Anybody who listens to acoustic music knows the name Tony Rice. For many years Tony has been a guitar icon to players of all ages and musical styles. He has also written and/or sang songs that are firmly entrenched in the musical memory of generations of acoustic music fans. Among others, he has played with Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan and JD Crowe; he created and fronted his own jazz-oriented acoustic band The Tony Rice Unit and spent a few years in musical collaboration with Peter Rowan.
Born in 1951 in Danville, Virginia, Tony etal were soon moved to California by his semi-professional musician father, Herb Rice. In California, he was attracted to and inspired by two musical giants, Roland and Clarence White. (Clarence White later was a member of the rock band The Byrds. He is also known for being one of the folks who started New Grass.) It was probably because of Tony’s exposure and friendship with Clarence White that led him to Kentucky in the early 1970s to play with a group called The Bluegrass Alliance.
The Bluegrass Alliance was one of the first bands to push the boundaries of blue grass music and its members included Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson and Vince Gill. When the Bluegrass Alliance broke up, Sam Bush and Courtney Johnson went on to form New Grass Revival and they forged an amazing path into the acoustic music scene like few other bands.
Tony Rice did not go along with Sam and Courtney though, he ended up playing with another acoustic music visionary, J.D. Crowe. Crowe had put together a super-group of Tony Rice (guitar), Ricky Scaggs (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (dobro), and Bobby Sloan (bass) and would record one of my favorite albums and bands ever. Their album “J.D. Crowe and the New South” was one of the most influential albums of that genre and that band was and remains one of the most talked about collections of musicians in acoustic music.
JD (center) with Doyle Lawson (left) and Tony Rice (right) from the Bluegrass Album Band(Used with permission from Jim Stripling, photographer)
When Tony Rice left the J.D. Crowe band, he joined jazz mandolinist David Grisman at the time when Grisman was formulating his own brand of acoustic music- Dawg Music (an interesting mixture of bluegrass and gypsy jazz). The concert tapes of the early Dawg Music bands are phenomenal in terms of composition and musicianship. Grisman has done much to further acoustic music and to broaden it’s appeal to fans of many styles of music and his record label, Acoustic Disc has signed many extremely talented and influential musicians.
In the 1979-80 time frame, Tony Rice left David Grisman and set out on a solo career where he played concerts and recorded many albums that showcased a variety of bluegrass, folk tunes and original music. His vocals and guitar playing excited and inspired many musicians.
Tony Rice could play the guitar unlike anyone, but he could also sing. His voice was very nice and he used it a lot. Sadly though, in the 1990s he developed a condition called “laryngeal dystonia” which took away his ability to sing and even to talk. The last time I personally saw Tony he was standing alone at a festival. I walked up to him and spoke to him and he could only smile and nod at the time.
In September 2013, Tony Rice was inducted into the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Hall of Fame. Much to everybody’s surprise Tony walked up to the podium to accept this honor and he made a heart-wrenching speech. He said in his speech that his friend Allison Krauss had developed a vocal problem and he wanted to inspire her and others to not give up. I think by the end of the speech there were not many dry eyes in the house. Give it a listen.
A favorite Tony Rice memory of mine comes from sometime in the mid-1980s. He was playing at the college I worked at and I had a seat near the front of the room. The songs he and his band were playing that night were traditional ones and they sounded great. At some point near the end of the show Tony asked if there was anything anyone wanted to hear- I immediately yelled as loud as I could “Fishscale” (a song Tony wrote and recorded in his jazz years). Tony looked right at me and said “You really don’t want to hear that kind of stuff do you?” I yelled back “YES!” There were other requests coming in but at that piont Tony told the band to take a little break and he stepped to the microphone and played Fishscale. I was very happy and very impressed.
Recent news has come out that now Tony is suffering from arthritis as well. This is truly sad news for a musician of any sort but especially one of Tony’s caliber. So….. without further ado, here are my recommendations for listening today. These two albums are wonderful. They are not specifically bluegrass, or anything else for that matter other than just good listening. Musical styles on these range from vocal songs such as Church Street Blues, California Autumn, Mr. Poverty, to instrumentals like Red Haired Boy, Jerusalem Ridge, and other songs such as Georgia on my Mind and Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There’s a lot of good listening here folks. Give them a listen.
Church Street blues [sound recording]
California autumn [sound recording] / Tony Rice