Guitarist and singer who experimented with his conventional repertoire by bringing bluegrass in new directions
The prospectus of this very closed idiom was rewritten by a loose group of young American bluegrass musicians in the latter half of the 1970s by introducing, sometimes in uncharacteristic accents, uncanonical songs and unorthodox playing styles.
Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, David Grisman, and Tony Rice were key innovators of “newgrass” and “new acoustic music”-so successfully that Rice could reflect years later that “bluegrass is a term that means so much more now than it did then.” He added that “as soon as you become a die-hard follower of anything, whether it’s jazz or bluegrass or whatever, you deprive yourself of a whole world of music.” “In a conversation with Dave Simpson in the Guardian, Singer Alison Krauss recalled, “When I was about 13, I was all excited about [Rice’s 1984 album] Cold on the Shoulder. He took and totally changed songs by Lightfoot or Jimmie Rodgers. The stories and poems were great in all those songs.
“In Tony’s band, I dreamed of playing fiddle. “Rice was born to Herbert Rice, an arc welder from North Carolina, and his wife, Dorothy Poindexter, in Danville, Virginia.
The family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, where Herbert, who played mandolin and guitar, founded the Golden State Boys, one of Southern California’s first bluegrass bands. Tony learned the guitar, made his Town Hall Party radio debut at the age of nine, and started playing with Larry and Ronnie, his brothers. In California folk clubs like the Ash Grove and the Troubadour, they played pure bluegrass – “old [Lester] Flatt and [Earl] Scruggs stuff: that was the music that really touched me” – frequently sharing the stage with the Country Boys, featuring the remarkable young guitarist Clarence White, whose Martin D-28 guitar Rice acquired after White’s untimely death in 1973. Back east, the Rices moved in 1965.
Tony joined the band Bluegrass Alliance in 1970, after serving briefly as a pipefitter’s apprentice, where he met Bush. “Very few people opened their ears to anything but old-time, down-home bluegrass back then,” Rice says. “Sam and I hit it off in that regard because we had our ears tuned to rock, jazz … whatever. “In 1971, he formed the band of banjo player JD Crowe, The New South, accompanied by Skaggs and Douglas. This was the hottest bluegrass band, and their 1975 eponymous album was a recording breakthrough. “Rice said he learned from Crowe to “play perfectly in time, to play with soul, to reach all the notes very clear and clean.” At that point, judged by mandolinist Jack Tottle, Rice was “mixing traditional flatpicking technique with jazz crosspicking and harmonic intervals. Rice then returned to California and spent four years playing acoustic jazz-folk in the David Grisman Quintet.
“That’s where I derived much of my influences from.” But his connection to the past remained strong, and Skaggs & Rice’s 1980 album was a heartfelt homage to old-time country music. “They breathed together, not only did Ricky and Tony phrase together,” said Barry Poss, founder of Sugar Hill Records, which released the album. “It was a disappointingly simple, utterly elegant tribute to the music they were h
And a masterpiece was what they left us with. Rice has never left bluegrass for a long time, in fact.
A session with Crowe and mandolinist Doyle Lawson in 1981 produced The Bluegrass Album, which was so well received that under the name Bluegrass Album Band they released five more albums of traditional songs and tunes from the genre.
Rice, by nature an ensemble player, nevertheless sometimes conceived a solo project, such as the Church Street Blues album (1983).
Collaborations with his singer-guitarist colleagues Norman Blake and Peter Rowan followed later, as well as album contributions by Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck and Mary Chapin Carpenter.