Rhonda Vincent and The Rage: Ragin’ Live
Sound/Style: highly polished traditional bluegrass and country
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- If you’ve been paying any attention lately to the pop music scene at large, you’ve noticed that it’s peopled with an amalgam of characters as visually diverse and outlandish as the patrons crowding the intergalactic cantina in George Lucas’s film Star Wars. Style may have finally become more important than sound – these days, one’s musical genre identity can usually be spotted from a distance simply by noting a performer’s garb and accessories, without hearing a single note. In the bluegrass world – historically a small but fervent niche – the rule has been to present a conservative image. Because practitioners of non-progressive bluegrass regard the music reverently, their simple, rural style of dress has been a way of showing deference to the tradition behind their sound of choice. While rural-styled roots music is currently enjoying an upsurge in popularity, its most stalwart performers remain partly constrained to a "country bumpkin" perception in the eyes of the general public. In a perfect world, only the music would matter. But Rhonda Vincent, one of bluegrass’s most esteemed names, knows it isn’t a perfect world. This is perhaps most evident in her heartfelt delivery of the Heavenward-gazing spirituals on her latest release, Ragin’ Live. It’s also evident, however, on the CD’s striking photo of the petite performer, which courageously breaks bluegrass norms as well as the music’s typical gender guidelines. Vincent’s last studio album One Step Ahead pictured her on a dimly lit urban street in a leather outfit, signaling her intention to take down-home music (or at least its image) downtown. On Ragin’ Live, she ups the sophistication quotient considerably in a tastefully daring black dress, at once lending class to a music unassociated with glamour and upending the two-sided stereotype of the austere, gingham-clad female and its glitzy, ditzy opposite. Her confident yet somehow demure pose neither exploits nor conceals her considerable physical allure, portraying femininity as one might imagine God intended it to be.
If this path seems tangential in a music review, it’s important to acknowledge what Vincent brings to the table: namely, musical and gender integrity, which is mighty hard to come by in secular music. It’s a good bet she wouldn’t have gotten away with it, either, had she not built her career slowly and steadily and proven herself as a musician and vocalist of the highest caliber. Her assured expression on the CD cover has been legitimately bought with humility and hard work, and it’s an inspiration to see – and hear – what she’s done with her talent and influence. As far as the music itself is concerned, suffice it to say that Vincent and her four-piece band play it with a consummate skill that belies its technical difficulty. Only on the runaway locomotive tempos of the final numbers can you detect the slightest sound of perspiration. Because the cameras and recorders were rolling, perhaps she and the Rage didn’t take many risks, resulting in the unstrained sound that dominates the disc. Still, in this case that’s akin to saying they only ran sixty-five miles per hour on the tightrope instead of ninety. Throughout the concert, recorded live in St. Louis, Missouri –Vincent’s home state – the audience is particularly responsive, frequently bursting into appreciative mid-song applause. Because this is unfortunately a bit obtrusive to the listening experience, the DVD of the same performance is recommended as an alternative to lovers of finely played ‘grass and straightforward country.
With the exception of the gospel numbers, which she invests with joy and yearning, this album isn’t about Rhonda Vincent’s personal opinions, secrets or dreams. Rather, it’s about entertainment, celebration and tradition, featuring her band and special guests as much as herself. She presents both new and classic examples of the music she loves, both preserving and exposing it to a larger, more cosmopolitan following without altering it to accommodate new listeners. American tradition has become nearly as disposable as Bic razors, so credit is due to Vincent and company for polishing it up and holding it high on Ragin’ Live.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.