Tony Rice Wasn’t Happy About the State of Modern Country. At All.

Bluegrass flatpicking maestro Tony Rice passed away on Christmas Day, 2020 while making coffee, and left a towering legacy behind that is fair to compare right beside the other all-time greats of the discipline when it comes to prestige and importance. From traditional bluegrass, to being one of the original innovators of the subgenre’s more modern newgrass styles, Tony Rice was wickedly influential.

Tony Rice was also quite successful in his career in drawing a crowd to the various projects he was involved in, whether it was early on and his work with J.D. Crow and The New South, to later projects with David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, and Ricky Skaggs. Though it would be rare to hear Tony Rice on mainstream country radio during any era, he found an appreciative audience just fine through his various musical incarnations.

But just like so many modern day true country fans, Tony Rice held a pretty outspoken distaste for what country music had become, and wasn’t afraid to speak about it publicly. Case in point is an interview Rice gave with Listener Magazine‘s Caroline Wright in the summer of 2002.

“I’ve known this for 30 years: John and Jane Doe will buy anything you shove at them over a radio if you shove it at ’em enough. They will buy the worst-sounding bullshit in the world. If it’s the only thing they can find on that dial, they will go buy it,” Tony stated matter-of-factly what asked for his opinion.

In fact, just like many disenfranchised country music fans today, Tony Rice would more rather listen to just about any other form of modern music than mainstream country.

“Probably the music I listen to the least, because I think it’s so mechanized and commercial, is country music, stuff from the last 30 years,” Rice said. “The only thing the record company executives and A&R people want out of the music business is a couple three-story houses and two or three BMWs in the driveway. That is the extent of their involvement: to have those things, rather than to care about the artist and the music.”

At the time however, there was some hope for where things might be headed in country music. After the release of the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou, roots music was beginning to enjoy a major resurgence, even in the mainstream. The soundtrack for the film won the all-genre Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002, along with Ralph Stanley and Dan Tymiski winning individual Grammys. The soundtrack also won both the CMA and ACM for Album of the Year on the way to being Certified Platinum 8 times over.

“I applaud the return to roots music,” Tony Rice said. “For years, record company executives on all the major labels in Nashville were saying, ‘Well, there’s no way this acoustic string stuff is gonna sell.’ Then comes along somebody like Alison [Krauss], who creates music that is so amazing, so precise, so pretty, that John and Jane Doe will not reject it. I applaud that! It destroys the notion that in order for it to be a success, it has to be mechanized and formulated. There’s still a lot of good music out there that John and Jane Doe will never hear, because the record executives have control, and not the artists. That’s a shame.”

Hear, hear, Tony. His quotes from 2002 illustrate that as much things change, they also stay the same. The battle between commercial country radio and label executives, and the true creators in country music feels like an eternal one, but one that’s worth waging to preserve the legacies of critically-important artists such as Tony Rice.

This story has been updated.

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