Tony Rice was one of the most important musicians to ever pick up the acoustic guitar. His recordings with JD Crowe, David Grisman, Jerry Garcia and the Tony Rice Unit influenced generations of aspiring pickers.
“No one has had a more profound impact on my musical world,” wrote Chris Thile on Twitter. Chris is a mandolinist and founding member of the Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek. “His playing, singing, writing, and arranging broke the bluegrass mold and will eternally attest to the fact that music can take you anywhere, from anywhere.”
PineCone presented Tony Rice over the years in Down Home Concerts, at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass and we were there for his last visit to Raleigh. In 2013 Tony came down to Raleigh to be inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. After listening to the praises of friends Sam Bush and Peter Rowan, Tony Rice spoke the the crowd gathered in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. His voice was at first raspy as he’d been suffering from lateral epicondylitis. But then, much to the surprise of the audience, Tony spoke in that clear baritone that for the longest time had been the voice of bluegrass. Craig Havinghurst wrote of that moment, “With apparent mental focus, his pinched, gravelly tone vanished and he conjured his old familiar speaking voice for a few moments that left many in the audience astonished and in tears.” It was one of the rare times that he appeared and spoke in public in his later years.
“It’s our duty, not only as musicians, but as participants of this music form that it be like any other music form. It’s been allowed to grow and flourish a little bit,” said Rice at the 2013 Awards Ceremony in Raleigh. “It’s our duty to allow bluegrass music grow and flourish and at the same time retain the most important part of it, and that is the essence of the sound of real bluegrass music.” Tony ended his acceptance speech with, “I love you all.”
For David Tate, a physician at UNC and PineCone Board member, Tony was a friend. He kept in close touch with Tony, Wyatt and the rest of the Rice family. David wrote this remembrance shortly after Tony died on Christmas Day, 2020 at the age of 69.
“Christmas and Hanukkah of 2020 will long be remembered as a particularly sad holiday season. Far too many of us have lost loved ones to COVID. And even the more fortunate among us have had to remain apart and unhugged by our loved ones. But for all of us in the traditional music community, it became ever more so as word spread following the sudden passing of our dear fellow North Carolinian Tony Rice on Christmas morning.
Tony had been in poor health in recent years and had not performed publicly in quite some time. Nevertheless, we all looked forward to the day when he would. It was somehow hard to take it in ……. that day would never come.
As the shock wore off, many of us retreated to our recordings or to YouTube to re-experience some of his greatness. The MerleFest ‘92 video of “Freeborn Man” with Sam, Bela, Mark, Mark and Jerry where sparks of joy and genius are flying off the stage ……. or the astounding musical inventiveness of Manzanita or of his body of work with David Grisman.
I first saw Tony play at Camp Springs in 1971, the first year I had a driver’s license and could borrow my parent’s car for the trip up from Greensboro. I wanted to see the big stars like the Osborne Brothers, and perhaps even Earl Scruggs who had redefined my instrument, the bluegrass banjo, some 25 years before.
Little did I expect to see a kid just 3 years my senior who was in the process of redefining his instrument, the bluegrass flat-picked guitar, and would continue to do so for the next several decades.
A lifetime later, I had the good fortune of getting to know Tony reasonably well, having met through our mutual good friend, Cary-based fiddler and mandolinist Jan Johansson. Tony was a notorious night owl, as am I, and as he grew more reclusive in recent years, our friendship consisted mainly of long phone calls in the middle of the night.
“Hey Dave ….. it’s Tony”, followed a couple of hours later by, “Well alright ….. love ya man ……… hug Karen for me …… Adios”.
Between the hello and goodbye, we didn’t really talk about music that much. When we did, it was mainly about Miles, or Coltrane, or Jerry Garcia. But we did occasionally talk about acoustic music, and we found some common ground.
My favorite of Tony’s music was never the flashy stuff, but rather the solo and duet recordings, like the bittersweet “Streets of London” or the Gordon Lightfoot material. Or perhaps the bluegrass ensemble pieces like “Fare Thee Well” where his warm baritone moves up to a low tenor harmony on the second line of the chorus, and the whole band is nested in his oh-so-tasteful rhythm and lead guitar work.
Tony had similar tastes. He cared far more about tone and touch and texture and timing than he did about licks or speed or chord voicings. He felt that good musicians developed their own mysterious special tone through the touch they developed on their instrument. He loved slow songs. He felt the licks and dynamics and chord substitutions should always be in service to the lyrical, poetic content of a tune …… even an instrumental one.
I regret that I never got around to asking Tony why he named his masterpiece song and album “Manzanita”. It literally means “little apple“ in Spanish and refers to an evergreen shrub found throughout the chaparral landscapes of Mexico and the American west. But perhaps it’s best that I didn’t.
For it means something special to me, from which a literal answer may have detracted. I thought about it after each time I put down the phone. Adios ….. Manzanita ….. Adios ….. Manzanita …..
The idiom in Spanish for “play the guitar” is the far more sensuous, and in Tony’s case, far more accurate phrase, “tocar la guitarra”, which literally means “touch the guitar”.
It’s possible, I suppose, that some day ….. someone …… may play the guitar rather like Tony ……… but nobody will ever touch the guitar like Tony.
Love ya, man ……… Adios ……..”