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.

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