Bluegrass legend Tony Rice died on Christmas Day at age 69. To correctly memorialize his prowess and spirit, Selection turned to one among his truest acolytes and a acknowledged up to date nice — Chris Eldridge, of Punch Brothers and Notorious Stringdusters fame (pictured above with Rice in 2001) — who penned the next tribute to his buddy and mentor.
Tony Rice was the best bluegrass guitar participant to ever reside. That will sound hyperbolic, however he singlehandedly modified the best way the guitar is performed in bluegrass without end, elevating it to a excessive artwork and creating its platonic kind. However to consider Tony Rice as only a guitar participant — even one of many greats — is absolutely lacking the larger image. His extremely excessive requirements of musicianship, tune choice, sensitivity, and so forth. modified the sport for everybody who adopted in his wake.
I used to be lucky to develop up figuring out Tony, who, although gracious to everybody he met, was very enigmatic and untouchable. My father, Ben Eldridge, was the banjo participant in an influential bluegrass band known as the Seldom Scene. Tony turned a buddy of theirs within the early Seventies, crossing paths at golf equipment and in backstage tents at bluegrass festivals the place he was taking part in with the Bluegrass Alliance (alongside newgrass pioneer Sam Bush) and, later, JD Crowe and the New South.
From my perspective as a toddler, music was like consuming and sleeping — it’s what everybody round me simply did. A lot in order that, regardless that a few of my dad’s bandmates had been themselves residing legends, delivering on the high of their sport, all of it appeared considerably unremarkable to me. On reflection, the reward of my musical upbringing blows my thoughts, and I perceive how fortunate I used to be. However I offer you this context as a result of at the same time as a toddler, Tony Rice struck me as totally different.
He minimize a charming determine on stage: tall and skinny, immobile as a statue aside from his fingers transferring throughout the strings with a mixture of grace and robotic precision. It was hanging to see an individual channeling his complete self by way of simply his coronary heart and arms. The sound that got here out was astonishing — clear and highly effective and in contrast to something or anybody else. The music was so lucid and his intent was so sturdy that you simply didn’t hear what he performed — you heard what he wished you to listen to, like some kind of musical Jedi thoughts trick.
Impressed by my brother, Ben, and greatest buddy, Jay, each of whom had been precocious electrical guitar gamers, I made a decision that I wished to play guitar too. I all the time had an excellent ear, however electrical guitar by no means actually clicked for me. There was a lacking piece. Once I was 14, my mother obtained me an instrumental Tony Rice file for Christmas known as “Acoustics” that featured his string-band tackle jazz. One thing clicked. I’d admired Tony in a bluegrass context when he would sit in with the Seldom Scene, however this was one thing completely totally different. The tone, depth and energy of his guitar taking part in had been completely charming. The natural groove of the music was riveting. The melodic twists and turns had been completely shocking but additionally simple to comply with. One thing occurred in me, and my life was immediately modified. [It’s worth mentioning that there are literally thousands of people who will tell a variation on this story, about their life changing upon hearing him for the first time.] Tony Rice turned my hero and I turned a really deep disciple, finding out his data to the deepest minutia. I might go see him play at any time when I may. I had so many eureka! moments as I watched his arms render phrases that I’d heard on his data tons of of occasions. As quickly as I obtained house, these notes could be unlocked, and I may play them too. It was magical, and it introduced me a lot pleasure.
I went to Oberlin School to check music. Oberlin had a program known as “winter time period” the place college students may spend the month of January on self-designed instructional initiatives that will not match inside the bounds of regular lessons. My sophomore 12 months, I used to be imagining what I wished to do for winter time period. Finding out with Tony Rice was the dream, however clearly that may by no means occur. Tony was so untouchable that the concept appeared absurd. However then once more, I really knew him, and what could be the worst that may occur if I requested? I gathered up the braveness, known as Tony, and to my unimaginable shock, he mentioned sure. It was loopy — Tony Rice didn’t let individuals into his internal circle like that.
When the time got here, I loaded up my guitar and went all the way down to his home in North Carolina. It was some of the necessary weeks of my life and essentially modified how I seen music and what it meant to be a musician. (It was throughout this time that he singlehandedly resurrected my childhood nickname, Critter, which everybody else had stopped calling me by the point I’d hit puberty.) Tony trusted me as a guitar participant and didn’t really feel like he had a lot so as to add on that entrance. He realized that taking part in an instrument is a superficial manifestation of being a musician: a way to an finish however not an finish itself. I used to be already on a path to turning into an achieved guitar participant. Tony wished me to consider what it meant to be a terrific musician.
So he placed on data, and we listened and listened and listened, and talked, and listened some extra. He had an unimaginable stereo with two previous 500-watt monoblock tube amplifiers on every channel and these huge Urei management room audio system that he had purchased from a recording studio that was going out of enterprise. He fastidiously maintained his playback system and even had an oscilloscope hooked as much as diagnose the smallest electrical difficulty which may intrude with the music coming by way of clearly and fantastically. It labored. I had by no means heard music sound like that earlier than. Data that I knew inside out took on new life by way of his system. The music was so heat and actual that it felt like you could possibly attain out and contact it together with your hand. That was a lesson in and of itself.
He associated one other lesson to me that he realized from the good jazz pianist Invoice Evans. As a musician, you must LOVE music: the sound of it, the move of it, the humanity of it — all the pieces about it. It is best to be capable of pay attention to 1 observe — one single lengthy sustained observe — and have or not it’s an entire musical expertise. It’s all in that one observe if we’re open to it: timbre, dynamics, concord… even rhythm! For those who can hear the music in and actually love that one observe, then simply think about how engrossing precise music might be. Whenever you’re taking part in music, you’ve got the very best seat in the home. Don’t overlook to pay attention, and don’t overlook to adore it.
What a easy, deep lesson. I nonetheless give it some thought right this moment.
I keep in mind him exhibiting me some data and speaking about some musicians who had been notably impactful on him. The legendary classical violinist Jascha Heifetz was an enormous early affect, which can appear shocking however makes complete sense when you think about the readability and command with which Tony introduced each his guitar taking part in and singing. There was a recording he notably cherished of Heifetz taking part in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.
He was additionally an enormous lover of jazz. I truthfully suppose Tony Rice spent most of his residing hours in entrance of his stereo listening to jazz. Miles Davis was an enormous hero, and I might argue that, like Miles with jazz, Tony modified acoustic music a number of occasions. Give it some thought: Miles began out taking part in bebop with Charlie Parker, however rapidly was main his personal bands by way of which he explored new ideas that turned complete sub-genres: there was modal jazz like “Sort of Blue,” the deconstructions of his late ‘60s quintets and, a couple of years later, jazz fusion. Every of those phases in Miles’ profession which could have lasted a couple of years every led to complete actions in music that folks devoted their lives to.
In the identical method, Tony revolutionized the best way individuals checked out bluegrass throughout his tenure with JD Crowe and the New South. They redefined the requirements of musicianship when it comes to timing, ensemble taking part in, concord singing and tune choice. There have been different nice branches on the bluegrass tree within the Seventies — just like the Seldom Scene’s, or Sam Bush’s newgrass — however when it comes to musical Darwinism, none was an evolutionary winner like JD Crowe and the New South. Skilled bluegrass bands are nonetheless attempting to sound like them right this moment.
Tony’s subsequent part was no much less impactful. In 1975 he left Kentucky and moved to California to pursue a brand new sort of instrumental string band music that the virtuoso mandolinist David Grisman had begun to develop. Grisman’s music included improvisational ideas from swing and trendy jazz, and kind ideas from classical music. Their ensemble idea was novel as nicely. The instrumentation was two mandolins, violin, acoustic guitar and upright bass, however quite than embrace the tough edges that had all the time been native to bluegrass and gypsy jazz, they strove to play along with the sleek energy of a steam engine and hive-mind sensibility of a string quartet. The band rehearsed for months, creating and refining their new “dawg” music earlier than making their debut efficiency. Once they lastly emerged, the response was electrical. Nobody had ever heard acoustic music like this earlier than, and it was all constructed round Tony’s unimaginable, propulsive rhythm and lead guitar taking part in. For progressive pickers, the DGQ was like a North Star, illuminating a path that didn’t beforehand exist. Younger musicians like Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor, all of whom would go on to forge new paths themselves, had been let loose by the DGQ. There was proof that these bluegrass devices may now go wherever and do something.
I haven’t even talked about Tony’s voice but. Tony had one of many best and most singular singing voices within the historical past of bluegrass music. His is a heat clear baritone that rang like a horn but additionally may talk phrases with breathtaking grace and sensitivity. He wasn’t the sort of singer who emoted a lot — his voice was nearly stoic — however you believed all the pieces that he was saying as a result of it had a lot dignity.
Within the mid-Nineteen Eighties he made a few data, “Me and My Guitar” and “Native American,” that centered on the songs of writers like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. It was new to listen to these songs introduced so powerfully and elegantly in a string band context. There’s a smoothness related to a lot of the music on these data that one wouldn’t affiliate with bluegrass. However they’re stunning. With these data, Tony invented the template that Alison Krauss adopted and perfected in her profession. Alison, who performed in Tony’s band when she was 15 and calls Tony her “all-time musical hero,” could be the primary particular person to inform you this.
Within the early ‘80s, he made two completely basic data: “Church Avenue Blues,” which consisted of simply Tony and a guitar, and “Skaggs and Rice,” which consisted of duets with Ricky Skaggs within the model of the previous pre-bluegrass brother duets. If I may solely ever take one album to a desert island, I feel it is perhaps “Church Avenue Blues.” Almost 40 years later, these data are nonetheless gold requirements.
I, and I feel most each musician I do know, would argue that Tony Rice has been essentially the most influential American string band musician since Earl Scruggs. He essentially modified ideas of how bluegrass and its offshoots ought to work. He introduced a brand new degree of readability, magnificence, energy, precision and coronary heart to the music that modified all the pieces for everybody who got here after him. He was essentially the most imitated guitar stylist within the historical past of bluegrass, a lot in order that his model nearly turned a caricature within the bluegrass world as a result of so many individuals tried to play these phrases. However whereas the notes themselves aren’t really that onerous to repeat, the soul and spirit behind them that gave them life are fully singular.
It’s ironic that somebody who was so dedicated to individualism was copied a lot. I keep in mind him telling me that the one factor all of his heroes had in frequent was that they had been immediately identifiable. They had been so singular that you could possibly determine them inside simply two or three notes. Tony Rice is my hero, and I solely want one observe to inform it’s him.