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Stars pay tribute to late guitar icon Tony Rice

Forrest L. Smith, III/Wikipedia
Tony Rice performs at MerleFest in April, 2006

Virginia-born musician Tony Rice isn’t well-known commercially, but his influence on bluegrass guitar is undeniable. While playing with some of the biggest groups of the 1970s Rice helped transform the scene.  But his timing and precision later lent itself to other genres.

Rice passed away on Christmas Day in 2020, and now, he’s being remembered by some of the biggest names in American music.

Diving into a career that produced almost 40 albums, a Grammy, 10 IBMA awards and countless collaborations may seem intimidating, but in the end there’s really just one thing that explains the significance of singer/songwriter and guitar wizard Tony Rice.

“The gift of greatness is pretty undeniable,” said Vince Gill. “He’s just one of the best to ever play and sing any kind of music.”

Gill has won almost two dozen Grammys, so far, in his 4-decade musical career and had been crossing paths with Tony Rice since the early 1970s when Rice, who came up in Los Angeles as an admirer of Clarence White and the Kentucky Colonels, moved to Kentucky.

There, Rice joined an early supergroup called Bluegrass Alliance, in which a young Vince Gill later played.

“I look at certain people in bluegrass and say ‘For that generation, that was the gold standard.’ And Tony was that as a singer and as a player, the guy everybody looked up to if you wanted to play and sing bluegrass in that era, that was kinda where you pointed,” Gill said.

But that was an era when traditional bluegrass music was changing. The pace of that change was hastened when Rice joined another supergroup, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and put out a seminal 1975 album known simply by its catalog number, Rounder 0044.

“We had our heroes,” said Gill. “We had Monroe, we had the Stanley Brothers, we had Lester and Earl and Jimmy Martin and folks like that, that were our generation prior, but this was our generation.”

Rounder 0044 represented a tradition in transition, with legends Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and singing tenor, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Bobby Sloane on bass and Tony Rice singing lead and slinging that 1930s Martin guitar.

“That’s the Mt. Rushmore of Bluegrass these days, you know, in a sense and they’re all in one band,” Gill said. “It was the new guys going, ‘This is how we see doing it. We respect where we came from but this is how we kind of interpret what we’ve learned and how we’re going to play it, and it was powerful.”

Around that same time, that same record appeared on the radar of an up-and-coming guitar player from Chapel Hill who went on to win some Grammys of his own – Jim Lauderdale.

“When the J.D. Crowe and the New South record came out, it just blew me away, and I just

played that record over and over and would go to great lengths to see them live,” Lauderdale said. “I even hitchhiked from Flat Rock, North Carolina to Wise, Virginia, to see them at a festival, and then hitchhiked back that night.”

Such was Rice’s influence, particularly on musicians like Lauderdale and Buncombe County native Warren Haynes, former Allman Brothers guitarist and founder of Government Mule.

“I was probably a late teenager or something like that, and all my folk musician friends, singer-songwriter friends, bluegrass friends were all raving about this guy Tony Rice, who at that time I had not heard yet,” Haynes said. “And then of course, I made it a mission to go check it out.”

In 1977, Rice joined a progressive acoustic Django Reinhardt-influenced alternative bluegrass quintet with mandolin innovator and Grateful Dead collaborator David Grisman. The partnership between Grisman and Rice, called the Gasoline Brothers, would go on for years.

“He was kinda the guy that took that into the future and started interpreting it in his own way,’ said Haynes. “I just remember everybody at that time was in awe of his technique, but it wasn’t just about the technique. It was about the overall picture.”

“It was people like Grisman and Tony Rice that were kind of just keeping it not only alive, but keeping it growing, and expanding,” Haynes said.

In his later career, Rice continued his prolific output, collaborating with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Bela Fleck to Lou Reed, Sierra Hull and Jim Lauderdale.

“Tony Rice is is still important today after he’s gone,” Lauderdale said. “He’s left such a treasure-trove of recorded music that’s all so good that we can always listen to over and over, and fall in love with Tony Rice over and over again.”

Lauderdale, Gill and Haynes all appear on the forthcoming tribute album, Barry Waldrep and Friends celebrate Tony Rice, along with John Cowan, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris and others.

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