Ron Stewart remembers Tony Rice

This remembrance of Tony Rice is a contribution from Ron Stewart, surely one of the finest bluegrass musicians working today, and perhaps one of the best ever. He currently works with Seldom Scene playing banjo and fiddle, and performs, produces, and mixes on many projects by fellow bluegrass artists. Today he shares his reflection on the passing of Tony Rice.

Having heard of Tony Rice’s passing the morning after Christmas, the last two days have been full of emotions and reflecting. It’s hard to put into words how much Tony’s music has influenced me and so many countless others, and will forever. He was unequalled in so many categories, from singing, to rhythm, to lead guitar, to SONG CHOICES, and the list goes on and on.

I think one of the greatest things about Tony was his ability to make you better without saying a word. I’ve played with many, many great musicians over my lifetime, and there are but a few in this category. He was a true professional, period. He made you feel important and relevant no matter how insignificant you might be.

Case in point, I played several Bluegrass Album Band tribute performances, and I vividly remember one particular show where we all met backstage in a trailer, just to run a few kicks, etc. JD wanted me to do Grey Eagle, so we didn’t go over it as we all knew it from Flatt & Scruggs. Tony came in a bit late to the rehearsal, if you would call it that, and I asked Tony on the way to the stage about Grey Eagle, if he remembered how Benny and Earl did it, that Crowe and I were going to do just fiddle and banjo then band come in etc. He said “Yea Man! It’s my FAVORITE!”

Anyway, when we started it onstage, it kind of got sideways where the band came in, and so Crowe and I held our “spot” and very quickly Tony heard what had happened, all was good, and it was a blast. At the end of that tune, Tony walked all the way over to me at the other end of the stage, put his arm around me and apologized for the intro. He sure didn’t have to do that, and as it turned out, he was the only one who did. That’s who he was. He wanted music right, but he was the first to admit when he messed up, which was rare!

He also called me once while I was driving and left a voicemail. I was in bad service. Anyway, when I got back into service about 20 minutes later, I checked my voicemail, and Tony asked me if I could be in Wisconsin the next day. I was in North Carolina at the time around 7:00 p.m. But the kicker was, he needed me on mandolin….and I seriously thought he was playing a joke on me.

As I listened again, I realized he was serious. So, I called him back. Sure enough he was serious. I asked him who in God’s name told him I could play mandolin, and to my surprise, he said Crowe. Well, I was instantly HOT at Crowe! Not because I didn’t want to do the gig, not because I couldn’t play mandolin at all, and not because it didn’t mean the world that Crowe told him that, but because I hadn’t played one in like 5 years!

I told Tony I hadn’t played mandolin in 5 years at all hardly, and he said, “Crowe says you can! That’s good enough for me!” Needless to say, I did the gig, drove like 90 hours it seemed, but it was one of the most fun gigs I’ve ever played. The first thing he asked me backstage was, “What are you comfortable with of the Unit stuff on mandolin?” All of that long story to say again, a true professional. He cared what I was comfortable with, because he knew I was the one out on a limb somewhat.

So many stories that can and will be shared by many people, and much, much more important than mine, but that’s what I took away from Tony. He wasn’t just the world’s best singer and guitar player. He cared about the people around him onstage, and he made you better. Béla said it best, when he said playing with Tony was like he made you free to do whatever you were capable of, and more than you knew you could.

I still have a drawing I made of Tony after the first time I saw him live at the KFC festival in Louisville in 1985. I thought he was the coolest, most professional guy I had ever seen. I was a sophomore in high school, and I still feel that way over three decades later.

My heart goes out to all of his family. Rest in peace, my friend, and thank you for the great music you shared, but most importantly your friendship.