Home is a favorite theme in bluegrass music, so it’s fitting that Rhonda Vincent would choose the church of her childhood, Greentop United Methodist Church in tiny Greentop, Mo., for recording a live gospel album.
“I didn’t just want to go to a random church,” she said in a phone interview. “I wanted it to be the most special place for me, where I grew up singing.”
Ms. Vincent is a first-magnitude star in her field, having four times been named female vocalist of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, and once as its entertainer of the year.
She recently released Sunday Mornin’ Singin’, recorded at Greentop UMC with her band The Rage, June 27-29 in 2011.
The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard bluegrass chart, and was featured in the “Playlist” column of the New York Times, with critic Nate Chinen describing Ms. Vincent’s singing as “at once clarion and sweet.”
An even better review came from a famous friend of Ms. Vincent.
“I just got a letter from Dolly Parton,” Ms. Vincent said. “She listened to the CD and said she feels like she wants to get baptized again.”
Ms. Vincent’s childhood included playing in a family band that was popular enough to have its own local TV show. But she also sang at Greentop UMC, where her mother still plays the piano.
The idea for doing a gospel album had long been on Ms. Vincent’s mind, but she couldn’t get her record company to go along. When she started her own label in 2010, she decided to move ahead with the project and chose Greentop UMC as the recording site.
The church was founded in 1874, and the “new” building dates to 1917. It’s made of tile blocks, with stained glass windows, and seats about 150, said longtime member Toadie Ledford.
Attendance has dwindled to about 11 or 12 most Sundays, Ms. Ledford said, but the recording session packed the pews with local folks and members of Ms. Vincent’s fan club.
“It just made it roar like when we used to have a large attendance,” Ms. Ledford said.
But there were challenges. The church isn’t air-conditioned, and temperatures soared. What’s more, a storm that passed through the night before knocked out power in the area.
“They had to hook up the electricity from our tour bus,” Ms. Vincent said. “It was100 degrees in the church at any given moment, but we forged through.”
The album includes 16 songs, ranging from the traditional (“Old Rugged Cross”) to the contemporary (“Blue Sky Cathedral”) to compositions by Ms. Vincent herself. She plays the mandolin and fiddle, as well as taking the lead with singing.
Ms. Vincent said that during the recording, she looked out at the pews and saw a hymnal turned to “Just as I Am.”
“I was overcome with this feeling,” she said. “I was saved at age 8, and that’s the song that was playing. I turned to the band and I said, ‘Let’s sing this song.’ They looked at me like I was crazy. They said, ‘We haven’t rehearsed it or anything.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We did that song in one take.”
A film crew was on hand, and Ms. Vincent said a DVD is in the works that will have nine additional songs. She’s hoping it will be aired on TV, but nothing has been settled.
These days, Ms. Vincent spends much of her time touring across North America. But she’s often back in Greentop—about 20 miles from the Iowa border, with Kirksville, Mo., the nearest town of size—to see her parents and other family.
And when she’s there on Sunday, she generally heads to Greentop UMC.
“When I go to Sunday school, they will say, ‘Do you have a song for us?’” she said. “So I always put the guitar in the car.”