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Tributes Continue For Bluegrass Innovator Tony Rice

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Tony Rice was the Jimi Hendrix of acoustic music and when he died on Christmas Day, the music world lost the greatest flat-picking guitarist of his generation.

The holiday season has seen a flood of tributes from artists who not only collaborated with Rice but were enormously influenced by his skills.

Perhaps the finest tribute came from bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, who, in 1980, combined with Rice to produce a superb acoustic album, Skaggs And Rice.

He called him “the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years”.

Skaggs wrote on Facebook: “Many if not all of the bluegrass guitar players of today would say that they cut their teeth on Tony Rice’s music. He loved hearing the next generation players play his licks. I think that’s where he got most of his joy as a player.”

In an official statement on behalf of the Rice family, Skaggs said: “Thank you for your great talent and the music that will continue to inspire more and more generations to come.”

In an email to Rolling Stone, Charlie Worsham – formerly of the Old Crow Medicine Show - added: “The list of guitarists who reinvented the most played instrument in the world is very short. Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix … a few others. Tony Rice is on that list.”

John Osborne, of the Brothers Osborne, also compared Rice to Hendrix. “What Hendrix did for the electric guitar, this man did for the acoustic,” he tweeted.

Rice, who was 69, died at his home in Reidsville, North Carolina. He found fame by perfecting flatpicking, a technique involving striking a guitar’s string with a pick instead of the fingers. And his acoustic guitar – a well-worn Martin D-28 – became as famous as its owner.

He was associated with what became known as the “newgrass” movement in which bands broke with the traditional bluegrass arrangements and instead found inspiration in pop, rock and jazz by incorporating electric guitars and drums.

But he was still recognised as a stalwart of bluegrass music and the Bluegrass Association

six times named him Instrumental Performer of the Year. In 1983 he received a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Fireball,” a track recorded with J.D. Crowe and the New South.

Rice cut a dignified and dashing figure onstage, wearing finely tailored suits. “Back in the heyday of Miles Davis’s most famous bands, you wouldn’t have seen Miles without a tailored suit on. My musical heroes wear suits.” he told his biographers, Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright, for “Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story” (2010).

And Rice had a voice to match both his dignified suits and immense guitar skills. He cut a dozen solo albums, starting with his 1973 debut album which included his signature song “Freeborn Man.”

“Even if Tony rice had never played a lick, his voice alone was a singular force and the songs he sang upped the game for song-writing in bluegrass and beyond,” Worsham tweeted.

But it was as a musical collaborator that Rice would gain international recognition and respect. He worked with all the big names who were to venture down the bluegrass path – from Jerry Garcia to Dolly Parton – and released countless albums with various musical combinations and acoustic legends like Skaggs, David Grisman, Norman Blake and Bela Fleck.

In 1994, he was diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia, a vocal disorder which not only prevented him from singing but impeded his speaking voice. He would not address an audience again until 2013 when he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame.

But in the intervening years, he still continued with his instrumental projects and collaborations, the most successful being The Pizza Tapes, a studio album with Grisman and Garcia. Added to this was his prolific work as a session musician for some of the biggest names in the business, from Emmylou Harris to Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lou Reid to Dan Tyminski.

He stopped playing completely in 2014 when battling arthritis and elbow issues. At the time he said: "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."

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation.


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