Tony Rice, Bluegrass Innovator With a Guitar Pick, Dies at 69
An immensely influential singer and guitarist in bluegrass and the new acoustic music circles that grew up around him, Tony Rice died on Saturday at his Reidsville, NC home. He was 69 years old.
The International Bluegrass Music Association confirmed his death. No cause was given.
“Tony Rice was the king of the flat-picked flat-top guitar,” said singer-songwriter Jason Isbell on Twitter. “Its influence cannot possibly be overstated.”
Mr. Isbell was referring to what is commonly known as flatpicking, a technique in which the strings of a guitar are struck with a pick or pick rather than with your fingers. Inspired by the powerful fretwork of pioneering bluegrass band leader Jimmy Martin, Mr. Rice’s flat picking was uniquely nimble and expressive.
“I don’t know if a person can do anything nicer,” continued Mr. Isbell in his tweet, describing Mr. Rice’s fluid, percussive play, where feeling, whether harmonically or melodically, took precedence over lightning.
Mr. Rice has shaped a number of prominent musicians, including his Newgrass colleagues Mark O’Connor and Béla Fleck, heirs of acoustic music such as Chris Thile and Alison Krauss, and his students Bryan Sutton and Josh Williams.
“There’s no way you can ever go back to what it was before you,” Ms. Krauss said of bluegrass in an interview with the New York Times Magazine for a profile of Mr. Rice in 2014. She was barely a teenager, as Mr. Rice first invited her on stage to play with him.
Beginning in the 1970s, Mr. Rice built bridges through his work with the group JD Crowe and the New South that spanned traditional bluegrass, 1960s folk songs, jazz improvisation, classical music and singer-songwriter pop.
He was a catalyst for the Newgrass movement, in which bands broke with the bluegrass tradition by drawing inspiration from pop and rock sources and adopting a more improvised approach to performing and integrating previously untapped instruments like electric guitar and Used drums.
He was named Instrumentalist of the Year six times by the Bluegrass Association, and in 1983 he received a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Fireball,” a track recorded with JD Crowe and the New South.
Mr. Rice was not only a virtuoso guitarist, but also a gifted singer and master of phrasing. His rich, supple baritone was at home in three-part bluegrass harmony arrangements as well as adapting Gordon Lightfoot’s troubadour ballads under the Newgrass banner.
But his musician career was abruptly cut short from 1994 when he learned he suffered from muscle tension dysphonia, a severe voice disorder that deprived him of the ability to sing in public and impaired his speaking voice. He wouldn’t sing on stage or address an audience until 2013 when the Bluegrass Association inducted him into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
Not long after this diagnosis, Mr. Rice learned that he also had lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as tennis elbow, which made it too painful for him to even play guitar in public.
David Anthony Rice was born on June 8, 1951 in Danville, Virginia, to one of four boys of Herbert Hoover Rice and Dorothy (Poindexter) Rice, known as Louise. His father was a welder and amateur musician, his mother a mill worker and housewife. It was her idea to name her son Tony after her favorite actor, Tony Curtis. Everyone in the rice household played or sang bluegrass music.
After the family moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, Rice’s father formed a bluegrass band called the Golden State Boys. The group, which recorded multiple singles, included two of his mother’s brothers and a young Del McCoury at one point before becoming a bluegrass master himself. The band inspired Mr. Rice and his brothers to start their own bluegrass outfit, the Haphazards.
The Haphazards sometimes shared local bills with the Kentucky Colonels, a band whose glamorous guitarist Clarence White – a future member of the rock band The Byrds – had a profound influence on Mr. Rice’s early development as a musician.
(Mr. White was killed by a drunk driver loading equipment after a show in 1973. Mr. Rice then located Mr. Martin’s 1935 Martin D-28 herringbone guitar, which he bought from its new owner in 1975 for $ 550 the guitar, he began to perform and affectionately called it “Antique”.)
The Rice family moved from California to Florida in 1965 and then to various cities in the southeast, where Mr. Rice’s father pursued one sweat opportunity after another.
He also drank and created a tumultuous life at home that forced Mr. Rice to move out when he was 17. Tony Rice struggled with alcohol himself but, according to him, has been sober since 2001.
Mr. Rice dropped out of high school jumping back and forth between his relatives’ homes before moving to Louisville in 1970 to join the Bluegrass Alliance. The band members, including mandolinist Sam Bush, formed much of the founding core of the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival.
Mr. Rice joined JD Crowe and the New South in 1971. Three years later, Mr. Skaggs also joined, replacing Mr. Rice’s brother Larry in the group. Dobro player Jerry Douglas also became a member of the New South at this time. In 1975 the band released an album called “JD Crowe and the New South” (but commonly known as the first “Old Home Place”) that modernized bluegrass in a way that would shape music into the 21st century.
Mr. Rice, Mr. Douglas and Mr. Skaggs left the group in August 1975. Mr. Rice then moved to San Francisco and helped found the David Grisman Quartet, a pioneering ensemble with bluegrass instruments that brought together classical and jazz sensibilities linked together to create what Mr. Grisman called “Dawn Music”.
“The music in front of me was like nothing I had ever seen,” Mr. Rice told Times Magazine in 2014. “At first I thought I couldn’t learn it.” The only thing that saved me was that I always loved the sound of acoustic, modern jazz in small groups. “
After four years with Mr. Grisman, Mr. Rice formed his own group, the Tony Rice Unit, which was known for its experimental, jazzy approach to bluegrass, as featured on albums such as “Manzanita” (1979) and “Mar West” is. (1980).
Mr. Rice also recorded more mainstream and traditional material for numerous other projects, including a six-volume series of albums paying tribute to the formative bluegrass of the 1950s.
In “Skaggs & Rice” (1980), another history-conscious album, Mr. Skaggs and Mr. Rice sang seamless, soulful harmonies in homage to the pre-bluegrass brother duos.
Most of Mr. Rice’s releases after 1994, the year he was diagnosed with voice disorder, were instrumental projects or collaborations such as “The Pizza Tapes,” a studio album with Mr. Grisman and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead; Mr. Rice contributed acoustic guitar.
His survivors include his 30-year-old wife Pamela Hodges Rice and his brothers Ron and Wyatt. His brother Larry died in 2006.
Mr. Rice cut a dashing figure on stage, complete with well tailored suits and a dignified demeanor, as though to deny the lack of respect bluegrass has sometimes received outside of the south due to its difficult rural beginnings.
Mr. Rice was as aware of this cultural dynamic as of the limitless possibilities he saw in bluegrass music.
“Maybe the reason I dress like me goes back to the day you tried not to look like a bastard when you took to the streets unless you had a trenching job,” said he told his biographers Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright for “Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story” (2010).
“In the heyday of Miles Davis’ most famous bands, Miles would not have been seen without a tailored suit,” he continued. “My musical heroes wear suits.”