Pete Wernick takes Relix to task over Tony Rice obit

Pete Wernick has been part of the grass music scene since the early 1970s, when he became active as a college student in the burgeoning progressive bluegrass world in New York. As an instructor for banjo, he earned the sobriquet of Dr. Banjo, a reference to his doctorate in Sociology, as well as his skill in making complex musical matters easily digested by students.

His later recordings with Hot Rize cemented his place in bluegrass history, along with his many solo projects, but his most important contributions may be measured as having been his work with the International Bluegrass Music Association, and his development of The Wernick Method and dozens of dedicated instructors to get people jamming on bluegrass. A devoted member of the IBMA, he served as its first President for 15 years. He is a fierce protector of bluegrass and banjo music against all comers, and we are delighted to share his most recent battle in defense of recently-deceased bluegrass hero, Tony Rice.

Today’s dispute concerns Relix magazine, a longstanding publication whose focus is live music, especially that improvisational in nature, which got its start as a newsletter for Grateful Dead fans in 1974. These days they cover the wider jamband scene, including jamgrass bands, and the magazine is widely respected for their writing on not only live music, but also photography, videography, and their profiles of artists, event producers, and other industry professionals.

Sadly, their December 27 obituary for Tony Rice was error-ridden, and contained a number of tasteless and unsuitable comments. After seeing it posted online, Wernick fired off a letter to their editor.

To Folks at Relix,

I hope you will see fit to amend ASAP your obit of the late great Tony Rice.

The most objectionable parts of the obit (skip to the last item to see the most inappropriate, insulting mistakes):

nifty* vocal stylings, bluegrass titan Tony Rice passed on Christmas Day at the age of 69. He is survived by his wife, daughter and two brothers.

In addition to his Grammy Award-winning work with J.D Crowe’s The New South, Hall** was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2013 by Peter Rowan and Sam Bush.

Enjoying his natural comedic timing***, fans praised Rice for his speech, which even included some manufactured drama as he briefly faked a bout of laryngitis.****

* To call the singing of one of bluegrass music’s all-time great singers “nifty vocal stylings* is trivializing. His singing wasn’t “nifty,” it was heartfelt, soulful, and communicative. Would you call Elton John’s or Tina Turner’s or Trey Anastasio’s singing “nifty?”

** This is one of two times you used “Hall” instead of “Rice” to refer to the subject of the article. The other occurs later in the obit. Proofread!!

*** I was there, and you can watch it for yourself. Tony was not known for being funny on stage. He was pretty dry, and whatever comedic timing he may have had was far overshadowed by his nuanced high-chops, and highly musical guitar playing.

**** This is the most mistaken and in fact insulting of all the things I’m pointing out. Your writer missed the point by 180 degrees. Tony had lost his ability to sing, and could barely talk except in a quiet growl for a good 15+ years before his death. At his Hall of Fame induction, he amazed and electrified the large audience by — with great effort — speaking in (mostly) his former, absent voice. For many in the audience, they’d not heard Tony’s “real” voice in so long that there was a powerful response — audible on the recording of his speech.

This was absolutely NOT a case of “faking laryngitis.” There was nothing funny about it, it was an extremely moving communication by a formerly great singer, using special techniques he had learned to use with difficulty, to allow his natural “former” speaking voice to be heard, instead of the growl his fans had been hearing for so long. Many compared it to his voice “coming back from the dead.” No one was laughing, in fact there were people crying at such a moving display of determination.

By your:

    • giving his name entirely wrong — twice in the article,
    • calling his great vocals merely “nifty,” and
    • completely missing the import and impact of his speech, and acting like it was comedic, and “faked” — in pretty much his last public appearance…

…. you have in fact shown a carelessness for Tony Rice’s dignity and greatness that amounts to an insult to his memory. It makes you look uninformed, and not worthy of treating a musical great appropriately. I read Relix regularly, and this is the first instance I’ve seen of something so very shameful for Relix, a supposedly “serious” music publication.

I hope you will retract these misstatements and amend the article just as soon as you can.

People who knew Tony Rice far better than your writer will surely think less of your publication when they read these mistakes!

Sincerely,
Pete Wernick

“Dr. Banjo” — bluegrass musician
Former President, International Bluegrass Music Association

To Relix’s credit, they did swiftly amend the article, but failed to correct some of the worst aspects of the obituary.

The good Doctor swung quickly back into action.

Dear Relix folks,

I really like your magazine, and have twice performed at your NYC offices, with the video shown on your site…

… and I’m glad you’ve gotten rid of the most egregious problem in the Tony Rice article, that I wrote to you about a few hours ago — but —
some important errors remain, and I really hope you feel they are deserving of your IMMEDIATE ATTENTION. They are right in the lead of the article!

Or do you not care too much about music greats if they’re “only bluegrass” and never plugged in their guitar?

Please check these carefully, for the sake of respect to those deserving:

*nifty vocal stylings, bluegrass titan Tony Rice passed on Christmas Day at the age of 69. He is survived by his wife, daughter and two brothers.

In addition to his Grammy Award-winning work with J.D Crowe’s The New South, Hall** was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2013 by Peter Rowan and Sam Bush.

Enjoying his natural comedic timing and sage wisdom**, fans praised Rice for his speech.

* “nifty” is cheap, faint praise for one of bluegrass music’s most respected and top-selling singers. Who else would you call “nifty,” Otis Redding? Frank Sinatra? How about “influential” or “admired” or some such?

** His name is NOT “Hall.” I already pointed out both of these items and they’re still there.

*** As mentioned, it’s good you excised “faking laryngitis” — a fully ridiculous comment, but pointing out his “comedic timing,” which I doubt anyone remembers from that speech, while ignoring the truly dumbfounding and now-legendary “speaking in a clear version of the voice that hadn’t been heard for over a decade” aspect. Listen to the video you posted if you want more info about that!

Please ladies and gentlemen, take your journalistic responsibility seriously, and clean up ASAP this still-disrespectful, clearly unknowledgeable treatment of one of bluegrass music’s all-time greats, now being deeply mourned!

Thanks for listening,

Pete Wernick

founder Hot Rize band (Colorado bluegrass)
former President, International Bluegrass Music Association

As of this morning, the items Pete highlights in his second missive remain in the online obituary. He has shared his correspondence in the hope that other bluegrass lovers, particularly those who read Relix, will likewise share their disappointment with them over these slights.

Perhaps that will spur them to correct what could become part of the historical record.

Do better, Relix!

UPDATE 12/30 – Pete received a note yesterday from Dean Budnick, editor at Relix, who was aghast at the oversight, and determined to make its right. They have since done so, completely revamping the article.

Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta, who wrote the original obituary has acknowledged her role in the matter, and expresses remorse to the Rice family and the greater bluegrass community, as does the entire Relix team.

Very good to see. Hats off to them for the quick action.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.