All-Stars cross genres for tribute to Tony Rice

After Tony Rice died a year ago on Christmas Day, jam band master Barry Waldrep and music management ace Brian Smith had an idea for a tribute.

It was, at the start, a relatively modest plan: Put out Me and My Guitar, a track that Waldrep, John Cowan, and others had recorded nearly a decade before for a tribute that was never released. But it didn’t stay modest for long. The more Waldrep and Smith plotted, the bigger the project grew. It looked like there was enough interest for a 10-song collection of Rice’s work, featuring musical giants across genres. 

But there was a problem, a good problem. Not only did everyone they asked agree to participate, many others offered to help out, even insisted.

The result, a sprawling 21-song collection, Barry Waldrep and Friends Celebrate Tony Rice, was released today. Much of it isn’t bluegrass, by design, but all of the music is informed by bluegrass and Rice’s virtuosity, and the love musicians across a broad spectrum felt for him.

In fact, along with the emergence of Billy Strings, this project represents one of the biggest shots in the arm for bluegrass in recent memory. Rice fans will already have 21 reasons to own it. But think of the uninitiated, who don’t know about him and know little or nothing about bluegrass. If they are even mildly curious to go back to the work of the master himself, bluegrass can’t help but gain new admirers. Aside from paying tribute to one of the greats, that’s really what this project is about.

Plus, money from sales will benefit the International Bluegrass Music Association’s trust fund for musicians in need.

“What I hope for from the bluegrass world is that they have respect for what we were trying to accomplish,” Waldrep said. “We want to show how huge Tony was at getting people’s ear, to expand the music and keep bluegrass music alive.”

Like many of the performers here, Waldrep grew up on traditional bluegrass, including Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, but made his living in other genres. “I was outside the bluegrass world, but still influenced by Tony as a singer, songwriter and musician,” Waldrep told me.

He cited the work of Rice and country rock fiddler Charlie Daniels for teaching him that he didn’t always have to color inside the lines.

“They taught me I didn’t have to worry about staying in the boundaries,” he said. “Between my hair and the way I played, it pushed me away from traditional bluegrass. I liked it, but I felt like I didn’t fit.”

For country star Radney Foster, Rice’s death reacquainted him with bluegrass. “I spent a year learning Blackberry Blossom at age 20,” he said. “When I saw the news that he had died, I literally picked up the guitar and relearned it.”

Foster wasn’t exposed to much bluegrass growing up. But that changed when he went to college and met two brothers from Kentucky. “They taught me how to play real fast, and I made them play country songs.”

He later wrote Love Someone Like Me with country artist Holly Dunn, which was recorded by New Grass Revival.

“It was a real honor and a real treat” to be asked to participate, Foster said. “I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

Foster chose the Gordon Lightfoot offering, Song For A Winter Night, for the project. His version, slower than arrangements by both Lightfoot and Rice, is one of the strongest songs on the project. Then again, as you might expect, there are no filler songs here, as a who’s who of musicians stepped up to the microphone to honor Rice. 

It would take too much space to list everyone, but among those you’ll find here are Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris, Marty Raybon, John Berry, Kim Richie, Patrick Simmons and Cowan of the Doobie Brothers, and songwriter-producer session player Spooner Oldham. Those last three, by the way are Hall of Famers.

Simmons’s version of Nine Pound Hammer, from a guy with no direct ties to bluegrass, is a stunner. And Lauderdale shines on Church Street Blues. Other standouts include Cowan’s take on Me and My Guitar, the song that set this whole process in motion, and Rory Feek’s Bury Me Beneath the Willow.

But for my money, the icing atop this scrumptious musical cake is Vince Gill’s I’ll Stay Around. The song has all the hallmarks of great bluegrass – a fast pace, outstanding picking on the banjo and mandolin, tasteful fiddle, and a guitar break worthy of Mr. Rice himself. Add Gill’s clear-as-a-bell tenor and you’ve got everything Tony Rice brought to the table – great playing, awesome singing, interesting arrangements – all in one 3:20 package.

“I wanted to do something bluegrass,” Gill told me. “I don’t do very much of it, but I love it when I do. It’s like putting on your favorite shoes.”

Gill, who grew up a bluegrasser in Oklahoma, recalled that he “kind of followed Tony around. We were in the Bluegrass Alliance at different times, but we never got to be around each other very much.” He said that following Rice as the band’s guitar player was “Bluegrass 101.”

As I said above, this project is one of the best things to happen in bluegrass, in part because it extends the reach of one of bluegrass music’s most successful missionaries. Rice has been gone a year tomorrow, but he’s clearly not forgotten.

Bluegrass? Not so much. But every song here, every note, is of bluegrass. Let’s leave the last word to Waldrep, quoting another bluegrass powerhouse who left us too soon, J.D. Crowe:

“No one’s going to like everything, and I respect that,” Waldrep said. “I learned from J.D. to keep the roots of bluegrass alive and add new branches to it.”

May those new branches flourish.

Barry Waldrep

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.