Wineka column: Bluegrass star transforms author into serious songwriter
GOLD HILL — On her Martha White-sponsored tour bus, bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent waited for a reaction.
“Do you not understand the magnitude of this?” Vincent asked Nancy B. Brewer as they listened together to five new songs.
Brewer didn’t know what to say. Those were her songs, now recorded by a performer dubbed the new “Queen of Bluegrass Music” by the Wall Street Journal.
Brewer, who lives in Concord, knew how improbable and lucky it was to have Vincent record any of her songs, let alone five.
Something about the songs’ back story had hit home with Vincent, and there they were sitting on the bus outside an Asheville hotel.
The women had met to sign contracts, take photographs and talk about future shows and places where they could appear together to autograph and sell books and CDs.
“It’s sort of settling in now,” Brewer said Monday afternoon from the place where she often writes, an 1820 log cabin in Gold Hill’s historic village.
Just last Thursday, Vincent released her new CD, “The House with the Red Light,” inspired by Brewer’s book of the same title.
That same day, Brewer was in Nashville, Tenn., appearing on Vincent’s “Rhonda Radio” show on WSM Radio AM 650.
In the afternoon, the pair met many of Vincent’s fans at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop to sign both Brewer’s book and Rhonda’s CD — a package deal for $25, or sold separately for $15 each.
“It all went so fast,” Brewer said of the nine-week period from when she sent the songs to Vincent until the CD debuted.
Now Rhonda Vincent tour stops are in Brewer’s future in 2014. Not bad for a former hair dresser, holistic therapist and auctioneer who didn’t start her career as an author until 2010.
Three years ago, Brewer found her writing niche with historical fiction, set in the 1800s, but “The House with the Red Light” is a departure, taking place in 1957.
If there’s a theme to the 380-page book, Brewer said, it’s that your past doesn’t determine your destiny. You have to believe in yourself, and trust in God.
The story’s main character is a young girl with a troubled past. The backdrop is a world of big-tent revivals and rattlesnake handlers, Brewer said.
A singer and mandolin player, the girl takes off for Nashville, writing songs on the way.
In the beginning, the songs aren’t too sophisticated, Brewer said, compared to their thought and structure by the story’s end.
Brewer credits Vincent with making the poem form of the songs in the book come to life.
Brewer had met Vincent after a concert, and the pair agreed to become friends on Facebook. A couple of weeks before finishing “The House with the Red Light,” Brewer decided to send her songs from the book.
Each of the songs went with a tune in Brewer’s head, so without any instrument accompaniment, she sang them, recorded her version and passed them on to Vincent.
In a Facebook message, Brewer also gave Vincent the context for the songs.
The incredible thing was, Vincent liked them. She asked Brewer whether she was registered as a songwriter. Finding out she wasn’t, Vincent helped walk Brewer through the process.
Meanwhile, Vincent would send Brewer video clips of the songs as she worked on them, asking Nancy for feedback.
Both Brewer and Vincent receive songwriting credit on the CD. Vincent tweaked the words for some of the songs or added lines to make them fit the beat.
Brewer, 56, grew up in Concord. She is twice married, and has a singer daughter, Caroline Stephenson, who has a studio in Salisbury.
Brewer graduated from Concord High School. In her former career as a hairdresser, Brewer heard all manner of stories, and she said all of her life experiences are important to her writing.
Some day she will write a book about her hair-dresser days and call it “As the Curl Turns,” Brewer promised, adding she will have to leave town after it debuts.
Brewer’s first book, “Carolina Rain,” was published by Brentwood Publishing and is in its sixth printing.
Until “The House with the Red Light,” Brewer’s books were a series, following the life of Theodosia Elizabeth “Lizzie” Sanders, the name of her great-grandmother.
“They’re very historically accurate,” Brewer said, explaining how she pays attention to the detail of places, times and dates to paint a picture as people would have seen it.
She pores over microfilm of old newspapers or tries to find letters from the time period she needs.
Her books — she now has written eight over the past three years — are available on Amazon and on her website (www.nancybbrewer.com).
Brewer depends heavily on social media to spread the word about her books, which she started to write as a supplement to her and husband Vernon’s character appearances at period reenactments.
Their Gold Hill cabins, which they bought three years ago, fit in nicely with their keen interest in history. Besides the 1820s writing cabin, they lease the older “River Pines” cabin to potter Lennie Cooper.
Brewer especially likes to write in Gold Hill during the spring and fall. Though rustic in appearance, the cabin provides a bathroom, a loft for sleeping and a small kitchen, so she can spend several nights if she wants.
The couple found out about the cabins by attending bluegrass music sessions at the E.H. Montgomery Store on Friday nights in Gold Hill.
As for Vincent’s “The House with the Red Light” CD, Brewer said listeners will love it, even if they’re not a bluegrass fan.
Brewer said bluegrass, country, folk, gospel and Celtic music are all about heritage.
“It’s music from the heart and storytelling about who people are,” she said. “This type of music is who the South is.”
Brewer, who never set out to be a songwriter, said other bands have contacted her since making a connection with Vincent, asking whether she has more songs.
Smiling, Brewer said she does.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.