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Students of traditional Appalachian music spend time with bluegrass royalty

Bluegrass music star Rhonda Vincent, center, holds a sharing session with students in ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program in February 2024. Dan Boner, director of the program, is second from left. (Photos and video by Kollin Bailey, creative manager for Rhonda Vincent.)

Rhonda Vincent shares experience with young players

By Mark Rutledge

There is a long history of bluegrass legends stopping by East Tennessee State University to teach, make music with, and inspire students studying traditional Appalachian music. For the “Queen of Bluegrass,” that history is more of a tradition.


During a two-day residency last February with ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program, Rhonda Vincent shared her story of being surrounded by music for as long as she can remember. In addition to classroom sessions and a seminar at ETSU's Reece Museum, Vincent recorded a podcast with Artist In Residence Tim Stafford, and appears in this recap video produced by her creative manager, Kollin Bailey.

Rhonda Vincent, seated with Dan Boner, speaks to students during a seminar at ETSU’s Reece Museum in February 2024.

Before doing studio work with various country music legends and forming her Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band The Rage, and before becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry, Vincent was touring festivals and working theme parks with her family in The Sally Mountain Show bluegrass band.


“I grew up in a musical family traced by five generations,” she told students during a forum at ETSU’s Reece Museum. “So, they were playing long before I was ever thought of.”

Vincent’s tradition of visiting the university was enhanced while her daughters, Sally and Tensel, were studying bluegrass at ETSU. Tensel’s husband, Brent Burke, was the first student to graduate with a B.A. degree in Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots music studies. Sally is carrying on the family tradition as a member of the U.S. Navy band Country Current. “She made history as the first female lead of the United State Navy band,” Vincent said. “So you reach for the stars, and you never know what path God might take you on.”


The first time Rhonda Vincent sang with her parents, joining them in harmony on Happy Birthday, she was 3 years old. “Because there was already kind of a family band, once you started singing or playing, you were on,” she said.


By the time Vincent was 5, the family band had a television show, a weekly radio show, and had made its first recording as The Sally Mountain Show.

“It was kind of on-the-job training,” she said. “After I started school, my dad would pick me up from school each day and he and I would play until dinner. And after dinner, friends came over and we’d play till bedtime. So, I grew up in this very intense life of music, and I thought everybody else was at their house doing the same thing, because you don’t know any better when you’re a little girl.”

ETSU’s Artist In Residence, Tim Stafford, records a podcast with Rhonda Vincent during her two-day residency in February 2024.

The musical upbringing laid the foundation for a successful career in bluegrass and country music. Her rise in the music business received a boost in 1985 after she competed on the Nashville Network’s “You Can be a Star.” The show’s host was the late country legend Jim Ed Brown, who hired her to sing in his backing band, The Gems. Like Vincent, Brown grew up in a musical family finding early success singing with sisters Maxine and Bonnie as The Browns.


Dan Boner, director of the Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program, asked Vincent to share with students a story she uses to demonstrate why it’s important to always do your best when performing music. The story is about a youthful experience of she and her family band playing to empty seats as a house act during a rainy day at Silver Doller City in Branson, Missouri. Most of the staff musicians, in a rain-out situation, would simply sit it out and wait for the time to pass, she said. Because they were being paid to play music, however, her father, Johnny Vincent, insisted they play their set despite the rain and empty seats.

Rhonda Vincent, center, poses with students studying traditional Appalachian music during a two-day residency the artist spent at ETSU during February 2024.

“The next week, Dad get’s a call from Hal Durham,” Vincent said. “He was the general manager of the Grand Ole Opry. He said, ‘Mr. Vincent, I’d like to invite your family to come play at the grand Ole Opry.’ And that’s our dream, oh my goodness.”


Asked how he knew about The Sally Mountain Show band, Durham said he had been at Silver Dollar City on vacation the week before and had been nearby listening when the band was playing that rainy day set. “That’s how we got on the Grand Ole Opry the very first time,” Vincent said. “So that is a great life lesson that you don’t know who’s listening. You don’t know who’s watching. So, you know what, just do your best no matter what. Always have a great attitude. Always put your best foot forward.”


Mark Rutledge is Communications Coordinator for ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies, and managing editor of Appalachian Places.


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