A Legend Leaves Us: Tony Rice
On Christmas morning, Tony Rice passed away unexpectedly at his home in Reidsville, NC. To give you an idea of his impact on bluegrass and string music, here are some quotes:
“Tony Rice… the most influential guitarist and vocalist in the history of bluegrass music.”
— Bluegrass Today
“Tony Rice was the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years.”
— Ricky Skaggs
“Cool, elegant, badass, classy… always in the same mood as that old D-28. Thank you, Tony, RIP legend.”
— Billy Strings
“We’re going to miss you, Tony Rice. Never equaled. “
— Bela Fleck
There have been scores of obituaries and tributes published in the last day that can summarize the career of this unique artist. They cover his travels as a musician, through early days in California where he was influenced by Clarence White, and his involvement with what some people call the single most influential album in bluegrass, Rounder 044 with JD Crowe and the New South.
He left after only one year to explore jazz influences with David Grisman and subsequent solo and group projects like the Bluegrass Album Band and the Tony Rice Unit.
I wanted to talk with two people who knew him well. Barry Poss was the founder of Sugar Hill Records, one of the largest roots music labels of the last century. Sugar Hill Records released two acclaimed albums, the Skaggs and Rice duet album in 1980 and Church Street Blues, a solo album, in 1983. Rice had many other well-known albums as he stretched the bluegrass genre, including Manzanita, but his two Sugar Hill albums were classics. As Poss told me:
“When I look back on it, I was incredibly fortunate to have participated in not one but two seminal albums with Tony Rice. In some ways the first, Skaggs and Rice, paved the way for the second, Church Street Blues. Here’s an example of how a simple idea for a one-off album becomes a classic for all time. Ricky Skaggs had left Boone Creek to join Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and to pursue a promising career in mainstream country music. Tony Rice also had left the bluegrass world, to join the David Grisman Quintet, who were on the vanguard of a new kind of acoustic music rooted in jazz as much as bluegrass (later dubbed New Acoustic music or “Dawg” music, as David called it). I knew that both artists were excited about reaching broader audiences at this stage in their careers, but they were also deeply connected to traditional music, so the album was conceived as a simple tribute to the old-time country music that preceded them. Oh, what an album it was; Ricky and Tony not only phrased together, they breathed together! With no major commercial constraints, they recorded a deceptively simple, absolutely elegant homage to the music they had grown up with and had just left for new musical horizons. What they left us with was a masterpiece.”
“Tony Rice was always heard in a band context, even on his early solo records. He was the matchless ensemble guitarist who dazzled with his hot licks, each note a crystal-clear pearl of wonderment. His rhythm playing was equally outstanding, though often unheralded, except by other players. So, I was thrilled when Tony came to visit from his home in nearby Greensboro and said he wanted to record a solo album with us. When we were discussing Church Street Blues, I remember being struck about how quiet and reserved he was. Determined and certain of what he wanted, to be sure, but gentle and elegant. This is in pretty stark contrast to his force-of-nature playing. This time he wanted an album that was literally solo; not a band album featuring him as a solo artist but an album of just guitar and voice. He wanted this to be different, and it turned out exactly as he was: gentle and elegant”.
Mark Johnson is a truly unique banjo player in American music. Not many can claim to have invented an entire style of banjo; in his case, it’s known as “clawgrass,” a melding of traditional clawhammer and Scruggs-style playing. Winner of the Steve Martin Banjo Award in 2012, he has recorded and played with many bluegrass greats. His five albums with Emory Lester are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many instrumental album-of-the-year awards. Mark also might have not had a career in music without Tony Rice and his brothers.
“I was working in the nuclear power plant industry traveling around the country. In 1981 I ended up in Crystal River, Florida. My buddy and I used to bring our instruments into work when we worked the late shift, and some of the workers would gather around and listen to us. It turned out that one of those workers was Herb Rice, Tony’s dad. Tony’s brother Larry became close friends with me. In fact Tony’s mother Louise would babysit my daughter. I didn’t meet Tony until 1983 when Herb died and Tony came down for his dad’s funeral. On that trip we went to Larry’s little recording studio and recorded “8 More Miles to Louisville.”
Two years later, in 1985, he moved to Crystal River. We had stayed in touch. It was a hard time for him; he had recently been divorced, and we spent a lot of time together fishing and playing music…and talking. He had a strong interest in my banjo playing style especially as we would play together in duet form; He wanted me to understand more on how to work with him on duets. He had a massive collection of albums, hundreds of them, from traditional bluegrass to Coltrane and Miles Davis. He would put on an album and say, “Mark, let’s just listen to this music, just listen.” I had problems with that; I’d get nervous sitting alone with Tony, and I’d start talking, and he would gently say, “Quiet…let’s just listen to what’s going on with these performers and how they are approaching their artform.” This went on for months. Finally I got to the point that I could actually listen closely to the music and what the musicians were actually doing when playing in an ensemble. He was teaching me to listen to him when playing in duet form and how to respond musically. Then he’d get out his guitar and say, “Now incorporate what you’ve learned and let’s see how it will sound playing together.”
In 1985 Larry Rice invited me to play on his Hurricanes and Daydreams album with all the brothers and Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Virginia Squires (who turned out to be the Lonesome River Band). The first “clawgrass” song , “Move Along”, was recorded on that album. This led to us going to Mirror Image Studios and recording the album Clawgrass that started my career in 1994. Our initial plan was just to do a Christmas song or two for the two families, but it grew into an album.
When we first met, I had never played in front of anyone. I had never used a microphone, I had no experience standing in front of a crowd. He taught me all that. We went out on the road. He brought me to Merlefest in 1996 to perform with him and the Unit for my first time ever on stage. Prior to leaving for Merlefest, he arranged for me to meet his friend, Sherry Boyd, DJ at WPAQ in Mount Airy; it was my first radio interview. At the festival Tony and I were playing at the Hillside Stage. After the set John Hartford came up to me and said, “I found your banjo.” He took me over to the vendor’s tent and introduced me to Greg and Janet Deering of Deering Banjos, who offered me an endorsement deal and became my sponsors for my entire career.
He had a huge heart, a very sensitive guy, but you wouldn’t know that unless you knew him well. He was not a perfect man, but he was a decent man, a good man and he had a good soul. He was who he was and he rewrote the book on bluegrass music and bluegrass guitar.”
There isn’t a bluegrass guitar player alive today who wasn’t influenced by Tony Rice. In spite of an illustrious career, health issues ended it. In the mid-’90s he developed dysphonia, a throat/vocal cord issue that made it impossible for him to sing. It was something he worked on, and his acceptance speech at his induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2013 was one of the most poignant speeches I’ve ever seen. Tony had been working on controlling his speech, and after letting the audience know he was going try some techniques he paused, and this happened:
A year later, issues with his left arm ended his guitar playing, and Tony retreated to his home in Reidsville. He made a statement to the public, saying he wouldn’t want to perform in a manner that would let the audience down.
“The thing about Tony passing away… the thing is, we’re all going to pass away someday. It’s just that our schedules are for getting there are different, and it’s not in our hands. In the meantime, we just carry on with life as best we can, and we can rejoice in the fact that we had this man and his music that changed so many lives; he left an amazing legacy.”
— Mark Johnson