Sunday morning coming down

Putting an exclamation point on the year from hell, I want to note the death of the musician Tony Rice on Christmas day. Tony was a musician’s musician. Alison Krauss testified in some detail to his impact on her last month before he died (I quote her toward the bottom of this post). She is representative of a couple generations of our best musicians.

Rice struggled with health issues that first prevented him from singing and then impaired his playing for too many years, but his death represents an enormous loss to American music. Stacy Chandler’s No Depression obituary “Iconic Bluegrass Guitarist Tony Rice Dies at Age 69” provides biographical background. David Morris collects tributes to Rice from “his peers” (I would say he was peerless, but that’s nitpicking). When Rice was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2014, the New York Times published a moving account that foreshadowed his death last month.

As a long-time fan I feel his loss keenly. When I discovered bluegrass and wanted to catch up on what I’d been missing, I turned to Rice’s Bluegrass Album Band. In addition to his lyrical and inventive playing, he sang with a warm baritone voice that I loved. These are a fan’s notes.

Rice was a champion of what I now think of as heavy metal, the real deal. Every one of the aggregations Rice played in or formed was a supergroup. He was an incomparable guitarist and early proponent of the newgrass movement that brought elements of jazz and swing into traditional American music in the early 1970’s. It took a high level of musicianship to keep up with him.

Rice made a big splash early in his career with J.D. Crowe and the New South in 1974. Crowe’s New South included Rice, Ricky Skaggs, and Jerry Douglas, all budding stars. The AllMusic review by Thom Owens puts it this way:

J.D. Crowe & the New South’s eponymous debut album is one of the most influential and pioneering records in the history of bluegrass. For the first edition of the New South, Crowe assembled a stellar group of musicians — including Ricky Skaggs (fiddle, mandolin, vocals), Tony Rice (lead vocals, guitar), and Jerry Douglas (dobro) — and gave them each equal weight. Consequently, this is vibrant collaborative music, not just a leader with some faceless studio hacks. Furthermore, Crowe pushed the music in new direction with his section of material, taking songs from contemporary singer/songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot, adding a couple of originals, as well as standards. With such an eclectic selection of songs, plus the band’s trailblazing instrumental style, The New South did indeed offer a new kind of bluegrass and its impact could still be felt years after its release.

“Ten Degree and Getting Colder” is one of the two Lightfoot songs included on that album.

Rice was searching for a combination of jazz and swing with traditional American music that he heard in his head. He found it with virtuoso mandolinist David Grisman and the David Grisman Quintet in 1975. He stuck around long enough to contribute to their debut album in 1977 along with Darol Anger on fiddle, Bill Amatneek on bass, and Todd Phillips on mandolin. This is the instrumental “E.M.D.,” composed by Grisman.

The sound Rice had heard in his head manifested itself on vinyl in Manzanita (1979). Here is the title track.

In 1980 Rice took a step back to team with Ricky Skaggs for an album of traditional music. This is “Bury Me Beneath the Willow Tree.”

Rice’s vision of newgrass came to fruition on Backwaters (1981). Rice called it spacegrass. With a hat tip to John Coltrane, here is the group’s take on “My Favorite Things.”

Rice was a mainstay in six Bluegrass Album Band albums in the 80’s. They stylishly recapitulated and updated the bluegrass canon for a new generation and for newcomers like me. “Model Church” is from their fist album (1981).

“Age” is by the late Jim Croce and his wife Ingrid. This track comes from the Bluegrass Album Band’s fourth (1984).

Rice also fronted the Tony Rice Unit while releasing albums in his own name. “John Hardy” comes from his 1984 album Cold on the Shoulder. See Alison Krauss’s comments on the album below. Among the musicians backing Rice on the album’s tracks are Sam Bush on mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle, J. D. Crowe on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Béla Fleck on banjo, Bobby Hicks on fiddle, Rice’s brother Larry Rice on mandolin, and Todd Phillips on bass. The album is full of highlights. The traditional song “John Hardy” is one.

“Muleskinner Blues” is another. You may want to search out the rest on YouTube.

Here is the title track (by Lightfoot) drawing on the fantastic Unit lineup for a live festival performance.

Rice followed up with Me and My Guitar in 1986. He covered Lightfoot’s “Song For a Winter’s Night” accompanied by Jerry Douglas (dobro), Mark Schatz (bass), and Jimmy Gaudreau (mandolin).

Tony was backed by the same group on Native American in 1988. I love their version of Lightfoot’s “Shadows.” Rounder Records ultimately collected 17 recordings of Lightfoot songs by Rice in 1996 on the aptly named Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot provides a thread through his career.

Here we see the Tony Rice Unit’s popular take on the old Delmore Brothers number “Blue Railroad Train,” live on American Music Shop in the early 90’s. Rice’s original recording of the song goes back to Manzanita.

Rice performed live at the 1993 Merlefest accompanied by Mark O’Connor on violin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, Bela Fleck on banjo, and Mark Schatz on bass. That is one incredible lineup and this is one formidable version of “Freeborn Man” by Keith Allison and Mark Lindsay (of Paul Revere and the Raiders). The awestruck appreciation of this performance by Fil of Wings of Pegasus is the last video in this post.

Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen is another supergroup of which Rice was a prominent member. They released three compact discs. Their version of the Chris Hillman/Steve Hill number “Change Coming Down” comes from their second, Out of the Woodwork (1997). By this time Rice had given up singing as a result of the disorder affecting his vocal cords. Chris Hillman is on the lead vocal. Tony Rice is on lead guitar. Larry Rice adds the mandolin part. Herb Pedersen is on banjo and harmony vocal. Rickie Simpkins is on fiddle, Ronnie Simpkins on bass.

Alison Krauss has performed with Rice occasionally over the years. Whole concerts are preserved on YouTube. In 1990, when Alison was all of about 19, she performed a live version of “John Hardy” with Rice, Grisman, and J.D. Crowe as one of the Rounder All Stars.

In 2007 she toured with Rice for two months and stated without qualification that his music is her “favorite music ever recorded.”

Alison invited Rice to sit in with her Union Station outfit in 2011. You can’t see Tony’s solo, but you can hear it and “hear” his fingerprints all over this beautiful arrangement of Lightfoot’s “Shadows,” introduced by Sam Bush and Rice.

Both Jerry Douglas and Alison spoke about Tony’s influence in the introduction to “Sawing on the Strings” from that 2011 session.

Early last month before Rice’s death the Guardian captured Alison’s recollection of Rice’s initial impact on her:

When I was about 13, I was out of my mind for Cold on the Shoulder, an album by Tony Rice. I had it on cassette but, other than the tiny picture of him, I had nothing. So I’d imagine what he was like: the most heroic, toughest, kindest person. He’d do songs by Gordon Lightfoot, or Jimmie Rodgers’s “Mule Skinner Blues,” and totally change them. I loved “Likes of Me,” about being a roamer, but the stories and poetry in all those songs was amazing. By then, I wanted to do music but I didn’t know if it was possible, so I daydreamed about playing fiddle in Tony’s band. I got to see him play in about 1986 or ’87 and there are pictures of me watching with my mouth open, in shock.


NOTE: The video below provides an appropriately awestruck appreciation of the Merlefest performance of “Freeborn Man.” If you’re still with me, you may want to take this in as well.