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By CRYSTAL CAVINESS, United Press International   |   May 8, 2003 at 5:00 PM
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NASHVILLE, May 8 (UPI) -- Rhonda Vincent wants to turn bluegrass music upside down, inside out and twirl it around a bit.

The International Bluegrass Music Association's reigning Entertainer of the Year seemingly is one, or perhaps two or three, steps ahead of the norm in her beloved bluegrass community. Her newest project, aptly named "One Step Ahead" from Rounder Records, was released April 29 and follows the same innovative trends as her previous commercially -- and critically -- acclaimed records.

"What we're doing is very aggressive," Vincent said recently during a brief stop-over in Nashville that was sandwiched between performing at the popular Merlefest in North Wilkesboro, N.C., and starting a string of dates that typically keeps her on the road 300 days a year.

One look at the cover of Vincent's new album confirms her self-proclamation.

Dressed in black leather pants, matching leather jacket, 4-inch chunky-heeled black leather boots and a close-fitting midriff-baring maroon top, Vincent holds her mandolin with attitude, with a New York City street as a backdrop.

"Our music is in your face, so hopefully that's what the cover projects -- in-your-face bluegrass," she said. "I had a guy look at this at Merlefest and he said 'that's a rock and roll cover!'"

Vincent acknowledged the difficulty in bringing a new attitude and look to one of America's first musical formats.

"It's almost like an intrusion into bluegrass," she said. "You think of bluegrass and normally when TV goes out, they will find this guy sitting in overalls with a piece of straw hanging out of his mouth and that's the impression, that's what people think."

It's important to note Vincent is not all style and no substance. Her music takes bluegrass to a new level, musically. The musicianship is exemplary, as is the case in much of the genre. Her new music sounds as authentic as the best-loved classics.

While Vincent is unafraid to interject the songs with updated lyrics, appropriate to the 21st century, she never strays far from the foundation laid and perfected by the likes of Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt and others.

Indeed, at a time when bluegrass music is reaching larger audiences than ever before, particularly among a younger group, Vincent is poised to burst through any preconceived boundaries.

"We're seeing people from all walks of life who love what we're doing. When The Wall Street Journal reviewed my album ("The Storm Still Rages" in 2001), we had people, men, starting to show up at our shows in suits and they said 'If it's good enough for The Wall Street Journal, it's good enough for me.'

"What we've learned is, once they're exposed to it," she said, "they like it."

Excellent music aside, Vincent understands the concept of marketing, which is what's behind the black leather on the cover of "One Step Ahead."

"We're in bluegrass music and we're playing bluegrass music," she said. "But it's competing. This cover can compete with anything else on the shelf."

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