One Step Ahead (Rounder)
Playing 8 p.m. June 5 at Station Inn
Also playing 4:30 p.m. on the Riverfront Stage at Fan Fair
Jeannie Kendall (Rounder)
Playing 10:50-11:15 a.m. June 7 on the Riverfront Stage at Fan Fair
On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage played their early set at a bluegrass festival in Kendallville, Ind. Then, at the behest of their sponsor, Martha White, the quintet flew by private jet down to Charlotte, N.C., entertained an enthusiastic NASCAR crowd in the late afternoon, and returned to Kendallville on the same plane to deliver their second show later in the evening.
Not exactly a typical day in the life of a bluegrass band, but one that shows the Missouri native is, if not (yet) the genre’s biggest act, certainly among its very hottest. Sales of her new CD, One Step Ahead, paint the same picture, and so does her schedule at Fan Fair, which includes a couple of autograph signing sessions, a show at the Station Inn, an appearance at the Golden Voice Awards and, perhaps most important, hosting duties at Thursday afternoon’s official bluegrass show in Riverfront Park.
The whirlwind of activities confirms Vincent’s current status as a bluegrass diva, but it also represents a personal triumph that has a sharp, satisfying edge, for Vincent’s been there before. Signed to Giant Records in the mid-’90s, she made regular yearly stops at Fan Fair as she pursued her mainstream country career. And while she’s happy to call those years a “university education” in certain aspects of the music profession, the experience was more than a little unsatisfying. When she left the label, she says, she thought she was leaving Fan Fair behind too.
“I thought that was a whole different world,” she says with a laugh. “I’d been into that world, and drawn from it and learned from it too, but once I went back to bluegrass”the music she’d played since childhood“I thought that something like Fan Fair wasn’t even a consideration. But now we’re backand we don’t have to compromise the music. When we were getting ready to make the new album, there were a lot of people in Nashville who said, 'Oh, you need to listen to the Dixie Chicks, you need to sit and look at that approach.’ And I said, 'No, you don’t understand. I’m not going to change what I’m doing.’ ”
Of course, what Vincent’s doing encompasses more than just hard-driving, traditional-leaning bluegrassthough she and her crackerjack band do that about as well as anyone. Therein lies the rub, for the same musical instincts and professional outlook that have enabled her to get a hearing beyond the bluegrass faithful have also provoked a small but rising tide of ire among those faithful. In this, her careerthough not her musicis beginning to bear a resemblance to that of her longtime friend, Alison Krauss, for whom a trickle of criticism became a flood as she scored big-time country music success around the same time Vincent’s country career was coming to an end.
Indeed, one might reasonably conclude that it is simply impossible to retain the loyalty of at least a part of the bluegrass audience and, at the same time, to appeal to new listeners. Take the new album’s glistening, sorrowful ballad, “You Can’t Take It With You When You Go.” A hit video on CMT, it’s also a focal point for grumbling by hard-core bluegrassers, who mutter about “slick, country stuff” and go on to slam Vincent for using “studio musicians”a phrase that apparently includes even her own brother, a member of Ricky Skaggs’ band.
Yet despite the undercurrent of grousing, Vincent remains committed to bluegrass, observing a cardinal difference between country and bluegrass culture. “I vividly remember my first Fan Fair,” she says. “When I went to work for Jim Ed Brown in 1985, he invited me to come down to the Grand Ole Opry booth, where he was signing. I went out there, and it was really hot, but it was so exciting. There were massive lines. It was a whole new world to me, of fans coming to see the starsmaybe their one chance in a lifetime to shake their hands and talk to them. That’s pretty much what Fan Fair is to folks, even my daughter: 'If I could just know where Rascal Flatts is, if I could just see them.’ But that’s an opportunity we in bluegrass get at pretty much every festival. We get the whole day to sit there and visit with peopleand I don’t ever want to give that up.”
In contrast to Vincent’s busy schedule and full-blown embrace of Fan Fair hubbub, fellow Missourian and Rounder labelmate Jeannie Kendall’s participation is more subdued, even bittersweet. Given the circumstances, that seems inevitable, for she’s making her first appearance as a solo artist, having only recently reemerged following the 1998 death of her father and duet partner, Royce. Together, The Kendalls ruled the charts in the late 1970s with a riveting, soulful sound, matching seamless, bluegrass-influenced harmonies with refreshing new material and an elegant blend of the traditional and contemporary. “It’s hard to put a name to it,” she says with a faint smile. “To me, I always thought The Kendalls’ music was country, gospel, bluegrass and pop, all combined in whatever it is that we were.”
Royce’s death devastated his daughter and left uncompleted the album they had been working on. “It took a couple of years to get our bearings and figure out what to do,” she confesses. “[Ultimately,] we decided to try to finish the album with some guests.” Among them were Vincent, Krauss and Alan Jackson, whose first concert experience was a Kendalls show. Released in February, Jeannie Kendall is a masterpiece of acoustic country music, but the singer has had a hard time summoning up the emotional strength to follow it with a full-scale return to touring.
That makes her Fan Fair appearance on Saturday morningat the Country Jamboree show in Riverfront Parksomething of a rarity. Still, she says, performing is in her blood, and when she speaks of the reaction to her new album, it’s in the durable terms that every true performer knows. “I’m thankful,” she says, “I’m pleasantly surprised and very thankful.”
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