Tony Rice with his Accutron (on right) – photo © Scott Simontacchi
There are many avid fans of the late Tony Rice who knew about his passion for vintage Accutron timepieces, one as deep and enduring as his love for bluegrass music, and playing it as it should be played. Though typically a very private person, this was something he shared freely with his friends and associates in the music business, which led to finding these classics on the wrists of many bluegrass artists from the 1980s forward.
When you consider the fact that Tony was quite literally a master of time in his music, and the fact that the Accutron series from Bulova maintained accuracy using a tiny tuning fork built into the mechanism of an early electronic watch design, it begins to make perfect sense. Users who wear these watches regularly become accustomed to the faint audible hum the watch emits, a pitch just below an F# on the musical scale.
This very aspect of the legendary flatpicker is the subject of a lengthy article by Mark Kauzlarich in HODINKEE, a web site devoted to all things chronograph, as well as to horology, the study of time and the instruments that measure it. Titled Tony Rice’s Hands: How the Bulova Accutron Spaceview Became the Watch of Bluegrass, covers the subject in great depth, including discussions with a number of Tony’ peers in the music business who adopted the Spaceview through evangelization by Rice.
In one snippet, Mark quotes Richard Bennet explaining how the master first came across one of these watches while living in Lexington, working for J.D. Crowe & The New South. Tony initially learned about Accutrons in discussion with John Hartford backstage in 1973.
“Tony was just intrigued by the whole look of the watch and the fact that it was operated by a tuning fork,” says Richard Bennett, a bluegrass guitarist whose playing and Accutron collecting and repair work was influenced heavily by his friendship with Rice. “He carried a tuning fork with him everywhere when he was playing,” so it naturally caught his eye. But then there was the accuracy of the watch.
He endured ribbing from his bandmates at the time, working at the Holiday Inn in Lexington during 1974, including Crowe, for spending $135 for a watch back then. But it was only the start of a relationship with the Spaceview that lasted the rest of his life, which included becoming a widely-recognized expert on this series of timepieces, and a sought-after restorer and repairman.
Any fan of Tony Rice – or Accutron watches – should really read this entire piece, published online. This excerpt nicely captures the tone of the story.
One morning in the 1980s, he told Burleson, “I got up and looked at it and thought, ‘I have no idea how this sonofabitch works, but I’m gonna find out.'”
There was a limited amount of information available on the watch, which had stopped being made in 1977, and it was no small feat to learn the intricacies of a timepiece that was far more electric than mechanical. Rice sought out factory-certified technicians and hunted down the only available manual.
The manual is basic, says Kenny Smith, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s two-time Guitar Player of the Year. “It’s vague, at most. But what’s really incredible about what he did, he took that book and learned everything.”
We reached out to Kauzlarich last week to discuss this carefully-researched article in preparation for recommending it to our readers, which we do unreservedly. That exchange uncovered the fact that while he was a guitarist himself, Mark had never even listened to Tony’s music until he started delving into details for this piece. He readily admitted his diligence in running down particulars, with an eye towards not offending Rice-heads with the final product.
“One of the great challenges of the article was that both subjects, Tony Rice the man and Accutron watches, are so esoteric, and yet the acolytes of each are so fanatical that any missteps accounting for the broader strokes of their history would be easily apparent to a number of passionate readers. That was made even more difficult by the fact that I actually had never heard Tony Rice play until his death.”
Sometime around Christmas I decided to look Tony up on YouTube, and was captivated by a live performance of Wayfaring Stranger in 2011, and how it wasn’t the driving banjo-heavy bluegrass that I guess I had stereotyped all bluegrass as being. I heard influences from the jazz greats that I grew up listening to and admired, but done on an instrument that I had always felt more comfortable with (the acoustic guitar) than the electric I played throughout high school in my own jazz bands. My only exposure to bluegrass prior to that was an affinity for Nickel Creek, and Chris Thile’s genre-bending as well.”
Mark received a crash course in Tony Rice through his investigations for the article, and says that he has developed a personal fascination for his playing along the way.
“In a way, researching this story was a twofold effort that I think and hope Tony would have appreciated. I got to call some of the greatest living bluegrass legends, a lot of them guitarists, and the friend that told me that Tony was an Accutron guy would somewhat exasperatedly respond how cool it was I was talking to all these great players. To me, they were just people who were also passionate about watches and, like I said in the article, it seemed like those are the friendships he really cherished, so it seemed appropriate.
Meanwhile I was picking up my guitar every day, never having flatpicked in my life, and learned Tony’s version of Church Street Blues when I needed to take a break from writing. Since then I’ve been working on trying to understand the ‘language’ of Tony, despite lacking the speed and dexterity, working my way through the freeform intros to Wayfaring Stranger and Manzanita, and even using them to go back to the jazz phrasings I never could understand as a teenager. I probably won’t ever play at a jam; I’ll never be quick enough on my feet for that. But in a way it feels like Tony was helping me through the process of the story in a lot of ways.”
Well said. That’s a sentiment a good many bluegrass guitarists know well.
Congratulations to Mark Kauzarlich and HODINKEE for this timely piece. Read the full article online.