Friday, May 20, 2011

grass|roots :: Tony Rice

By Jon Stone | @jwstone

grass|roots ep. 4

In my first grass|roots post, I mention that my interest in writing about acoustic music and its traditions is an exploratory venture and not one based, necessarily, on expertise. With this post on Tony Rice, I begin that exploration in earnest. Surely there are folks out there that know more -- I encourage their comments and suggestions.

My last several posts have been about my favorite acoustic musicians -- Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile -- all of which have had a hand in moving bluegrass music in a progressive direction. Tony Rice is, in this respect, as influential and integral to this move as any of these musicians, if not more so.  You can trace his songwriting, guitar playing, collaborations, and solo work directly through the history of that move.  Like these artists, he has, throughout this career, managed to be both traditional and a-traditional.

Born and raised in California, he moved to Louisville, Kentucky in the early 70s and began playing on a variety of important projects. Almost immediately, he participated in a record that has become a pivotal record in bluegrass history -- the pivotal record, even. The record was 1975's J.D. Crowe and the New South. This was a super-before-they-were-super group with the legendary J.D. Crowe on banjo and the now-legendary players  Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, and Tony Rice filling out the rest of the band. Check these cats out (and see if you can look beyond those butterfly collars and leisure suits to see a super squirrely  Douglas behind the haircut and scowl. Also, pay attention to Rice's golden playing and really lovely voice):

From there Rice launches into a career of both ground-breaking solo work and high-profile collaborations that have made him one of the genre's living legends which you can read about on his wiki page or, much better, in his just-published authorized biography, Still Inside. (I can't wait till my schedule opens up enough to read that biography. It's been delayed for years now. Autographed copies are still available from the linked site.)

My story with Rice is that I came across his music as a beginner bluegrass fan and before I knew anything about the stuff above. I picked up a record (as I often do) at my local library that looked interesting -- it was that simple. The record was his The Bluegrass Guitar Collection (2003). It is a fantastic instrumental record with a laundry list of the best-of-the-best collaborators on it. Next I got his Cold on the Shoulder and thought, "who is this guy singing?" I had no idea that Rice sang, or why (when I found out that it was his great voice I was hearing on this and other solo records) he quit. It's bittersweet, then, to hear the story he recounts of his first guitar experience here. Rice's singing voice is gone. He has dysphonia, a medical condition that has left his vocal chords damaged and unusable.

I'd highly recommend your doing some exploring here. I'm betting that if you made a short trip to your local library you'd find some great stuff. Check out Church Street Blues or Manzanita. Rice-perts, drop a few recommendations for us here as well. In the meantime, enjoy this solo performance of Shenandoah/Danny Boy. I think you'll see hear immediately what I think makes him so special.

Tony will be in Stoughton, WI on April 23rd at the Stoughton Opera House and in Chicago at the Old Town School of Folk Music on April 25th.

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