Towering Bluegrass Legend Tony Rice Has Died
From the hills and hollers of Kentucky as a strict traditionalist, to some of the most enterprising and innovative interpretations of the bluegrass form, from beside artists as far ranging as Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Garcia, to being the very compass point for a generation of composers and players who all looked up to him and count him as a primary influence, Tony Rice was American string music incarnate. He lived a dozen musical lives all inside of one that “legendary” doesn’t seem to do justice to. And now Tony Rice is the latest country music titan to go rest high on that mountain in 2020.
“Sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee, our dear friend and guitar hero Tony Rice passed from this life and made his swift journey to his heavenly home…” close friend Ricky Skaggs said in a statement on Saturday, December 26th. “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.”
Tony Rice’s former band member in J.D. Crow and The New South is not being hyperbolic, or flattering in his assessment. Tony Rice was the common denominator in so much of 2nd generation bluegrass that has gone on to define the genre for decades. Born in Danville, Virginia, but growing up in Los Angeles, he became the bridge between two worlds through his flatpicking prowess. Early on he would study under The Kentucky Colonels and guys like Clarence White who would go on to play with The Byrds. Ry Cooder and Chris Hillman would also enter his sphere of influence early on.
But Tony Rice’s career as a guitar player started back east when he moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1970. That’s when he ended up in J.D Crowe’s The New South. It was the region’s version of a progressive bluegrass outfit, filling out their sound with electric instruments and drums. Tony Rice lobbied against these moves, and along with Ricky Skaggs, they successfully moved the group into a more traditionalist direction that resulted in the landmark album J. D. Crowe & the New South from 1974. With Jerry Douglas on dobro at the time, the lineup and their recordings became epic, and a proving ground. Keith Whitley (who replaced Tony), Doyle Lawson, and a dozen others would later get their start in The New South outfit.
It was meeting mandolin player and songwriter David Grisman that allowed Tony Rice to become influential on two coasts. Grisman was already blending more innovative modes of jazz and improvisation into bluegrass, and with Tony Rice’s skill set, he could fit right into the more complex styles of newgrass music exploding in California. Along with expanding his instrumental capabilities to join the San Francisco-based David Grisman Quintet, Tony Rice also began working in more folk-oriented singer and songwriter circles as well. It was through these efforts he met and collaborated with the likes of Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, and Norman Blake.
In 1979, Tony Rice left The David Grisman Quintet, and released a solo album, the jazz-inspired bluegrass work Manzanita—one of many he released throughout his career. But collaboration was often the name of the game for Tony. Along with reuniting with Ricky Skaggs in 1980 for Skaggs & Rice, Tony worked with Alison Krauss, Alison Brown, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan, and many others. If you wanted to record a bluegrass album, you wanted Tony Rice playing guitar on it.
And though in 1994, Tony Rice was diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia, and was forced to stop singing, he was considered one of the best baritones in all of bluegrass for a generation, both as a lead and harmony singer “He was also one of the most stylistic lead vocalist in Bluegrass music history,” says Ricky Skaggs.
A diagnosis of tennis elbow in 2014 took away some of Tony’s ability to prove his prowess with the acoustic guitar, which resulted in a soft retirement. “I am not going to go back out into the public eye until I can be the musician that I was, where I left off or better,” he said at the time. “I have been blessed with a very devout audience all these years, and I am certainly not going to let anybody down. I am not going to risk going out there and performing in front of people again until I can entertain them in a way that takes away from them the rigors and the dust, the bumps in the road of everyday life.”
This resulted in Tony Rice not having the ability to take a victory lap, or a final bow. But his legacy in bluegrass was firmly cemented at that time. Along with being a Grammy winner, Rice was inducted into the IBMA Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2013.
Tony Rice is survived by his wife Pam and their daughter India, as well as his brothers Wyatt and Ron who Tony also recorded with.
Tony Rice was 69-years-old.
December 26, 2020 @ 6:29 pm
2020 is taking all it can from roots and country music. Tony Rice is one of the most important bluegrass artists ever.
December 27, 2020 @ 3:49 am
Vale Tony. We’ve lost yet another legend.
To the tune of “Blue Railroad Train”:
You showed how to play
On Clarry’s old guitar
But I never did learn a thing……
Rest in peace.
December 26, 2020 @ 6:49 pm
What a bummer. Hes the quintessential flat picker by far. Sure Doc Watson was great, but Rice was on another level. I caught him live in 03 or 04, at a winter bluegrass fest. Seldom Scene, Peter Rowan, JD Crowe and Patty Loveless were also on the bill. Tony was quite impressive.. And he of course played some songs with Crowe.. He had lost his singing ability by that time, but the picking was blazing and precise. Ive got great pictures of him from that night, I need to dig up. What a player and what a loss.
December 27, 2020 @ 10:56 am
Is this Kevin Smith from Smokin’ Wood? I concur wholeheartedly. Tony meant everything to bluegrass.
December 27, 2020 @ 11:10 am
No. Not me. I suffer from a common name!
Additional thought: everyone’s making a big deal about Billy Strings. There wouldn’t be a Billy Strings without a Tony Rice. Rice practically invented the extreme virtuosity in cross picking and flat picking in bluegrass. He wasn’t the first gun, but he perfected what only a handful had started. And in turn, influenced potentially thousands of pickers.
December 26, 2020 @ 7:33 pm
Loved Tony Rice. What a player and singer. I first started getting into bluegrass after moving to the DC area and finding the Bluegrass Country radio program in afternoon drive time on WAMU. And the first album I bought from the bluegrass section was Norman Blake and Tony Rice 2, which was a new album at the time. Got the first Blake and Rice album shortly thereafter and eventually about a half dozen of his albums and the Skaggs and Rice album. Got to see him a few times at the old Birchmere in the early 90’s, including one magical New Years Eve that featured the Seldom Scene (with original front man John Starling) and The Tony Rice Unit co-headlining. Another special night was when he played WITH the Seldom Scene (again with John Starting as special guest) and then Scene bassist T. Michael Coleman would later support Doc Watson along with Jack Lawrence. I remember shitgiver John Duffy referring to him as “Pony Tony” because of Tony’s pony tail. Would see him play with Peter Rowan maybe around ’96 or ’97 (so several years before the two albums they did together) at the Barns of Wolf Trap and was disappointed that Tony never took a turn at the mike. I (and at least some others in the crowd) didn’t know about his dysphonia.
One more thing. Tony was a big Gordon Lightfoot fan and it was really special when he would sing one of his songs.
December 28, 2020 @ 8:44 pm
Tony was a lover of Music believe it or not what was interesting is you would see like interviews fiddler guitar player Mark O’Connor Bella fleck banjo player who played with Tony for years also would talk about his love of music and how they would sit down sometimes and listen to jazz legend John Coltrane. the music appreciation Tony had that he crafted his skill out it was something in fact there is a Miles Davis from kind of blue one of the greatest jazz albums of so what done Tony Rice style which is absolutely amazing you can find it on YouTube a Miles Davis song and there it is done Tony Rice style.
December 26, 2020 @ 7:36 pm
Thanks for this article. It’s precisely the sort of news that I come to this blog to read.
Tony Rice was deservedly a legend. I was privileged to see him perform live several times with David Grisman.
December 26, 2020 @ 7:45 pm
Chesney an admirer https://twitter.com/kennychesney/status/1343009475737886720
December 26, 2020 @ 8:00 pm
It’s hard to quantify how big this loss is. It’s right up there with Monroe. Tony was a living legend and never anything but a gentleman and consummate professional. There will never be another like him
December 26, 2020 @ 8:03 pm
Listened to him for 30 years. And it was great.
December 26, 2020 @ 8:10 pm
Glad I saw him once with Rowan in ’04. He left an impressive body of work and is truly worthy of label of “legend”! You will be missed Tony, RIP
December 26, 2020 @ 9:27 pm
Skaggs and Rice is a duet album done right. They complemented each other so well.
I always thought he lost his voice from heavy smoking. As in the picture with this article. Interesting that he had an actual issue.
December 26, 2020 @ 9:41 pm
Tony was the best. So inspiring.
December 26, 2020 @ 11:35 pm
So sorry ,there are no words. Just silents.
December 26, 2020 @ 11:46 pm
thanks for this thorough ”obituary’, trigger . I think it would be near impossible to sum up what tony meant to not just music lovers but to the countless musicians who were inspired , influenced , motivated and educated by his respect for the traditions while , at the same time , leaving his own creative stamp on whatever he wrote or recorded . his name comes up so often in jams and music discussions with my own circle of BG lovers , as I’m sure it does for so many others . my world got a lot sadder today . R I P Tony….and thank you
December 27, 2020 @ 6:40 am
Tony would always have the best orbit around him. RIP
December 27, 2020 @ 7:47 am
What a sad loss. First, his wonderful voice was taken away, then he could no longer play. His influence will never die. Lord help the bluegrass guitarist who can’t take a solo a la Tony.
December 27, 2020 @ 7:59 am
I heard he died making his morning coffee.
He was a giant who inspired every new generation of pickers. I hope his Church Street Blues is now played in a major key.
RIP, old man. I wonder if he left Clarence’s D-28 to anyone in particular. It would be nice to see that torch handed down.
December 27, 2020 @ 8:24 am
The D-28 deserves to be in good care somewhere, either with the Country Music Hall of Fame, or perhaps Marty Stuart, who has Clarence White’s B Bender, even if it remains privately owned. Hopefully it remains with the family or someone who will let it breathe, not a rich guy to oogle at in a private collection.
December 30, 2020 @ 7:18 pm
The guitar will be going to his brother, Wyatt
December 27, 2020 @ 9:16 am
Not that it’s the same thing, but in a small way his Santa Cruz signature model passes the torch, since it was based on that guitar (and Richard Hoover helped take care of it).
December 27, 2020 @ 8:14 am
Tony Rice lifted already great music even higher and created new trails like no other. This morning I put on the “Me and My Guitar” album, Four Strong Winds came on. Ian Tyson was one of my heroes as a young player and the passing of years, and Tony, brought me to tears.
Clifford Neil Zimmerman
December 27, 2020 @ 8:50 am
How do you measure musical greatness? By popularity? By critics? By the love of fellow artists? Certain talents only come along once in a generation. Tony epitomizes our highs, our lows, and the struggle to make unique talent relevant. On The Mount Rushmore of Bluegrass musicians – along with Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley – Tony speaks for anyone who has ever sought to express life’s complexities through art. His voice summoned that which was dramatic and authentically urgent. Now and forever part of God’s Heavenly Choir. RIP Tony.
December 27, 2020 @ 9:35 am
What on earth are you referring to?
December 27, 2020 @ 5:42 pm
I love Cash’s bluegrass versions of “A Boy Named Sue,” “Ring Of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” 😉
December 27, 2020 @ 6:00 pm
I particularly like Cash’s banjo picking and fiddle playing on “Big River.”
December 27, 2020 @ 10:06 am
One of those musicians who, for amateur guitarists like me (and I’m sure plenty of pros as well), seem to have descended from some other dimension. Thrilling to listen to.
Henning Kaiser (Germany)
December 27, 2020 @ 10:51 am
What a sad moment, to see one of our greatest heroes to pass way. What a wonderful time (the days between Christmas and New Years Eve), to proceed along the inevitable way …
December 27, 2020 @ 11:02 am
Been reading the tributes to Tony. I’d change a couple of words here and there. One of the most influential, one of the best, and so on. That’s not exactly right. He was the most inspired and inspiring acoustic guitar player who ever lived bar none. I don’t know if anyone will ever equal or surpass his brilliance as an acoustic artist. I do know no one ever has to date. I saw him perform many times and the excitement he generated, the anticipation of what new and fresh musical surprises he would bring to the stage this time, have never been duplicated by any other group or individual musician in my lifetime. I looked forward to each new recording of Tony’s like a child on Christmas morning, just couldn’t wait to unwrap it and hear what new present was inside. I was never disappointed. I was at Doyle’s festival in Denton one year when Cindy Baucom was mixing and after after introducing his band she said “Now make welcome the greatest guitar player on the planet, Tony Rice!” Spot on Cindy, spot on.
Clifford Neil Zimmerman
December 27, 2020 @ 1:44 pm
Big Tex…hey thanks for the heads-up, that’ll teach me to try and think coherently before I’ve had caffeine. What I mean to write was Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs. Better?
December 27, 2020 @ 4:36 pm
Makes sense, now, Clifford.
Cash was a friend of Bill Monroe, and used to have Monroe over at his home for guitar pulls, but that’s about as far as the bluegrass thing ever went with Cash..
December 27, 2020 @ 3:56 pm
Tony was another musician with no equal. His contribution cannot be measured or matched.
December 28, 2020 @ 10:19 am
A lot of my social media friends posted about this over the long weekend and here I am listening to “J. D. Crowe & the New South” for the first time this morning.
December 28, 2020 @ 8:47 pm
take a look on YouTube you can find the great pizza tape sessions Tony Jerry Garcia like you’ve never heard Jerry before if you don’t know how great of a player he really was and David grisman. unfortunately there’s no live footage of all three playing but the pizza tapes are something that are very special and you can literally see just how amazing that session was.
December 29, 2020 @ 11:48 am
I have never posted on SCM before this, but feel compelled to regarding TR. This man’s musical legacy and his influence just cannot be overstated.
This has been a heartbreaking year for my industry, we have really lost some titans this year; I didn’t think it could hurt as much as when Diffie died… then Prine…but then BJS….
Losing TR though, for me…this one hurts the most.
Here are my thoughts on it: https://twitter.com/KristinaMmusic/status/1343590912094580736?s=20
RIP Tone to the Bone. You were the GOAT.
December 29, 2020 @ 12:09 pm
Also, Trigger, are you able to post a link to that quote: “I am not going to go back out into the public eye until I can be the musician that I was, where I left off or better…”. Thanks! KM
December 29, 2020 @ 12:31 pm
Kristina, have you seen his IBMA acceptance speech?
FF to 11:35 and hear his beautiful baritone again. He was working on it step by step, just as he had worked to master that beautiful clean flatpicking. A luthier of music.
December 29, 2020 @ 1:04 pm
Thanks for chiming in. I caught your tribute to Tony on your Instagram story, and appreciate you putting his legacy in context like you have for so many who may not know who he was, or the impact he left on the music.
The quote comes from a feature on Tony Rice from The Greensboro News & Record from 2015. There’s a lot of good info in that feature. Here’s a link:
December 31, 2020 @ 2:41 pm
RIP Tony. I was so lucky to be able to see him the last time he played publicly, at the 2013 IBMA Hall oF Fame festival in Raleigh. On stage with many other legends that night like Del McCoury, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush. i wish now that I had made it there earlier to see his Hall of Fame speech. He was and will forever be one of the bests in the genre.