The guitar world misplaced considered one of its best legends when Tony Rice died abruptly on Christmas Day 2020, at his house in Reidsville, North Carolina. Rice, who was greatest identified to most people for his work within the bluegrass band New South, was one of the beloved and influential flatpickers. Because the chief of the Tony Rice Unit, he pushed the boundaries of the style, borrowing closely from jazz specifically. We commemorate Rice’s passing with an in-depth interview that initially ran within the June 2002 subject of AG.
BY CRAIG HAVIGHURST
Guitar gamers go to extremes over Tony Rice. I as soon as paid a considerable sum to attend a clinic with Rice and his someday companion Norman Blake in Raleigh, North Carolina, the place a minimum of 30, perhaps 50, guitarists crowded into a bit seminar room and sat on the sting of their seats, necks craned, making an attempt to glean some wisp of perception into how these notes got here plunging out of that D-28 in fast, tidy rows, gracefully interwoven with snapping chordal figures, probing harmonic substitutions, and consummate timing. He makes it seems really easy. When he arrives on stage at venues like Telluride and MerleFest, he’s greeted like a rock star.
Rice’s command of bluegrass music is famous, however he additionally helped beginning a brand new style of American music as totally different from its bluegrass roots as bebop was from swing jazz. When he performed it with the David Grisman Quintet on the West Coast, it was referred to as Dawg music. When he performed it again East with Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Stuart Duncan—a band that by no means took a reputation—it was referred to as newgrass. Rice refers to it as spacegrass and brings it nearer to the jazz it borrows from than every other musician on this rarified pool.
Over a 30-year profession, Rice has impressed as a participant, singer, composer, and arranger on dozens of initiatives with such necessary bands because the Bluegrass Alliance, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and the Bluegrass Album Band. He additionally lower probably the greatest acoustic nation duet data of the trendy period with Ricky Skaggs and made chamber bluegrass of the very best order on the primary of Grisman’s Tone Poems recordings. Today, Rice might be discovered enjoying with Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements and sometimes with David Grisman, Norman Blake, or in a quartet with Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, and Todd Phillips.
He’s had one band he’s referred to as his personal, and his title for it, the Tony Rice Unit, suggests a superb deal about his economical strategy to music making and his emphasis on tightness. The primary Unit was the all-star band that lower Manzanita in 1978, with David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, and others. The three subsequent Unit recordings featured varied combos of Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, Fred Carpenter, John Reischman, and others.
A completely totally different Tony Rice Unit that included Rice’s brother Wyatt on second guitar, mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau, Ronnie Simpkins or Mark Schatz on bass, and fiddler Rickie Simpkins was Rice’s chief touring band from the mid-Nineteen Eighties into the ’90s. The band recorded its first album collectively on the finish of 1996, when Rice was struggling together with his voice and needed to focus on his guitar enjoying.
The consequence was the primary Tony Rice Unit document in nearly 20 years, the instrumental launch Unit of Measure. Some six months after his fiftieth birthday, Rice talked to me about recording the album as if it was all in a day’s work.
How did classes from 1996 develop into an album in 2000?
Through the years, I’ve realized to document one thing after which sit on it for some time. As time went on, that time period simply sitting on materials within the can grew to become longer. I’m not the one artist that does that. Significantly within the jazz idiom, there are loads of gamers who will document one thing and simply stroll away and depart it till they develop into curious about it sufficient to wish to return and choose takes and do the enhancing. With Unit of Measure, a superb two years glided by earlier than I listened to something in any respect.
If you referred to as the band collectively, did you do loads of explaining and directing?
Not likely. I hardly ever talk about music, anyway. When you’ve been working collectively that lengthy, you nearly develop a sixth sense as to who desires to play subsequent, the way you would possibly change the dynamics, and issues like that. I might level to any person and say, “Kick it off.” After which no matter occurred to finish up on tape was there [laughs].
You mentioned within the liner notes that you simply’d been eager to rerecord, or rework, “Manzanita” for a while. How did you strategy that?
The unique “Manzanita” was recorded again in ’78, when the tune was in its infancy. The idea got here out of structuring a bit of music with out regard to an excellent variety of measures, which I’d heard loads in trendy jazz. I wrote varied little snippets of the melody, and once I began to place them collectively, I believed, How am I going to make this symmetrical? And as I began enjoying it, I believed, Properly, OK, there’s an uneven variety of beats right here on this measure, however actually, who provides a shit? [Laughs.] Go forward and play it anyway. And it grew to become what it’s. As time went on, I might noodle round with it on guitar, and it advanced to the following logical step, which was to maintain the melody considerably definitive and likewise permit for a bit extra improvisation. [When we rerecorded it on Unit of Measure], we took a couple of minutes to debate an association and the place the ensemble was going to return in, as a result of it differed a lot from the unique. It’s not a bit of music that simply anyone can play. I wouldn’t current that tune to any person who was extra geared towards conventional bluegrass, for instance.
“Jerusalem Ridge” and “Gold Rush” make a fairly placing distinction to “Manzanita.” How did you choose which songs to incorporate?
I noticed myself as two totally different musicians: a guitar participant and an instrumental string band chief. I needed to decide on tunes that will deliver out the very best within the different musicians. For instance, Rickie Simpkins enjoying “Jerusalem Ridge.” How significantly better does it get than that? “Gold Rush” was a [vehicle] for my very own lead bluegrass guitar enjoying. And Wyatt had all the time carried out an unimaginable job on “Beaumont Rag,” so I needed to let him get in there and put his two cents in.
How would you evaluate the Tony Rice Unit with the newgrass all-star band together with Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush?
There are loads of variations. Recording and performing with Béla Fleck requires a excessive degree of focus as a result of a few of the preparations and chord adjustments are so well-defined. The Unit, all the way in which up till the album was recorded, was centered round vocals. There was the instrumental music that we did inside the present, however the present was kind of vocally oriented. It’s a very totally different world of music. I like with the ability to do each.
Do you assume that newgrass, Dawg music, spacegrass, or no matter you name it has been acknowledged and sized up adequately by critics, or do you assume that it is a chapter that has but to be written?
I believe the music that began with the Grisman Quintet—or truly earlier than that, with Grisman and Richard Greene and John Carlini, a band referred to as the Nice American Music Band—continues to be forward of its time. There’s a lot unexplored territory in taking these devices and enjoying them in that method. There’s a part of me that sees Grisman’s music as being an instrumental extension of newgrass, which in itself is an extension of bluegrass. After which there are different occasions once I hear it as a very totally different sound unto itself. There are some wonderful younger cats on the market who’re going to move on that torch. I’m anxious to search out out what the following thrill goes to be by way of acoustic string music, and I wish to be part of it if I can.
You’re identified for encouraging younger musicians.
I attempt to. One of many musical gospels I like to evangelise to youthful gamers is the significance of building their very own musical id. All of our musical heroes have one factor in frequent: you’ll be able to establish them instantly whenever you hear them. When Stéphane Grappelli is performed on jazz radio, you realize when you’ve heard two notes of that music that that’s Stéphane Grappelli. The identical applies to Vassar Clements, Grisman, Invoice Evans…
A lot of your signature methods and licks bought in folks’s ears fairly early in your profession, within the ’70s. Has that made your individual progress tougher?
I can get bored with listening to the identical outdated shit, whether or not it’s coming from any person else or from myself. If I get drained sufficient of it, I’ll woodshed and experiment some and see what I can provide you with. I believe most innovators undergo intervals of being actual stale. There have been occasions once I felt completely uninspired, however regardless of the subsequent gig occurred to be—be it with Peter Rowan or a bluegrass configuration of some sort or one other—abruptly, there I’d be backstage earlier than I’d go on, and I’d really feel like going on the market and creating one thing new.
One step towards growing your individual sound is finding out solos that others have taken. Have you ever ever sat down and tried to play, say, a Clarence White solo notice for notice?
I attempted that years in the past and came upon that I couldn’t do it. A part of my very own sound got here out of my lack of ability to try this. So, as a substitute of being a clone of Clarence White or Doc Watson, I took the chance to place my very own signature on [the music]. I believe it occurs that means with loads of musicians: they develop a musical id not intentionally however from an lack of ability to be a clone of any person else.
What elements of Clarence White’s enjoying did you discover most irritating?
Clarence was wonderful at with the ability to play lengthy sequences of notes with up and down decide strokes, together with the left-hand fingering that solely he might do. In my enjoying, there aren’t very many lengthy sequences of notes the place the right-hand sample is up-down-up-down-up-down. It’s continually altering.
Have been you round Clarence a lot, or did you depend on recordings to be taught his music?
I used to be round him after we had been younger. His household and my household had been shut, and there was the bluegrass circle the place I grew up in L.A. Imagine me, man, that circle was small. There have been solely a few bands again then: the Nation Boys and a band my father began referred to as the Golden State Boys. Aside from that, there wasn’t anyone in southern California who performed bluegrass.
Do you get bored with the comparisons to him?
Individuals evaluate me to Clarence White, maybe in the identical gentle that Artwork Tatum was a mentor for Oscar Peterson. I imply, folks affiliate Oscar Peterson’s enjoying straight with Artwork Tatum. However should you hear notice for notice, the 2 have little or no in frequent. What you hear is the strategy, versus the precise content material of the enjoying itself. And I believe the identical factor applies to my relationship with Clarence White. It’s not a lot that I play like Clarence White; it’s that I’m drawing on the strategy that Clarence used.
There are loads of gamers I realized from. A number of my musicianship I realized from Doc Watson. And I realized to play loud from Dan Crary within the early ’70s. I frolicked listening to Dan and used that as a mannequin in order that it doesn’t matter what I did with a D-28, it was loud sufficient in order that any person might hear it.
In the case of sheer tone of particular person notes, it’s arduous to beat [Norman] Blake. He performs so clear, and each notice is true on the cash. To at the present time, once I play traditional-sounding issues on guitar, I discover myself making an attempt to assume like Blake only for a second, to put it again a bit bit and consider the readability of particular person notes. After which there are different occasions once I get on stage with, say, Darol Anger and Mike Marshall and Todd Phillips, the place I don’t give a shit about not one of the above. It’s nearly one hundred pc improvisational, and no matter occurs occurs.
What made you resolve that bluegrass wanted extra from the rhythm guitar than chords and time holding?
My rhythm guitar model in bluegrass music is completely on the mercy of a mandolin and a bass as a part of the rhythm part. Quite than merely being a timekeeper as a part of that rhythm part, I attempt to create one thing chordally that’s fascinating and on the identical time fill a void that’s continually there between the mandolin and the bass, as a result of the bass is enjoying on the beat and the mandolin is enjoying the offbeat. And that leaves an important massive steady gap there that may be stuffed up with all types of little fascinating issues should you permit them to occur.
Clarence White bought away with it, and he made it sound good. Most individuals don’t know this, however Clarence White’s rhythm mannequin was Jimmy Martin. And at any time when I hear recordings of Clarence enjoying bluegrass rhythm, I can nonetheless hear that Jimmy Martin affect, in addition to his placing his personal id to it with little syncopated issues and chord substitutions. I believed, If Clarence might do that, then I suppose anyone might do it.
Get tales like this in your inbox
What’s actually arduous is when folks ask me to point out them a rhythm sample, as a result of there’s actually no sample there. The sample is extra within the summary than the rest. It’s extra of a philosophy, if that’s the best phrase. An analogy I take advantage of got here from Todd Phillips: the notion of a hobo in a boxcar. You’ve bought a prepare transferring down a observe at a continuing fee of velocity. Properly, that represents a pulse. However you’ve additionally bought a hobo in a boxcar that represents a beat. The hobo is free to maneuver from one finish of the boxcar to the opposite whereas the prepare is transferring, proper? You may place the accent both a bit earlier than the theoretical beat in metronomic time, or you’ll be able to place it a bit bit after.
I perceive that you simply’ve struggled with hand accidents in recent times. Is it true that one saved you from touring after Béla Fleck’s second Bluegrass Periods album?
Yeah, I developed what’s referred to as early osteoarthritis. I nonetheless have it and can all the time have it. Again then it was notably unhealthy, although, as a result of I knew one thing was flawed however I continued to bash away anyway. The medical doctors mentioned there’s no means on the planet that my hand might endure that sort of enjoying, evening after evening after evening enjoying hour-and-fifteen- to hour-and-thirty-minute units. So, somewhat than do it and go midway, I figured it’d be higher to move it on to any person else. And since that point, I’ve needed to restructure what I do on the street. I’m good for a few nights in a row, however then it’s actually good to have a day or two to present it a relaxation.
Does it primarily have an effect on your left hand or your proper?
It’s the left hand.
How do you care for it?
Properly, there are snake oils that individuals advocate, and I’ve tried them, however none of them has ever carried out me any good. One in all my musical heroes of all time is Oscar
Peterson. For the final 35 or 40 years, earlier than he had a stroke a number of years in the past, he fought osteoarthritis in each palms. He simply needed to work round that, schedule dates accordingly. Even with extreme arthritic circumstances in each palms, musicians can endure up to a degree. But when the irritation will get unhealthy sufficient, the fingers simply gained’t do what the mind is telling them to do. Then you definitely again off, let the irritation die down, and let the whole lot return to zero, and also you’re prepared to start out once more.
What concerning the issues you’ve had together with your voice? Has battling the flexibility to sing made you concentrate on the guitar?
I don’t know if the 2 issues are associated. I may need sung a few times a yr all through my tenure with the Grisman Quintet, as a result of I didn’t actually wish to sing as a lot as I needed to focus on the guitar. However there was a time period with the Unit the place the voice and the guitar had been built-in elements of my musicianship. I began to essentially really feel the voice sporting out in ’93. I’d basically sung myself out. I wouldn’t have the vocal mechanism to sing bluegrass with that top, lonesome sound, however I did it anyway. Consequently, I overtaxed my voice. I’ve heard rumors that I had throat most cancers and all that stuff, and that I might by no means sing once more and blah blah blah. Don’t pay any consideration to them. I simply put that on maintain for an indefinite time period. I really feel snug with simply being a guitar participant, versus a singer. It hasn’t bothered me. I’m glad, if I needed to lose one or the opposite, that it was the voice. However it’s undoubtedly getting higher.
I perceive that in the course of the Nineteen Eighties, you couldn’t all the time match your musical urges to your audiences—that you simply’d end up enjoying spacegrass in entrance of bluegrass crowds and vice versa. How have you ever realized to juggle that?
It was a bizarre time within the early ’80s, as a result of I’d left Grisman and reformed a brand new instrumental Unit. Individuals would see the title Tony Rice on the marquee, they usually needed to listen to “Little Sadie” or “Blue Railroad Train,” which I wasn’t curious about on the time. I used to be within the guitar as a separate entity from the voice. So there have been occasions when it was irritating. At any time when I needed to play bluegrass, I might simply spherical up J.D. Crowe and Doyle Lawson or Sam Bush.
Appears like the proper situation.
I’ve been blessed. I’ve been capable of take pleasure in an actual various vary of musical genres inside a style. Only some nights in the past, Dan Tyminski and myself and Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins and Sammy Shelor performed a bluegrass gig on the Birchmere, up in Washington [D.C.]. Man, this was actually a bluegrass gig, and I had a ball with it. I really like doing the Peter Rowan gig, too. It gives an unlimited quantity of freedom and exploration. It’s the spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment sort of music that I actually like.
However there are different issues I love to do. I prefer to play duets with Norman Blake. And Grisman and I sometimes get collectively and do a number of dates of duets. We haven’t carried out it shortly, however I’m certain that we are going to this yr sooner or later. Oh, I like doing all of it. If it’s good music, that’s my solely standards.
What He Performs
Tony Rice performs a 1935 Martin D-28 that initially belonged to Clarence White. He strings it with D’Aquisto nickel-silver medium-gauge strings, which he endorses, and makes use of a tricornered tortoiseshell decide. He performs into microphones: a Sony C-48 in high-caliber listening rooms and mics from the AKG 400 collection for extra normal gigs. He additionally likes the Shure SM81. As a rule, he avoids dynamic mics as a result of he says they’re too unforgiving by way of spacing between the instrument and the microphone.