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RIP Tony Rice

We salute Tony Rice

Vale Tony Rice

Master Acoustic Guitarist

8 June 1951 to 25 December 2020

By Rob Dickens

It has been a terrible year as we all know. If you forget about the pandemic (and that requires some mental acuity!), we have lost some truly great artists this year – John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker spring first to mind.

Now we have the news that all-time great acoustic guitarist Tony Rice passed away on Christmas Day.

Bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs, who confirmed the news of Rice’s death, stated:

“Tony Rice was the single most influential acoustic guitar player of the past 50 years. Many, if not all, of the bluegrass guitar players of today would say that they cut their teeth on Tony Rice’s music.”

Another quote, from Jason Isbell:

“Tony Rice was the king of the flatpicked flattop guitar. His influence cannot possibly be overstated. If you aren’t familiar with his music, please look it up. I don’t know if a person can make anything more beautiful.

A Grammy winner, a Bluegrass Hall of Fame Inductee, International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards for Instrumental Performer Of The Year (six), Instrumental Group Of The Year (three) and Instrumental Album Of The Year.

His last public playing appearance was at the IBMA Awards in 2013 and, on 27 September, he was involved with the ‘Epic Collaboration’ set with Del McCoury, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Mark Schatz and Jason Carter. I was in Raleigh North Carolina to witness it.

L to R: Jason Carter, Mark Schatz, Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas (obscured) and Tony Rice – Photo: LTTL

Read more of the 2013 IBMA Gathering HERE

David Anthony Rice was born in Danville, Virginia, on June 8, 1951. His family moved to Los Angeles where he was surrounded by family musicians – his father, brothers and uncles. He started on mandolin but pretty soon switched to guitar, debuting at age nine then joining a band with his brothers.

He joined the band Bluegrass Alliance, developing his lead guitar skills (while not widely known at the time, the band’s legend status has grown over the years) and started a four-year period with J.D. Crowe‘s group, honing his playing and singing even more thanks to Crowe. Skaggs joined the band and the landmark album J.D. Crowe and the New South was released in 1975. The band featured Rice on guitar and lead vocals, Crowe on banjo and vocals, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Skaggs on fiddle, mandolin and tenor vocals, and Bobby Slone on bass and fiddle. Heading to San Francisco, he expanded his repertoire into jazz when he hooked up with the David Grisman Quintet. Then came the bluegrass/newgrass/jazz outfit the Tony Rice Unit, which included contributions from Richard Greene, Sam Bush, Grisman, Mike Marshall and Todd Phillips. He also released four solo recordings in the 1970’s. 

He continued to experiment, joining in 1980 a ‘supergroup’ paying homage to the origins of bluegrass, recording songs made famous by Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and Jimmy Martin. The group became known as The Bluegrass Album Band and, between 1980 and 1996, it issued six volumes of what are now regarded as classic records. Four more solo records followed in the 1980’s, as well as collaboration with Skaggs, guitar master Norman Blake and a reunion with his brothers.

The 1990’s saw a number of awards and further accolades for Tony Rice. Three IBMA Instrumental Group of the Year gongs (for the Bluegrass Album Band and the Tony Rice Unit) and and six times IBMA’s Best Instrumentalist. However, Rice was diagnosed with dysphonia, a condition that affected his vocal chords and he never sang after 1994. Later he developed tennis elbow and arthritis which affected his guitar playing.

He also collaborated with renowned artists such as Emmylou Harris, Béla Fleck, Peter Rowan and Chris Hillman. His prized possession was the 1935 D-28 Martin Herringbone guitar formerly owned by the great Clarence White.

His life and achievements are documented in Still Inside The Tony Rice Story written by Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright.

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We salute Tony Rice

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Author: Rob Dickens

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