His name was Tony Rice, and in the world of bluegrass he was a Big Man with a Big Guitar. Stories about him and his priceless 1935 Martin D-28 can be heard throughout the United States and in bluegrass outposts from Japan, England, Ireland, Australia, Italy and France, to South Korea, the Czech Republic, Brazil and beyond. This book of stories and insights about Tony is drawn from interviews with some of his longest and best musician friends. I chose to focus on musicians because playing music with someone forges a strong personal connection. You’ve locked hearts and heartbeats, played and prayed together, made beauty together, and in that created a meaningful bond. We’ll hear this bond in the words of all who played music with Tony.
My connection to him began when we worked together in the group that recorded the original DGQ album. In that era, which began for me in ’76 and ended in ’79, Tee (his nickname) flogged his guitar with muscular, 25-year-old vitality.
On November 2, 1980, as a minister in the Universal Life Church, I married him to the love of his life, Leela, when he was 29. The marriage ended in 1986, when he was 35.
In October of 2005, I saw him walk off stage following a Rowan & Rice show and cancel the rest of the tour. His right hand ached so from osteoarthritis, he couldn’t hold on to the flatpick. He was 54.
He played his last gig on September 26, 2013, when he was 62. Seven years later, on Christmas Day, 2020, Tony was found dead on his kitchen floor in Reidsville, North Carolina. It was heart disease, the medical examiner said. He was 69.
Tony created a new style of playing bluegrass guitar, in both his comping (accompanying) and soloing. Though he flogged his instrument to its limits, he articulated his notes clearly – a difficult duality to master.
Tony learned from the best American acoustic guitarists, including Doc Watson, Clarence White, Dan Crary, and James Taylor. He added his own volume, tone, attack, dexterity, and expression, bringing more out of a Martin Dreadnought than had been done previously. He changed the aural texture of the flatpicked guitar.
Tony expanded the bluegrass envelope and, with his work on the original DGQ album, was central to creating “New Acoustic Music.” This genre fused the instruments and rhythmic elements of two-beat bluegrass, the sinuous melodies, minor-key chord changes, emotionality, and virtuosic improvisations of klezmer music, the bass rhythm of bossa nova, and the walking bass of straight-ahead jazz, into a new, American, acoustic string-band format. Tony leaves his fingerprints on a wide swath of flat-pickers who have listened to him, learned from him, worked hard to sound like him, and beyond that, to not sound like him.
He played on over 250 albums with some of the greatest music celebrities of his era, including Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Jerry Garcia, John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, and Ricky Skaggs. And he played with many famous bands including J.D. Crowe & the New South, the Bluegrass Alliance, the DGQ, Rowan & Rice, and the Bluegrass Album Band. He performed and recorded under his own name and under his band name, the “Tony Rice Unit.”
Whatever group he was with, wherever he played, he left his audiences gasping slack-jawed at his astounding flatpicking.
Moreover, Tony was one of the great singers in bluegrass, some would say the greatest. His nasalized, plane-sung voice that he pushed from his natural baritone into tenor territory, was smoothly sharp edged, immediately recognizable, and country clean. His album, Skaggs & Rice, is a lesson in singing bluegrass duets. Any of a number of tunes he sang can be heard as their definitive renditions.
He penned a number of instrumentals and wrote one song on his own that I’m aware of. His choice of tunes for the albums he made was part of his artistry, as we’ll read string bassist Mark Schatz, pointing out.
In preparing this book, I interviewed eight of Tony’s music colleagues at length. They knew and understood Tony well, and spoke passionately about him. (These interviews have been edited and condensed for length, readability, continuity, and clarity.)
A number of stories I heard are not here, either because they deserved corroboration from Tee (already singing with the angels), didn’t add meaningfully to his legacy, or are better left untold.
Some folks who witnessed or heard these stories may recall them differently. I understand. We each spin our own takes and speak our own truths in the stories we tell. The folk process – how tales morph as they travel from person to person – also informs our recollection of told stories.
Having said that, I researched diligently, and believe this is largely a book of facts, truthful stories, and yes, personal opinions, mine included. It is neither the definitive take on Tony’s music, nor a birth-to-death narration of his life. It’s my attempt at revealing him through his musician friends’ stories.
While working on this book, I tried to respect two boundaries. The first, of the tellers’ truths, and the second, of fact, were further delimited by respect for what I feel Tony would and wouldn’t want known about his life. Tony’s brother, Ron Rice was most helpful in this. I didn’t want to create a whitewashed portrait of Tony, or avoid publishing truthful stories or factual material I gathered.
I started most of my conversations with the principal speakers by asking, “How do you remember Tony Rice?” This question elicited their truths, many of them surprisingly unexpected. With their answers they traveled corridors of Tony’s life and expressed insights that were new to me and sounded spot-on.
How we deal with life’s challenges informs who we are. Carter Stanley, Miles Davis and Van Gogh all faced difficulties in their lives. To omit mention of Tony’s life hurdles would be to diminish his stature as an artist deserving of having the truth told about him. Seeing what he triumphed over in his life helps us more fully hear and appreciate his art.
As the interviews unfolded, I heard that they were allowing Tony’s close friends to both tell their stories about him and to express how they miss him. There was no public memorial for Tony, so I hope this modest volume replaces the void many feel at losing him, and serves as heartfelt homage to Tee.
Tony and I played music together for uncounted hours in the DGQ, drove hundreds of miles shoulder-to-shoulder in a Mercury station wagon, toked bud, broke bread and swilled coffee together, shared laughs, stories, and dressing rooms, many times.
I thought I knew him.
But I didn’t.
I began discovering Tony Rice as I started listening to these stories about him, and hope you do as well.