Remembering Tony Rice

Farewell to a true innovator, an individual who helped expand bluegrass’ boundaries

Tony Rice (Art: Ron Hart)

This year has been merciless. Thankfully, it’s nearly at an end, and yet it refuses to slip silently into the ethos.

Instead, it takes with it another true legend, bluegrass great Tony Rice, who died at his home in North Carolina on Christmas Day at the age of 69. Like many of those we’ve lost in 2020, Rice was an exceptional musician, one who helped inform his genre by imprinting the stamp of originality and innovation, bringing bluegrass full circle into modern realms simply by virtue of his playing and performances. 

“Tony Rice was the king of the flat picked flattop guitar,” Jason Isbell, one of Rice’s disciples, noted when informed of his passing. “His influence cannot possibly be overstated…I don’t know if a person can make anything more beautiful.” 

Country singer Kenny Chesney echoed those sentiments. “Tony Rice inspired so many, including a kid like me from East Tennessee who was in awe of the way he sang and played ‘Me and My Guitar.’ I’ll never forget seeing him sing that at the IBMA Bluegrass Festival in Owensboro, KY. It’s printed in my brain forever! Rest in Peace Tony Rice.” 

Rest In Peace, Tony Rice (Art: Ron Hart)

While Rice was clearly indebted to bluegrass tradition, he also helped bring the music to a younger, modern audience that was attracted to different tones and treatments. Indeed, he was a prime player when it came to morphing that style from its vintage origins into the more progressive realms of newgrass, grassicana, progressive folk, and acoustic jazz. Having garnered a Grammy in 1983 for “Best Country Instrumental Performance” alongside the pioneering group The New South, he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2013 after having been recognized as Instrumental Performer of the Year half a dozen times and garnering several other IBMA honors in-between. 

Rice’s innovative career was spawned from his early association with any number of other progressive pioneers, among them J.D. Crowe and the New South, David Grisman, Norman Blake and his brothers Larry, Wyatt and Ron. Daring to defy the norm, he co-founded the genre-shifting outfit the Bluegrass Album Band, a conglomerate whose membership included such illuminates as Vassar Clements, Doyle Lawson, Jerry Douglas, and Bobby Hicks. Their series of albums, a progressions of recordings titled The Bluegrass Album — volumes one through six — became some of the most notable additions to the fledgling Rounder Records catalog.

As his career progressed, Rice began incorporating such unlikely instrumentation as drums, sax and piano into his musical mix. He shared in the creation of Grisman’s morph of classic and contemporary music, which the pair whimsically referred to as “Dawg Music,” and then further established his own populist precepts by collaborating with Jerry Garcia and Chris Hillman, two innovative individuals whose love of bluegrass matched Rice’s own.

 


After forming his own outfit, The Tony Rice Unit, he took that progressive posture several steps further, creating a precise instrumental sound he affectionately termed “space grass,” which he then invested in a series of successful albums under his own aegis. Further collaborations with the likes of Ricky Skaggs, with whom he had played in J.D. Crowe and the New South, Bela Fleck and Peter Rowan, helped further his remarkable reputation. And while a vocal impairment curtailed his singing ability, his instrumental prowess continued to distinguish him as an exceptional flatpicker guitarist and a notable influence on any number of musicians that followed.

In summing up Rice’s relevance to bluegrass’s evolution and music in general, one need only point to a pair of notable albums released over the course of his career, each released on Rounder Records — The Bill Monroe Collection and Sings Gordon Lightfoot. Though each drew from widely diverse sources, the two efforts found a common bond in Rice’s ability to transcend musical genres and find a common bond in each. 

It’s a lesson that ought to be shared in more ways than one. As John Lawless wrote so eloquently in the respected bluegrass journal Bluegrass Today, “It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Tony Rice in bluegrass and acoustic string music. Suffice it to say, that absent his participation, it would sound far different than it does today. A monumental figure in the music, we will not see the likes of him again for some time.”

Amen. 

 

VIDEO: JD Crowe and The New South KET-TV 1975

 

AUDIO: Tony Rice Unit Telluride Bluegrass Festival 6/23/85

 

AUDIO: Tony Rice at the Town Crier in Pawling, NY, 2/23/91

 

 

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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