Tony Rice, Influential Bluegrass Guitarist, Dead at 69

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Tony Rice

Tony Rice, one of the most renowned guitarists in the field of bluegrass music, died on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2020, at his home in Reidsville, N.C. His death occurred suddenly and was confirmed by musician Ricky Skaggs on behalf of Rice’s family. Bluegrass Life called Rice “arguably the most influential bluegrass guitarist in history.” Rice was 69.

He had long been out of action. In 1994, Rice contracted muscle-tension dysphonia, a disorder that contracts muscles around the vocal cords, making it impossible for him to continue singing in concert, and making speech itself difficult. Rice was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Awards Hall of Fame in 2013, and did speak at his induction ceremony, but he subsequently stopped performing altogether that year.

During his heyday, Rice was a prolific musician, sought by many of his peers. His collaborators included Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Chris Hillman, J.D. Crowe, Norman Blake and Skaggs, among others, in addition to leading his own groups and performing as a solo artist.

Related: A remembrance of Jerry Garcia

Said Skaggs in his statement, “Tony Rice was the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 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.

“He loved hearing the next generation players play his licks.” Skaggs closed his statement by thanking Rice for his “great talent and the music that will continue to inspire more and more generations to come.”

Born June 8, 1951, in Danville, Va., David Anthony Rice grew up in Los Angeles, but in 1970 he moved to Louisville, Ky., where he played with the Bluegrass Alliance and J.D. Crowe’s New South. The latter outfit, which included 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, recorded a self-titled album in 1974 that became Rounder Records’ best-selling album to that time.

Rice began releasing solo albums in 1973, starting with the simply titled Guitar in 1973 and followed by nearly a dozen others into the late 2000s.

Tony Rice in a later photo

After meeting mandolinist Grisman, Rice moved to the Bay Area and joined the David Grisman Quintet, with which he remained for a few years, contributing to the band’s instrumental debut album in 1977.

Rice formed his own band, the Tony Rice Unit, in the late ’70s, releasing an album, Acoustics, that was considered part of the more progressive “newgrass” movement in 1979. Various lineups of the group released about a half dozen further albums through 2000.

Listen to the Tony Rice Unit perform “My Favorite Things”

In 1981, Rice began working with the Bluegrass Album Band, which recorded six albums, while continuing to collaborate with others. He formed the Rice Brothers with Ron, Larry and Wyatt Rice, which released two albums, and in the late ’90s, Tony and Larry Rice teamed with ex-Byrds member Chris Hillman and banjoist Herb Pedersen in an eponymously titled quartet.

The Pizza Tapes, a recording of a session from 1993 featuring Tony Rice, mandolinist Grisman and Garcia on banjo, was released in 2000 and became very popular; an expanded edition was released in 2010. The album’s name came about when the tapes of the recording were allegedly stolen by a pizza delivery boy who released them as a bootleg album. In frustration, Grisman decided to release the recordings officially.

Rice’s guitar can also be heard on recordings by Emmylou Harris, Béla Fleck, Mary Chapin Carpenter and others. In a statement, Carpenter wrote, “He was a musical hero and a genius guitarist who literally changed how people imagined an acoustic guitar could be played. When he recorded one of my songs I could have quit there and then and been happy with my lot.”

Listen to “House of the Rising Sun” from The Pizza Tapes, with Garcia on vocal

Related: Musicians we lost in 2020

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Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Low Plains Grifter
    #1 Low Plains Grifter 27 December, 2020, 01:15

    My introduction into the world of TONY RICE
    came to be,through the multi-instrumentalist
    and vocalist NORMAN BLAKE,and his
    ensemble RED,WHITE and BLUE(grass)band.
    From there, having the hooks of intrigue and
    curiosity of Bluegrass music piqued into my
    soul,I had no other option but to further seek
    out more of this remarkable music to see
    who was who and who collaborated with who,
    and more and more often the name of guitarist
    TONY RICE appeared,and his phenomenal way
    of playing began to take front and center in
    my purpose of exploring Bluegrass music.
    The dazzling,intricate playing of TONY RICE
    has more than once been set alone in song
    by me as I listen in to his creativity exclusively.
    An exceptional artist,to be sure.

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