Sunday, April 09, 2006

Get this album now!

Let's cut to the chase. Country music sucks.

Long gone are the halcyon days of Merle, Conway and George. Not much good singing. Rarely any cool pickin.' Nope, now it's homogeneous lyrics performed by cookie cutter supermodels without any talent.

Thank God for bluegrass. Some of the finest American music of the last 20 years has surfaced under the auspices of Kentucky's great export to the rest of the world. Alison Krauss and "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" has also helped the genre cross over into the mainstream and make a well-deserved comeback.

Another Missouri native has been tearing up the bluegrass charts these last few years -- sometimes lost in Krauss' shadow. But Rhonda Vincent's talent is such that she can more than hold her own with Union Station's most famous member.

Vincent has been named female vocalist of the year four straight times by the International Bluegrass Music Association. She's been nominated for a Grammy award. And she has released the best album I've heard in 20 years.

2005's "Ragin' Live" captures a live recording at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis. This is one of those albums that stays with you long after the CD player reaches the final track. It blindsides you from the moment Vincent hits the first note on "Kentucky Borderline" and takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotions -- high, low, upside down and back again.

The set includes everything from the Ernest Tubb classic "Drivin' Nails in My Coffin," to the Flatt and Scruggs Gospel favorite "So Happy I'll Be," to a stunning version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." In Vincent's hands, the singer is pleading, almost begging the auburn haired vixen Jolene to leave her man alone.

Vincent and her band, the Rage, create tight harmonies throughout. She shines brightest as a vocalist, but is equally adept at plucking the mandolin, dropping licks here and there like new fallen snow in winter.

Her urban approach to bluegrass is best evident on the mid-tempo ballad "I've Forgotten You," a tear-jerker in which the singer has done everything but forget a lost love. The heartache is palpable on lines like "I've forgotten you/How you held me and you felt like it was what you were born to do." Ouch.

You think that one's bad? Immediately following "I've Forgotten You" is the hauntingly beautiful "Ghost of a Chance," in which a man is haunted by the great love of his life, the woman who slipped through his hands right about the time she stole his heart. "His future is linked to the past," she sings, "by the ghost of a chance."

Excuse me while I pick my broken heart up off the floor.

This song may have replaced "He Stopped Loving Her Today" as my all-time favorite sad song. It's that good.

If you buy only one CD this year, "Ragin' Live" should be it. Don't wait. Go straight to the store now. Don't stop for red lights. Don't worry about the speed limit.

Just get this album. Get it as fast as you can.

"Ragin' Live" is available on compact disc from Rounder Records.

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