Did bluegrass spring fully formed from Bill Monroe’s head or does it just sound that way? Whatever the facts, it’s been the classical music of country for more than 50 years, all about virtuosity expressed within severe formal limits. For country folks, those limits signify tradition; for city folks, they’re a container that, once comprehended, can deliver the artistic goods: a lead singer and/or instrumentalist, backed by a quartet that breaks for solo improvisations on a repertoire of standards. Diana Krall at Lincoln Center? January 26, it was Rhonda Vincent and the Rage.
But. What Bill Monroe sang and played way back when was fresh. Now the formality can overwhelm, making the music sound stale and rigid. Bluegrassers have gone jam-bandy, ultra-trad, folk-rocky, and world-beatish without working free of the problem. Too tight and your ass clenches up. Too loose and you’re not bluegrass. Rhonda Vincent reveals the solution. It’s singing.
Vincent has the pedigree. She grew up in a touring bluegrass family from (very) small-town Missouri, and for a while tried mainstream Nashville country and then came back—with a big, expressive country voice. She and her band pour the emotion back into bluegrass and give the virtuosity its necessary kick.
Space does not permit the raves her band deserves, except one for fiddling prodigy Hunter Berry, who combines the genre’s speedy riffing with astonishing invention. Added to Vincent’s singing and stage presence—dressed like a jazz chanteuse, she punctuated the lyrics with, of all things, body language—the whole band sold themselves to hardcore fans and Lincoln Center types alike. I recommend any of her four Rounder CDs. The current Ragin’ Live includes stage patter that works better on the companion DVD for those, unlike myself, not already enamored of Rhonda’s every word.