Last night a red carpet event was held at the historic Gem Theater in Kannapolis, NC, to induct the newest members into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Two of those inductees were Tony Rice for 2021 and the Briarhoppers for 2020. Inductees from both years were being honored since no ceremony was held in 2020 due to the global pandemic.
Though Rice was inducted posthumously since his death on December 25, 2020, three generations of his family were present to walk the red carpet. Rice’s wife, Pam, their daughter, India, and grandson, Talbott, represented their beloved patriarch. His widow, Pam Hodges Rice, accepted her husband’s award following a video presentation on the guitar wizard’s life.
“God bless you all. Thank you so much,” was Pam Rice’s brief, but emotional and heartfelt words.
The program read, “Tony Rice did for the acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric guitar-make it express itself in ways that it hadn’t been known beforehand to be capable of.” A page long bio (with an accompanying picture of a smiling Tony Rice with guitar) appeared in the booklet given to attendees.
The video depicted Rice’s career with scenes from his early performances at Camp Springs Bluegrass Festival with the Bluegrass Alliance and JD Crowe & the New South to his time with the David Grisman Quintet and the Bluegrass Album Band, plus his stints with Jerry Garcia and Grisman; Peter Rowan, Bryn and Billy Bright; and Rice, Rice, Hillman & Peterson (Tony, Larry, Chris, and Herb).
In addition to his unique flat-picking style, Rice had a distinctive baritone voice and was known for his lead singing. In the early ’90s, he was diagnosed with Muscle Tension Dysphonia which constricted the muscles around his voice box and ended his singing career. He continued as an instrumentalist until he developed “tennis elbow” in 2014. Rice then made the decision to stop performing.
The other bluegrass artists to be inducted during the Thursday night ceremony were the legendary Briarhoppers. Formed in 1934 to perform on Charlotte’s WBT radio, they are the longest continuously performing band in the United States. Throughout the years, key members of the band have included Arval Hogan (Kristin Scott Benson’s grandfather), Arthur Smith, Fred Kirby, and for a short time, Earl Scruggs (already a North Carolina HOF member) substituted on banjo.
Since their first radio show, the band always asks the crowd “Do you know what ‘hit it’?” and the audience responds, “Hit’s Briarhopper time!”
Following the presentation of their award, the current Briarhoppers (Don Murray/rhythm guitar, Allen Shadd/lead guitar, Zach Lemhouse/fiddle, Erik Svenson/banjo, and Tom Warlick/bass) took to the stage for a performance.
Warlick enthusiastically welcomed all. “Howdy neighbors! We’re here to play some music!” Then he asked the iconic question and the audience responded on cue.
Featuring their traditional string music and folksy humor, the quintet launched into Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, their theme song since 1934.
Warlick spun yards such as, “We were one of the most popular shows on the radio because we came on after the Lone Ranger.” He also teased, “Here’s an instrumental you may not have heard because our CDs aren’t selling much.”
The bassist, who has also penned a book on the Briarhoppers, commanded the stage even though he is currently undergoing dialysis while awaiting a second kidney transplant.
Tony Rice and the Briarhoppers join other notable Tarheel bluegrass musicians such as Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Merle Watson, and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
The North Carolina Music Hall of Fame is located at 600 Dale Earnhardt Blvd, Kannapolis, NC.