David Anthony Rice (June 8, 1951 – December 25, 2020) was an American guitarist and bluegrass musician. He was an influential acoustic guitar player in bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, newgrass and acoustic jazz. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2013.
Rice's music spans the range of acoustic from traditional bluegrass to jazz-influenced New Acoustic music to songwriter-oriented folk. Over the course of his career, he played alongside J. D. Crowe and the New South, David Grisman (during the formation of "Dawg Music") and Jerry Garcia, led his own Tony Rice Unit, collaborated with Norman Blake, recorded with his brothers Wyatt, Ron, and Larry, and co-founded the Bluegrass Album Band. He recorded with drums, piano, soprano sax, as well as with traditional bluegrass instrumentation.
Rice was born in Danville, Virginia but grew up in Los Angeles, California, where his father, Herb Rice, introduced him to bluegrass. Tony and his brothers learned the fundamentals of bluegrass and country music from L.A. musicians like the Kentucky Colonels, led by Roland and Clarence White. Clarence White in particular became a huge influence on Rice. Crossing paths with fellow enthusiasts like Ry Cooder, Herb Pedersen and Chris Hillman reinforced the strength of the music he had learned from his father.
In 1970, Rice had moved to Louisville, Kentucky where he played with the Bluegrass Alliance, and shortly thereafter, J.D. Crowe's New South. The New South was known as one of the best and most progressive bluegrass groups—eventually adding drums and electric instruments (to Rice's displeasure). When Ricky Skaggs joined them in 1974, however, the band recorded J. D. Crowe & the New South, an acoustic album that became Rounder Records' top-seller up to that time. At this point, the group consisted of Rice on guitar and lead vocals, Crowe on banjo and vocals, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Skaggs on fiddle, mandolin, and tenor vocals, and Bobby Slone on bass and fiddle.
Around this time, Rice met mandolinist David Grisman, who played with Red Allen during the 1960s and was now working on original material that blended jazz, bluegrass, and classical styles. Rice left the New South and moved to California to join Grisman's all-instrumental group. As part of the David Grisman Quintet, in order to broaden his expertise and make himself more marketable, Rice began studying chord theory, learned to read charts, and began to expand his playing beyond bluegrass. Renowned guitarist John Carlini came in to teach Rice music theory, and Carlini helped him learn the intricacies of jazz playing and musical improvisation, in general. The David Grisman Quintet's 1977 debut recording is considered a landmark of acoustic string band music.
In 1980, Rice, Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson and Todd Phillips formed the Bluegrass Album Band and recorded from 1980 to 1996. With the Tony Rice Unit, he pursued experimental "spacegrass" music on Mar West, Still Inside, and Backwaters. Members of the Unit included Jimmy Gaudreau (mandolin), Wyatt Rice (guitar), Ronnie Simpkins (bass), and Rickie Simpkins (fiddle). In the late 1980s Alison Krauss played regularly with the group in concert for about a year but never appeared on the albums. Alison Brown also guested with the group during that period.
In 1980, he recorded an album of bluegrass duets with Ricky Skaggs, called Skaggs & Rice. Two albums with traditional instrumentalist and songwriter Norman Blake garnered acclaim, as well as two Rice Brothers albums (1992 and 1994) that featured him teamed with his late elder brother, Larry, and younger brothers, Wyatt and Ronnie. Beginning in 1984, Rice collaborated on four albums by Béla Fleck – Double Time (Béla Fleck album) (1984), Drive (Béla Fleck album) (1988), Tales from the Acoustic Planet (1995), and The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2 (1999). He joined David Grisman and Jerry Garcia in 1993 to record The Pizza Tapes. In 1994 Rice and Grisman recorded Tone Poems, an original collection of material, where they used historical vintage mandolins and guitars, different for each track.
In 1994, Rice joined Mark Johnson to record "Clawgrass Mark Johnson with the Rice Brothers and Friends" which featured Tony as well as his late brother Larry Rice and his other brothers Wyatt and Ronnie. In 1995, Rice recorded a duo album with John Carlini, who also played with the David Grisman Quintet. In 1997, Rice, his brother Larry, Chris Hillman (formerly of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds) and banjoist Herb Pedersen founded the so-called "anti-supergroup" Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen and produced three volumes of music between 1997 and 2001. In the 2000s and 2010s, he performed as a quartet with guitarist/singer-songwriter Peter Rowan, bassist Bryn Bright (later known as Bryn Davies), and mandolinist Billy Bright (replaced by Sharon Gilchrist).
In 1979, Rice left Grisman's group to record Acoustics, a jazz-inspired album, and then Manzanita, a bluegrass and folk album. A similar combination was evident on Cold on the Shoulder, Native American, and Me & My Guitar, albums which combined bluegrass, jazzy guitar work, and the songwriting of Ian Tyson, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, and Gordon Lightfoot.
Rice's singing voice was a distinctive baritone. In 1994 he was diagnosed with a disorder known as muscle tension dysphonia and as a result was forced to stop singing in live performance. A 2014 diagnosis of lateral epicondylitis ("tennis elbow") made guitar playing painful and Rice's last performance playing guitar live was his induction into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2015, Rice was quoted as saying "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. 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."
The authorized biography of Tony Rice, titled Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story, written by Tim Stafford and Hawaii-based journalist Caroline Wright, was published by Word of Mouth Press in Kingsport, Tennessee, United States in 2010. The book's official release took place at Merlefest in North Carolina.
Tony Rice died at his home in Reidsville, North Carolina on December 25, 2020. He died while making his coffee, according to a statement from longtime friend and collaborator Ricky Skaggs. Rice’s 2013 induction into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame reportedly was the last time he played guitar in public due to the lateral epicondylitis that affected his ability to play in his last years.
How I remember a sensational set from the David Grisman Band at Cambridge Folk Festival in 1977. The hugely popular Vin Garbutt had preceded them with two encores, and my dear friend Peter Stephens - sitting next to me in the packed arena - agreed that Vin would be a hard act to follow. But closing the evening concert slot was given to Grisman et al. In truth, neither of us knew too much about Grisman, other than he was up there with Ry Cooder, Sam Bush, and Jethro Burns as the top mandolin player on the American scene. But we did note that both wings of the stage suddenly filled with fellow artistes... and they were clearly in the know. They clearly anticipated... fireworks. And OMG... "fireworks" we certainly had. Bluegrass music of an intensity and dazzling virtuosity that Britain probably had never seen the equal of. Grisman of course led from the front. Close your eyes and the late Bill Keith on banjo could easily have been Earl Scruggs. I cannot now recall who was on fiddle... but he was very good. Was it Darol Anger? Not sure. But it was the guitar player who really blew our minds that night. He played his guitar with the spellbinding rapidity of a gunslinger like Wyatt Earp who could shoot five murderous thugs before they could get their guns out of their holsters. And he was blessed with a staggeringly resonant and mellifluous voice, that blended so well on the harmonies on choruses like "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?"
Well that phenomenal guitar player - Tony Rice - just died this Christmas Day aged 69... after a long illness. Of all terrible illnesses to afflict a man with such a glorious voice, he was sent the worst possible... throat spasms as he called them (which stopped him singing about 9 years ago) and he always denied suggestions he had throat cancer. Such a stellar guitarist. R.I.P. And here he is about 8 years after we saw him, now aged about 34, doing Gordon Lightfoot proud...
And this is much later, from early 2007, not long before he threw the towel in singing wise... you can already hear his throat problems that were to to blight him, and now eventually to kill him. This is a song the David Grisman band did that night, 43 years ago. Grisman is here to add not just continuity to my memories, but also his genius, and what a wonderful turn Alison Krauss does on fiddle. (This concert dates from the time when she and Robert Plant were performing and recording together.) But listen especially to the blisteringly good 30 second Tony Rice solo guitar break at 02.20
(David "Dai" Woosnam)
Tony Rice is the most influential and emulated bluegrass guitarist ever. He established the gold standard for both lead and rhythm playing, merging a deep appreciation for tradition with impactful innovation. However, that doesn't even capture his full impact. His lead vocals with J.D. Crowe & the New South and Bluegrass Album Band, among other configurations, provided the template for generations of bluegrass singers. "Best" is an inflated grade thrown around too easily these days, but Tony Rice was and will remain the best at what he did. We deeply mourn his passing and send our sympathies to his wife Pam, brothers Wyatt and Ron, and the entire family. (Paul Schiminger, Executive Director, IBMA)
I met Tony when I was 18 and he was 19, within a week we were bandmates in the Bluegrass Alliance. We grew up a lot playing music together. Tony named my mandolin “Ol Hoss”. He often said his guitar and Hoss were a perfect match, “meant to be played together”. I’ll always cherish my memories, music and the many happy occasions we were together. I miss you my brother. Peace to you. (Sam Bush)
The first time I played with Tony was on his Cold on the Shoulder album. I had never played bluegrass on that level with anybody. The feel the band was able to get, simply by listening to him, changed how I wanted my whole future to sound. When I listen to that record, I think, “Dang, that’s what music’s supposed to sound like!” There’s a rightness to Tony’s playing. It sounds etched in stone, like it’s meant to be. He had this feel that made you want to play. He enabled you to do things you couldn’t typically do. (Béla Fleck)
I’m beyond heartbroken to hear about the passing of Tony Rice. No one has had a more profound impact on my musical world. His playing, singing, writing, and arranging broke the bluegrass mold and will eternally attest to the fact that music can take you anywhere, from anywhere. (Chris Thile)
I, and I think most every musician I know, would argue that Tony Rice has been the most influential American string band musician since Earl Scruggs. He fundamentally changed concepts of how bluegrass and its offshoots should work. He brought a new level of clarity, elegance, power, precision and heart to the music that changed everything for everyone who came after him. (Chris Eldridge)
To discover Rice's playing and singing is to discover his deep love for music that oozes out of every note, and his passion for sharing that beautiful gift with the world. His expansive catalogue of recordings reflect a curious spirit devoted to exploring uncharted territory on his instrument. Many of us have learned Rice's songs and licks note for note but no one can make the guitar sound quite like he did. He continues to set the standard for masterful guitar playing and singing. (Molly Tuttle)
I am devastated by the news that Tony Rice has passed away. A million nights of sitting in darkened corners of the legendary Birchmere, hanging on every note he played and sang just overtook me. He was a musical hero and a genius guitarist who literally changed how people imagined an acoustic guitar could be played. When we became friends, he encouraged me as a songwriter and continually inspired me as an artist who saw boundaries merely as markers to leap over...when he recorded one of my songs I could have quit there and then and been happy with my lot. Thank you Tony and rest easy, there are stars in your crown. (Mary Chapin Carpenter)
Love and miss you Tony! (Jerry Douglas)
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: February 2021.
Photo Credits: (1)-(4) Tony Rice, (5) Bela Fleck, (6) Peter Rowan, (7) Punch Brothers, (8) Sam Bush, (9) Jerry Douglas (unknown/website).