Tony Rice, surely the most influential guitarist and vocalist in the history of bluegrass music, died on Christmas morning. He was 69 years of age, and died swiftly without pain.
Tony changed forever the way bluegrass guitar is played, both as a lead and an accompaniment instrument. Audiences saw hints of his genius during his stint with Bluegrass Alliance in the early 1970s, but it appeared fully formed with J.D. Crowe & The New South in 1975 on their classic recording for Rounder Records, known colloquially by its catalog number, 0044.
Those of us fortunate to be alive at that time will clearly remember the first time we heard it. By the end of the banjo intro to Old Home Place, it was obvious that something new and different was going on. Rice’s guitar filled the track from top to bottom and side to side with an aggressive rhythm style that brought together the power of Jimmy Martin and Del McCoury, with the dexterity and grace of Clarence White. It propelled the band forward like nothing we had heard before.
And then he started singing! His deep baritone voice crackled with soul, and transformed that Dillards song into bluegrass majesty. Over his multi-decade career, Tony Rice’s voice became a favorite in and around bluegrass, a rare treat combined with someone of such singular instrumental capacity.
He showed those skills on Old Home Place as well, laying down a blistering half-break near the end of the song that had flatpickers scratching their heads in wonder. There was more throughout the record, and on the many others released over a career that endured for 40 years, until arthritis took away his ability to play proficiently, just as a nervous system condition had robbed him of his voice a decade earlier.
Though not the first, nor the only musician to play lead guitar in bluegrass, Rice’s contribution might well be compared to that of Earl Scruggs, whose banjo picking revolutionized the music when he joined Bill Monroe in 1945. These days, solos are expected from every guitar player in bluegrass, and there is no bluegrass guitarist alive who wouldn’t claim Tony as a primary influence.
Shortly after participating in 0044, Tony left Crowe’s band and moved to California to be a part of David Grisman’s then-experimental new sound, blending gypsy jazz with elements of bluegrass. Rice was as vital a part in crafting that new style as Scruggs had been in defining Monroe’s thirty years before. After leaving Grisman, Tony released a string of critically-acclaimed albums with his own Tony Rice Unit, mimicking many parts of Grisman’s “Dawg music,” but with a different, more subdued and jazz-oriented vibe.
He also appeared on such seminal projects as Skaggs & Rice in 1980, still among the best-selling bluegrass records of all time, his own solo project, Church Street Blues in 1983, and what many feel is his most-treasured and definitive work, Manzanita, in 1979. Not to mention the series of albums under the title of The Bluegrass Album Band, alongside fellow legends like Doyle Lawson, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, and Todd Phillips that set in stone what the contemporary bluegrass style was all about in the 1980s.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Tony Rice in bluegrass and acoustic string music. Suffice it to say, that absent his participation, it would sound far different than it does today. A monumental figure in the music, we will not see the likes of him again for some time.
No details on funeral arrangements have yet been announced.
R.I.P., Tony Rice.