The Song Remains: Tony Rice 1951 – 2020

Tony Rice in 2020

Legendary bluegrass artist and master acoustic guitarist

Tony Rice passed away peacefully on Christmas Day 2020 and his passing was appropriately announced via a statement by his friend of many years, and bluegrass and country music legend, Ricky Skaggs that was agreed with the family. This obituary will not be able to do real justice to Tony Rice’s artist achievements as a bluegrass artist who redefined the role of the guitar in bluegrass, ushered in progressive bluegrass and added a jazz sensibility to the country, blues, folk and old-time mix that is bluegrass. In doing this he has played on some of the most important bluegrass records of all time and played with some of the greatest bluegrass and acoustic musicians of the last 50 years. As well as being a revolutionary guitarist Tony Rice had one of the best voices in bluegrass until he was diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia in 1994. It wasn’t only his music that marked Tony Rice out as a pioneer, his distinctive dress of smart suits and his trademark ponytail meant he always differentiated himself from the more traditional bluegrass practitioners despite his knowledge and capability at playing traditional bluegrass.

He was born on June 8th,  1951in Danville, Virginia and raised in Southern California in a musical family. His father, musician Herb Rice was a member of West Coast bluegrass pioneers The Golden State Boys, introduced him to bluegrass and he was influenced by the West Coast bluegrass of The Dillards and The Kentucky Colonels who included guitarist Clarence White, later of The Byrds. Tony Rice paid homage to this part of his musical influences when he formed Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen at the instigation of his brother Larry, with former Byrd Chris Hillman and ex-Dillard Herb Pedersen in 1997.  1970 saw him move to Louisville, Kentucky and join The Bluegrass Alliance, whose ex-members joined New Grass Revival, before joining his first great band J D Crowe’s New South. Their 1975 album on Rounder Records is so revered by bluegrass aficionados, that it is simply referred to by its catalogue number ‘Rounder 0044’ and included Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and Jerry Douglas on dobro as well as Rice on guitars and Crowe on Banjo. Rice started his solo recording career in 1973 working closely with members of The Seldom Scene on 1975’s ‘California Autumn’ before joining David Grisman’s Quartet with its blend of gypsy jazz, jazz, blues, folk and bluegrass included on their groundbreaking 1977 debut album ‘The David Grisman Quintet’. This album heralded the birth of new acoustic music which provided a shot in the arm for acoustic music generally.

In 1979 Tony Rice released ‘Manzanita’ which is considered one of his finest albums. While you can hear bluegrass in the music it is the first bluegrass album not to include a banjo. Tony Rice formed the Tony Rice Unit to record and play this new instrumental music and he named his production and publishing company Spacegrass to recognise the new genre. Tony was a jazz fan who not only brought a jazz influence to his own guitar playing but also covered jazz tunes with David Grisman and his own Tony Rice Unit. The Tony Rice Unit’s ‘Backwater’ is the high point of this blend of instrumental jazz and bluegrass blend. In case his fans thought he had left traditional bluegrass behind, he recorded a duet album in 1980 with Ricky Skaggs, ‘Skaggs and Rice’, which was a homage to the country music brother acts of the ‘30s and ‘40s. This album has subsequently become one of the biggest selling bluegrass albums of all time. He was also one of the key musicians that Emmylou Harris called on to recorded her landmark bluegrass album ‘Roses In The Snow’ in 1980 which marked her move away from the country rock of Gram Parsons to a more traditional country style.. 1981 say him recording another groundbreaking album ‘The Bluegrass Album’ by The Bluegrass Album Band which included J D Crowe banjo, Jerry Douglas dobro, Doyle Lawson mandolin, Todd Philips bass and Bobby Hicks fiddle to play traditional bluegrass tunes. The Bluegrass Album Band released six albums between 1981 and 1996 and, again, was a very successful franchise that brought traditional bluegrass to a new generation of listeners.

There many other albums, including duets with virtuoso guitarist Norman Blake, famed bluegrass songwriter Peter Rowan and 3 solo albums in the ‘80s, starting with ‘Cold On The Shoulder’ in 1983, that included all aspects of his music and a homage to the musical style of bluegrass greats The Osbourne Brothers ‘Tony Rice Plays and Sings Bluegrass’ in 1993. Tony Rice recorded two bluegrass albums with his brothers that brought the benefits of family playing and singing to both traditional and contemporary tunes. His brother Larry Rice was an under-appreciated but distinctive mandolin player who had a distinguished career of his own that included playing with Dickie Betts, of the Allman Brothers Band, at the time of his ‘Highway Call’ album, J D Crowe’s New South and his own solo albums. Tony Rice made significant contributions to Larry Rice’s albums even when his own career was slowing down. Throughout his recorded career, Tony Rice has championed the songs of Gordon Lightfoot recording many Lightfoot songs on his many albums. A compilation of the tracks ‘Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot’ was released in 1996.

Tony Rice reduced his live and recorded work from 2000 due to his vocal and subsequent arthritis problems. His most significant work in the new century are the pair of albums he recorded with Peter Rowan. While his own output may have reduced his standing and influence has continued to grow in recent years with Alison Krauss saying he had been a fundamental influence on her own music. While Tony Rice played and recorded within the bluegrass/new acoustic genre he did influence artists from outside his own genre, with Jerry Garcia being a particular fan. The ‘Pizza Tapes’ released on David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label includes informal studio sessions of himself, Garcia and Rice, and while informal, the recording gives added insight into Tony Rice’s virtuosity. It will surprise no one that while he was maintaining an active career Tony Rice was one of the most recognised bluegrass musicians with numerous International Bluegrass Music Association awards. He was also the proud owner of 58957 a 1935 Martin D-28 once owned by Clarence White and a legendary instrument in bluegrass folklore. He also formed a very close relationship with Richard Hoover of Santa Cruz Guitars who supplied him with about a dozen custom guitars during his career.

The bluegrass community is very close-knit and Tony Rice’s passing will be keenly felt, not only by his family and friends, but his wider fanbase as one of the truly great bluegrass musicians of all time. His influence on bluegrass guitar is on the same level as Earl Scruggs banjo playing had on the emerging genre back in the early days of bluegrass music. While he helped advance and changed bluegrass as a genre in the ‘70s by blending his love of jazz and jazz guitar and contemporary songs to traditional bluegrass, he had a deep love and understanding of the bluegrass tradition from its inception with Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs to the innovations of The Osbourne Brothers and The Seldom Scene so that he was the complete bluegrass artist and guitarist. Tony Rice was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2013 and this was also his last public appearance. Despite his voice issues, he was able to give a truly heartfelt acceptance speech in close to his previous normal speaking voice thanks to grit, determination and practiced vocal techniques that brought many in the audience to tears and close to tears. It is fitting that Tony Rice’s own words end his obituary, “I think it’s our duty as not only musicians but as participants in this music form that it be like any other music form in history. It’s been allowed to grow and flourish a little bit, but it’s our duty to allow bluegrass music to grow and flourish and at the same time retain the most important part of it. And that is the essence of the sound of real bluegrass music.”

About Martin Johnson 87 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article. Norman “Black” is actually Norman Blake. #TonyRice will be with us for a long, long time through his incredible recordings. He has become legend like Clarence White. Rest on high.

    • Hi Codger Thanks for spotting my thick fingers. I have updated the article. As you say, Tony’s music remains for us all to continue to enjoy and appreciate.

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