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Following a relatively short descent into the hell of mainstream Nashville in the 90s—where she actually made a few listenable if slick albums—Rhonda Vincent is back playing bluegrass. And she's made the most of her return—only Alison Krauss surpasses her as the dominant female of the genre. In fact, her most recent album, All American Bluegrass Girl (Rounder), seems like a determined effort to beat Krauss at her own game—a country-flavored, soft-focus version of bluegrass where the rough edges are sanded into sweet harmonies and gentle melodies. Vincent's voice is as strong and supple as her mandolin solos are fluid and hard-charging mandolin, but her backing band the Rage, despite obvious chops, never comes close to living up to its name.
Bluegrass is a tough racket, and now that the short-lived furor over O Brother, Where Art Thou? has subsided, transcending moderate success takes luck and business savvy. Playing the music in its purest form hasn’t generally proven to be a wise ploy, so it’s not surprising that Vincent has polished up her act, bringing in some sappy country-style ballads, a few tunes about Jesus and patriotism, hiring Dolly Parton to sing harmony (although that would never be a bad idea for anyone except maybe Snoop Dogg). More bizarre is her attempt to look like just another Nashville tart—in the cheesecake shot on her latest album cover, she's posing with shoulders thrust forward and knees knocked while wearing a thin-strapped dress. Luckily she’s a solid live performer, so I wouldn't expect much of the gloss when she performs Friday, March 30, at the Lund Auditorium in River Forest.