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Rural Missouri Magazine

Bluegrass to the roots
Music is a Vincent family tradition at the annual
Sally Mountain Park Bluegrass Festival

by Heather Berry
The Vincent family performs twice daily as The Sally Mountain Show at its annual bluegrass gathering, held each June near Queen City. Pictured, left to right: Johnny, Rhonda and Carolyn Vincent, long-time friend, Lloyd Allen, and Darrin Vincent. Standing at the edge of the stage on the far right, Rage band member Hunter Berry joins in on fiddle.

The tire-worn grass lane from the ticket gate to the pavilion is lined with more than 200 RVs on either side. People of all ages gather by the campers and wave and holler “Hi there” or “How’ya doin’?” as pedestrians pass by. You quickly realize that everyone becomes fast friends here.

For bluegrass fans like Joe Everly of Maryland, the Sally Mountain Park Bluegrass Festival is an event he and his wife, Kathy, will drive quite a distance to attend — 951 miles one way to be exact. “But they’re short miles,” the fiddle player says, then laughs.

“This is one of the most relaxed bluegrass festivals we’ve ever attended,” says Joe, who came to the festival for the first time last year. “It feels homey. And that’s why we’re coming back again this year.”

To get a true feel for the five-day festival held in Queen City each July, Joe recommends bringing your motor home and staying on the grounds so you don’t miss a single performance, jam session or workshop.

Musicians, young and old, share tricks and learn from each other during workshops dedicated to each of the primary instruments of bluegrass.

This year’s festival marks the 21st year for the north-central Missouri music celebration. It started as the dream of Johnny and Carolyn Vincent. Long-time bluegrass fans might know their names from their many years performing as part of The Sally Mountain Trio on radio or TV — or maybe you’ve heard a tune or two by one of their children, Rhonda Vincent, Missouri’s own award-winning bluegrass queen.

In the ’60s, the Vincents had a TV show on KTVO in Ottumwa, Iowa, called The Sally Mountain Show. It showcased Johnny, Carolyn, their then 6-year-old daughter Rhonda, and friends like Lloyd Allen, who’s still part of The Sally Mountain Trio. The band adopted the name from a hill near Queen City that locals named after old-time fiddle player Sally Mosby. Mosby is believed to have written the popular fiddle tune “Sally Goodin.”

Rhonda, the oldest of the Vincent’s three children, recalls how she learned to play the mandolin for a show the family performed each week in Marceline.

An early Vincent family publicity photo shows Carolyn, Rhonda and Johnny with young Darrin standing in front by the bass.

“The guy who ran the show decided that if you just sang, you didn’t get paid,” she says. “So Dad handed me a mandolin and said ‘Here’s a mandolin. Here’s G, C and D chord. Next week, you’re playing this instrument for two and a half hours.’ So there I was, playing my three chords, but I was getting paid.”

Rhonda says she used to come home from school and play music with her dad and grandpa until supper, then play from supper until bedtime. She didn’t play any sports because her dad didn’t want her breaking a finger.

“Mom always says she took us off the bottle and put us on bluegrass,” says Rhonda. “I think music runs in the Vincent family blood. Everyone plays something.”

Johnny, a fifth-generation bluegrass player, was part of the Lazy River Boys radio show in the ’50s with his dad and uncle. He’s a self-taught guitar, bass and banjo player. Carolyn learned to play the bass after she married into the family. The Vincent’s middle son, Darrin, “plays about anything with strings” according to his mom. He currently performs with Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder band. Youngest son, Brian, an accountant, plays guitar and mandolin.

While the three kids are all married and live outside their native Missouri, the siblings return home to help Dad and Mom with the festival. Rhonda, a seven-time International Bluegrass Music Association female vocalist of the year, makes sure her schedule always leads back home for the annual music gathering.

Rhonda Vincent, seven-time International Bluegrass Music Association female vocalist of the year and triple Grammy nominee, always comes home to help with the family-run festival. She teaches a mandolin workshop one morning during the five-day event.

“I had to miss it one year when we were asked to play at a Fourth of July celebration for ABC’s Peter Jennings,” Rhonda says. “From that point on I said, ‘My schedule will be made around this festival.’” She hasn’t missed another since.

In the ’80s, when Rhonda’s solo career took off, her parents decided they were ready to pare down their own travel schedule a bit. About that time, Johnny bought 63 acres in Queen City, which is served by Tri-County Electric Cooperative. While at the land one day, he told Carolyn, “You know, this would make a beautiful place for a bluegrass festival.”

The family enlisted friends who shared Johnny’s vision to clear land and got it ready for a gathering.

“It was an absolute mess,” recalls Rhonda, shaking her head. “It was nothing but multiflora rose bushes. But we got it cleared and ready within a year.”

Today, the gathering attracts more than 1,000 music fans each day during the five-day event. People from California to England spend the week jamming with fellow musicians and listening to great bluegrass.

Kaci Wubbena, a 19-year-old mandolin player from Florida, came with her family to the festival last year. “I asked my parents if I could have the trip as a graduation present and they agreed,” says Kaci, whose family drove nearly 1,100 miles to attend.

A self-taught mandolin player, Kaci says the festival was invaluable.

Performances can be enjoyed all day under a canopy of hickory trees at Sally Mountain Park near Queen City. Festival-goers can catch from eight to 10 professional performances each day.

“One of the best parts are the jam sessions on the campgrounds,” says the bluegrass fan. “You just walk up and start playing and that’s fine with everyone. They don’t mind teaching you whatever they know.”

Not everyone attending the festival plays an instrument. Some are simply bluegrass fans and make a vacation of the musical gathering. Others are fans of Rhonda Vincent and her band, The Rage (Rhonda’s fans are known as “Ragers”). Whether they play or not, everyone’s here for one reason: the music.

Seasoned festival-goers know to bring comfy lawn chairs. Most people find a spot on the hickory-covered hillside and park their chairs, knowing that no one will take their seats because, well, it’s just that way at these events. Everyone respects everyone else’s property.

This year’s festival is July 4-8. Besides a good variety of talented groups, the shining star at the festival is Rhonda Vincent and The Rage. Other than Rhonda and the family, performers at the venue change every year.

A bluegrass fan gathers autographs on his instrument.

The event begins Wednesday evening with a potluck “getting to know you” dinner. Mornings offer workshops for fiddle, mandolin, bass, guitar and banjo players. Classes might be held by the cook shack or under a shade tree near the stage. Most workshops are led by Rhonda and her talented Rage band members, Hunter Berry, Kenny Ingram, Mickey Harris and Josh Williams. The informal gatherings usually run about an hour each.

Afternoons and evenings are filled with professional performances, but time is always reserved for open stage, where anyone can take a turn at the mic. Carolyn says it’s one of the most popular things at the festival.

“Some people come specifically to play during open stage, hoping they might get booked for next year’s performance schedule,” she says. ”Of course, that’s the way we used to do it, too. We’d go all the way to Florida to do a guest spot just to get known.”

While Rhonda and The Rage usually play twice a day at the festival, audiences also hear all the Vincent family members when The Sally Mountain Show performs each afternoon and evening. The event is a rare time when the audience can see Rhonda, Darrin and Brian perform with their parents.

Impromptu jam sessions pop up everywhere on the campgrounds.

When Johnny and Carolyn aren’t performing at the gathering, you’ll find Carolyn in the cook shack or Johnny at the ticket gate, visiting with festival goers. Darrin and Brian help with everything from running the sound board to introducing the acts.

“We take pride in making sure everyone feels at home here,” says Rhonda, who’s usually found visiting with Ragers on the grounds when she’s not helping the family out. “Dad always tells folks, ‘If I can do anything for you, you let me know’ and he means it.”

A five-day pass (that includes all performances and workshops) is $35, with camping an additional $10 per day. Single-day passes run $10 to $15. The cook shack offers tasty homemade eats — but you’ll find no alcohol sold at this family-oriented event.

Rhonda sums up the festival this way. “It’s more than just the music,” she says. “It’s the fellowship of people who come to this festival that makes it feel like a homecoming when you’re here. The music just tops it all off.”

For more details go to www.sallymountainshow.com or call (660) 949-2345.

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