The Storm Still Rage (Rounder) / Mountain Soul (Epic)

Rhonda Vincent / Patty Loveless 

The Storm Still Rage (Rounder) / Mountain Soul (Epic)

Rhonda Vincent spent much of the '90s in Nashville struggling to make it as a mainstream country singer, but it wasn't until she returned to her bluegrass roots, culminating in last year's amazing Back Home Again, that she found her true voice. Today Vincent (who still resides in the Kirksville, Missouri, area) and her band, The Rage, are widely regarded as the hottest artists on the bluegrass festival circuit, playing a version of the music that is both state-of-the-art and deeply rooted in tradition.

Her new record just might be the finest bluegrass album since Del McCoury's 1993 effort, A Deeper Shade of Blue. On The Storm Still Rages, Vincent links herself explicitly to bluegrass' rich tradition, tearing up the Osborne Brothers' "Bluegrass Express," honoring Bill Monroe with "Is the Grass Any Bluer?" and even ending the disc with a couple of verses of Flatt & Scruggs' "The Martha White Theme." But Vincent's bluegrass is no museum piece. A scorching cover of "Drivin' Nails in My Coffin," fueled by the wild fiddling of Mike Cleveland, rocks more fiercely than any new music on the radio today, regardless of format. And Vincent's singing and mandolin work on the poignant ballad "Don't Lie" would sound right at home on the next Lee Ann Womack album. Under normal circumstances, The Storm Still Rages would've been hands-down favorite for bluegrass album of the year.

This year, though, Vincent's album has some stiff and high-profile competition: Patty Loveless' Mountain Soul. There are all kinds of reasons why Loveless, the best country singer of her generation, might've chosen this particular moment to go bluegrass. Her career, for one. After all, this real live woman is pushing 45 now, so it's only a matter of time before young country radio ships her off to the old folks' home.

Meanwhile, bluegrass is moving more units than at any time since Flatt & Scruggs picked and grinned their way onto The Beverly Hillbillies. A country album chart-topper for most of the spring, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack (which features not only bluegrass but also the older, early-commercial-era sounds for which it's often mistaken) has become an honest-to-God phenomenon: With virtually zero airplay, it's already the best-selling bluegrass release ever and is poised to go double platinum. Providing some of the spadework for this success were Dolly Parton and Steve Earle, who recently made well-publicized forays into the field, and babygrass acts such as Nickel Creek, whose members currently lack chops and songs but lack them very earnestly. It's amazing, really, that at the dawn of the 21st century, bluegrass is hot.

But Loveless isn't jumping on any bandwagon: She was born to sing this music. Loveless was born and mostly raised in the hills of Pike County, Kentucky, where her father labored in the coal mines by day and recharged with Stanley Brothers records by night. So it's no surprise here that when Loveless opens her mouth to sing, what comes out is pure high-lonesome, whether she's delivering a gospel standard such as "Two Coats" or a smoldering duet with Travis Tritt called "Out of Control Raging Fire." In fact, the first song Loveless wrote, at age fourteen, was called "The Sounds of Loneliness." Appearing here as the closing track, the song underscores, hauntingly, that Loveless' turn to bluegrass is actually a return. Even better is "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," on which Loveless transforms Darrell Scott's grim Appalachian epic (You spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave) into the musical equivalent of a family Bible, where every death is carefully inscribed and punctuated with tears.

Vincent's and Loveless' albums each should be hailed as a new bluegrass classic, but they're quite different recordings. Check out, for example, what each singer does with "Just Someone I Used to Know," a 1969 Parton and Porter Wagoner hit that somehow wound up on both discs. Loveless' version is stark and bluesy, the better to emphasize Patty's soulful mountain harmonies with duet partner Jon Randall. Vincent, on the other hand, works just as hard to highlight her outstanding band via an arrangement steeped in sophisticated trio harmonies and timing that makes the rhythm hop and scoot.

Put another way, Loveless sounds influenced by the solo recordings of Ralph Stanley, whereas Vincent draws upon the legacy of Jimmy "The King of Bluegrass" Martin and the band-centered styles of two of Martin's former sidemen, Doyle Lawson and J.D. Crowe. New fans to bluegrass, freshly wowed by Stanley's remarkable contributions to O Brother and accustomed to the rock and country bias of seeing individual "star" performances as inherently superior to the collaborations of tightly knit ensembles, will perhaps hear in those comparisons an endorsement of Mountain Soul over The Storm Still Rages. Longtime bluegrass fans, however, will know that's a fool's game and will love both.

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