The world lost one of the greatest and most influential acoustic guitarists of the last 50 years when Tony Rice passed away on Christmas morning at the age of 69.
In the 1970s at the tender age of 21, David Anthony Rice — known to everyone as Tony — redefined bluegrass guitar when he joined banjoist J.D. Crowe’s New South and began playing guitar leads that referenced flatpicking greats Clarence White and Doc Watson, but were nonetheless uniquely Tony Rice’s music. Crowe’s band came to include Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas, both of whom had long associations in various musical combinations with Rice. It was with the New South that Rice also began to make his mark as one of the new breed of vocalists in bluegrass, who owed as much to Gordon Lightfoot as he did to Bill Monroe. The New South’s self-titled album, known among aficionados by its catalog number 0044, is considered a classic in bluegrass. This 1975 video showcases the band — with Rice’s lead singing and guitar playing — at the height of their time together.
In the mid-1970s Rice left the New South to join with mandolinist David Grisman to create what became known as Dawg Music or, more broadly, New Acoustic Music. The group’s debut album, The David Grisman Quintet, remains as one of the most influential of its time. Grisman, Rice, and violinist Darol Anger — taking the leads — were playing a type of string jazz influenced by gypsy, blues, and bluegrass music that had a beauty and clarity that was unique for its time and jaw dropping in its inspiration. Now, 40+ years later every acoustic musician worth his or her salt can work their way through similar tunes, but the originality of Grisman’s vision in the 1970s reminds me of the breakthrough of bluegrass when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the 1940s and a whole new American music was created. The opening tune on the album, E.M.D. — seen here played by Grisman, Rice, violinist Mark O’Connor and longtime Grisman bassist Rob Wasserman — set the tone for what was to come. Rice’s dazzling guitar break begins at the 1:10 mark.
When Rice left Grisman’s band, he continued with the jazzy sounds of DGQ through his own Tony Rice Unit — featured here with Mar West — but he also began returning to his bluegrass roots with albums such as his tribute to country brother duets with Ricky Skaggs, captured here with The Soul of Man Never Dies, and the Bluegrass Album Band, seen in a 1991 performance at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards show with fiddler Vassar Clements.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Rice played with a number of musical collaborators, as he was the guitarist of choice for many musicians. Some of the best of those bands were the super-groups often consisting of Rice, banjoist Bela Fleck, mandolinist Sam Bush, dobroist Jerry Douglas, fiddler Mark O’Connor, and bassist Mark Schatz. Whitewater, a Bela Fleck tune played by the group at an early Merlefest, is a great example of these collaborations. Rice’s first guitar solo begins at the :50 mark and his second one begins around 2:45.
UPDATE: Since writing this appreciation on Sunday, I’ve listened to hours of Tony Rice on YouTube, and I have to add in another song from this wonderful Merlefest set with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, and Mark Schatz. Freeborn Man is just the coolest of the cool from what is arguably the best bluegrass supergroup ever assembled. Don’t take my word for it, listen to what Tony said:
“Have you heard any of the stuff that was done by the group of myself and Sam, and Bela and Flux, and Mark O’Connor? Have you heard any of that stuff? It was back at MerleFest, there’s quite a bit of footage of us playing live. There’s tunes like Freeborn Man and Nine Pound Hammer, were – you talk about an ensemble. And uh – I don’t know – Mark O’Connor playing that bluegrass fiddle like that was just absolutely mind-blowing. I’ll go and get on my computer and listen to that stuff and listen to him paying the solos in Freeborn Man and Nine Pound Hammer – listen to Jerry Douglas’s solos and I think Jesus, this is just amazing shit.” –Tony Rice (taken from “A Conversation with Tony Rice directed by Jan Johansson, in 2019)
And if to prove my point, my younger brother sent me this video of a guitar teacher breaking down this song. His mind is blown, as every solo in here is just amazing in its complexity and in the way the ensemble interacts.
BACK TO THE ORIGINAL POST: Rice continued to honor others who made the acoustic flatpicked guitar such a force in roots music through his collaborations with Watson and Norman Blake, among others.
Manzanita was a signature tune for Rice, that he played and replayed on various albums and with different musical collaborators throughout the years. Here is a version from Tony’s 2000 album Unit of Measure.
As an obituary in Rolling Stone notes,
In the Nineties, Rice was diagnosed with dysphonia, an affliction of the vocal cords that all but robbed him of his singing voice. Rice also battled arthritis and elbow issues that affected his playing. He gave his last public performance on guitar during his 2013 induction into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and delivered an emotional acceptance speech.
The obituary also quoted numerous musicians and acolytes who noted Rice’s influence.
“’The list of guitarists who reinvented the most played instrument in the world is very short. Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix… a few others. Tony Rice is on that list,’ Charlie Worsham told Rolling Stone in an email. ‘Hang out long enough with a couple guitar players, and you’ll hear phrases like ‘Manzanita, or ‘Cold on the Shoulder,’ dropped into the conversation like code, like a test to see how much you know about the good shit. Anyone who strives to flat pick a guitar with a solid right hand, to meld raw physical power with the grace and precision of a hummingbird’s wings owes a debt of gratitude to Tony Rice.’”
I first heard Tony live with the David Grisman Quintet in Atlanta around 1978, and I last heard him with the Tony Rice Unit at Merlefest in 2009 and again in 2012, a year before he stopped playing in public. He was always inventive, thoughtful, and stretching boundaries in ways that pointed paths for others.
UPDATE NUMBER 2: In 2010, I reviewed Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story on More to Come. It was part of a blog where I looked at several books, and you can find the full review by clicking on the link above, but this is the bulk of what I wrote:
“Rice is — in my humble opinion — the best acoustic guitarist on the planet, and this work covers his entire life’s story and musical development. Much of it is written in Tony’s own words or comes from remembrances from fellow musicians and friends. The section on the development of David Grisman’s Dawg music, when Rice left his bluegrass roots and joined the seminal David Grisman Quintet in 1975, is worth the price of the book. As Tony says, there are now at least 10 guitarists who can play circles around him while playing Rice’s own music, but none have the tone and touch…and none came up with the beautiful combination of roots, bluegrass, jazz, and even classical influences that makes the best of Dawg music still fresh some 30+ years later. After reading the book, I recalled all those great Rice albums that I had listened to on vinyl and immediately went online and downloaded several CDs worth of music from Tony’s four decades of music. Backwaters is Tony’s favorite, and with fresh listening I can see why.
The best part of Still Inside? My copy of the book is inscribed “To my old pickin’ pal, David – Tony Rice.” Now, there’s not a shred of truth in that, but my grandchildren (should I ever have any) will never know! Thanks to my friend Leti, who stood in line at Merlefest when I couldn’t go this year and snared the best inscription ever for a guitar lover.”
BACK AGAIN TO THE ORIGINAL POST: Tony Rice’s music was part of the 2004 documentary film Bluegrass Journey, and a fitting place to end this tribute is with his haunting solo version of Shenandoah, which — with a short commentary on art at the end by Tim O’Brien — puts a coda on Tony’s life and work.
Rest in peace, Tony Rice. Your music influenced generations and will live on in those whom you have touched and blessed.
More to come…
Image: Tony Rice with his younger brother Wyatt at Merlefest 2012 by DJB