hughey’s great steel sound, and the steel, with Marx’s piano and Crouch’s fiddle floating in and around it, turns Vincent’s version of the song into every bit the killer tune that Jones made. The country album scampers to a close with the Western swing “Drivin’ Nails.”
Vincent has carefully crafted these albums to showcase her gorgeous voice; she stretches out soulfully on the ballads and shuffles, allowing herself to wind around the notes a little longer and treating us to a range of her voice that sometimes hides itself in her faster-paced bluegrass songs. When the last song on the country album fades away, Vincent leaves us wondering why she stopped at only six songs on each disc.
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