In bluegrass music history, a very few instrumentalists have defined for their instrument the paths that others have followed. Most of those paths had been set by 1970.
One exception was the acoustic guitar, or in bluegrass-speak the “flat top box”. Before 1970 its role was mainly as a rhythm instrument. Then along came Tony Rice.
Tony was from North Carolina and grew up in southern California. His dad was a good amateur musician and Tony cut his teeth playing and singing bluegrass with him and his brothers. Doc Watson and Clarence White gave him ideas of what a guitar could do, and by 19 he could power through fiddle tunes like Doc and do slippery, bluesy syncopations like Clarence.
When he joined J.D. Crowe’s band, J.D. was inspired to change its name from the Kentucky Mountain Boys to The New South. No western hats and string ties; these men were well-coiffed with mod shirts and a calm, macho we-mean-business attitude that offset their perfect harmonies and clockwork band sound. And they had this guy playing guitar as no one else ever had — and everyone soon wanted to. Tony Rice, the serious, intense guitar player, was laying down solos with a stout, clear delivery chock full of blues and surprises, and somehow right in keeping with the bluegrass pulse and approach. And he could really sing too.
Part of J.D.’s revered banjo sound was articulating each note individually, not blurred together, even at speeds upwards of ten notes/second. Powerful attack with careful control of sustain yields what J.D. calls “note separation” and Tony’s four years with J.D. saw him master that high-definition, high-impact approach.
The New South set the pace for young bluegrass pickers far and wide, that era ending in 1975 when Tony decided to switch gears and move to Marin County, California to join a forming band, the David Grisman Quintet. That groundbreaking group used bluegrass instruments, but employed jazzy melodies and chord progressions, minor keys, intricate arrangements, and… no singing or banjo. It was called Dawg Music, and Grisman is still playing it in 2021.
Tony’s glistening, clear, bluesy sound flourished in the Quintet. The nuance, the flow, the majesty of stellar execution were especially convincing in live performance when the man did it right before your eyes, consistently and with dignified confidence. Dawg Music was a hit. When record stores put on a Quintet record people would start asking “who is that?” and buy one.
After four years with Grisman, Tony launched the Tony Rice Unit, plying his own brand of acoustic jazz, called Space Grass, cerebral both on records and live. Many fans were ready when in the 1985 version of the Unit Tony was singing and playing bluegrass again. That’s when I started crossing paths with him at bluegrass festivals where the Unit and Hot Rize played.
Tony’s return to bluegrass created excitement. I saw people literally run toward the stage in North Carolina July heat to catch his first set. He was back, full tilt, and took his place as a bluegrass superstar and band leader. The Unit was a headlining bluegrass attraction for the next decade. It wasn’t just about his picking. Tony’s resonant baritone embraced a wide swath of material from Gordon Lightfoot to James Taylor’s Me and My Guitar which became a Tony signature song. The Jimmy Martin stomper Free Born Man and outlaw ballad John Hardy were other showpieces, Tony’s rampaging solos and singing leaving audiences breathless.
By this time, Tony Rice sounds were coming from everywhere. In campground jams, every guitar player was hatching those intricate bluesy licks. For a guitarist to sound unique meant carefully avoiding “Tony Rice licks”. But that was hard to do — they sounded so good.
Part of Tony’s appeal was his dignified presence. Quiet but articulate, always well-dressed with his hair just so, and on stage all business. Backstage he was shy, friendly, and well-mannered. And in his cups post-show he could be quite funny. One favorite riff was doing Billy Crystal as Fernando Lamas going, “You hlook mahhvelous!” Another was imitating a revved-up amateur guitar player, overplaying and hitting the wrong string on important notes.
As a bluegrass guy he was part southerner, but part jazzer. He’d call his cohorts “hoss” and “son” but was likely the only one at the festival who would call musicians “cats” and say, “What’s shakin’?”
He was into photography, driving high-end Mustangs cross-country (refused to fly), and was utterly fascinated with Accutron watches. He would work on them for hours and revel in their precision and ingenious Swiss excellence.
In his middle years he let his hair grow, and with a long ponytail, tailored suits and tie, it was a striking look. I asked about the ponytail and he said it was good to get attention and be distinctive.
With his deep concern for purity of tone, he was known for getting frustrated with sound issues on bluegrass festival stages to the point of ending his set early, just walking off the stage. As time went on, sometimes he’d not make it to the gig at all. I doubt he did it to be ornery, more that he just couldn’t deal with it.
One thing I really respected about Tony was how he treated his younger brother Wyatt. With a sound and style cut from the same cloth, Wyatt’s the best of the “Tony Rice imitators”. Regardless, Tony kept him in the band for many years and gave him ample turns. With their father having recently passed, it touched me to see the man keeping close to his younger brother.
Around the early 90s, Tony started developing vocal problems. His cords started to fail, but for years he just pressed harder, and the golden voice devolved into a ragged, hoarse sound … that could still project power and emotion. It was sad to witness it getting worse as he poured it on, the destruction of a great instrument happening on full view. Somehow the intensity and rawness made it all the more gripping — while at the same time tragic. Tony just had to give his all.
He finally quit singing and we got used to hearing only that magnificent guitar. He was still great, just no longer a singer. He now talked in a cross between a croak and a whisper. His voice was gone.
Then at Merlefest one year… Was it true? Tony was singing on stage again. Not singing lead, but in the harmony around the vocal mic. And in a late night jam he said “Let’s sing some trios.” With Chris Thile on tenor, me on lead, and Tony on baritone we felt the magic of bluegrass harmony until we got kicked out of the building around 3am. I and a music buddy, Moondi Klein, cornered Tony outside, really wanting to know the story. In his raspy voice he told about doing vocal retraining for a condition caused by misusing his voice. He said that with concentration he could produce his clear voice. Then he went silent and to our amazement, concentrated and …started speaking in his long-gone voice, clear as a bell! All I could think was “it’s like someone coming back from the dead.”
But over time, sadly, Tony couldn’t sustain that effort. He went silent on stage again, talking only in that growl for the rest of his life.
And then arthritis in his forearms started to hamper his playing and speed. He said he had ways to compensate and “I haven’t had any complaints.” But it caught up with him and by 2010 he was increasingly scarce. And his appearance changed. He’d been thin but now he was gaunt, looking far beyond his 60-some years.
His 2013 induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame was his last public appearance. Before a large gathering at the IBMA awards show in Raleigh he spoke hoarsely about his friend Alison Krauss, herself sidelined with voice problems at the time. As encouragement to her, he said he’d try to address his own vocal disability. And after a pause… he started speaking in that clear voice not heard for so long. Gasps and cheers were all around, that “voice from the dead” was with us. And Tony concluded with words of high reverence for bluegrass music itself as a treasure to hold close. A class act as always.
He lived 7 more years, staying out of touch with almost everyone he’d known, not answering voice messages. I imagine he spent a lot of time with his Accutrons, and of course his devoted wife Pam. And then on Christmas morning 2020, he left us. And the many memories of this soulful man will stay with us.