I received the tragic news last night that, on Christmas day, the world lost one of the greatest acoustic guitarists that the industry has ever known. Tony Rice was 69 years old, influenced thousands of artists, and truly defined the role of bluegrass guitar in bluegrass music.
There were others who played the guitar as a lead instrument before Tony. Bill Napier and George Shuffler performed crosspicking on guitar with The Stanley Brothers. Doc Watson gave acoustic lead guitar notice. Clarence White placed lead guitar into a bluegrass band setting. Dan Crary highlighted the bluegrass lead guitarist persona. However, it was Tony Rice that not only defined the role, he gave it an image, and that image was badass cool!
Unlike those before him, who were reproducing fiddle or mandolin lines on acoustic guitar, Tony was creating guitar lines that stood out on their own. There was a lot of pop, rock, and jazz influence in his bluegrass picking, which knocked a lot of traditionalists on their butts, whether they liked it or not. And while he performed in many different bands, one could tell from the first three or four notes that it was a Tony Rice lead.
There are plenty of albums that one could listen to in order to truly understand Toney’s playing. His signature work is definitely Manzanita, which showcases his guitar in a slightly progressive bluegrass setting. To hear what he was initially trying to get across with guitar as a true bluegrass workhorse, secure a copy of the debut self-titled album by J.D. Crowe and the New South on Rounder Records, affectionately known in the bluegrass fold by its issue number, “0044.” In his later years, he did two fantastic guitar-centric bluegrass albums with Peter Rowan as the Rowan & Rice Quartet. He also joined up with a number of other bluegrass stars to record a bunch of albums under the moniker The Bluegrass Album Band. Of course, anything under his own band The Tony Rice Unit should be considered.
While many bluegrassers cite his duet album Skaggs & Rice (with Ricky Skaggs) as his best work with bluegrass guitar and Monroe Brothers style of singing, I prefer the two albums he recorded with Norman Blake. Blake & Rice has some of the best textbook examples of bluegrass guitar lead work, and Blake & Rice 2 should be grabbed if only for the three songs that include Doc Watson performing to create bluegrass guitar powerhouse.
He was also a fantastic soulful baritone singer in the bluegrass vein. His work with Bluegrass Alliance and The New South atone to this. He was an avid fan of Gordon Lightfoot, and recorded many of the folksinger’s songs, either solo or with his family band The Rice Brothers. In 1994 he was diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia, which put an end to his singing. In an interview I did with him in the early 2000’s, he talked about it, and said that if he were forced to lose one of his two talents, he would rather it be his voice. At his induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2013, he lamented on this, and provided a promising result to therapy on his vocal work.
(watch at around 11:30)
He continued to play guitar with Rowan, as well as with Alison Krauss & Union Station and other bands that paid tribute to his work. In 2014, he developed lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) which made guitar playing painful. He decided to go into retirement until he could come back and perform as he used to. Unfortunately, that did not come about. However, we are blessed to have so many recordings of his amazing six-string work, and his sound and style will live on through so many young guitarists that were influenced by Tony, whether they realize it or not. You can definitely hear his work in the performing of Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, Josh Williams, Chris Eldridge, and so many others. One of my favorite photographs of him is when he is in a room with Bill Monroe and he has Monroe play on the famous Clarence White Martin D-28.
If you have any doubts, get on YouTube and search out Tony Rice videos. You will not be disappointed.
Tony, I am truly glad that I got to meet you and speak with you on a few occasions regarding bluegrass guitar and music. You are now with the Angel Band. Take it easy on them with your licks.
Chew on it and comment.