The guitar world lost one of its greatest legends when Tony Rice died suddenly on Christmas Day 2020, at his home in Reidsville, North Carolina. Rice, who was best known to the general public for his work in the bluegrass band New South, was one of the most beloved and influential flatpickers. As the leader of the Tony Rice Unit, he pushed the boundaries of the genre, borrowing heavily from jazz in particular. We commemorate Rice’s passing with an in-depth interview that originally ran in the June 2002 issue of AG.
BY CRAIG HAVIGHURST
Guitar players go to extremes over Tony Rice. I once paid a substantial sum to attend a clinic with Rice and his sometime partner Norman Blake in Raleigh, North Carolina, where at least 30, maybe 50, guitarists crowded into a little seminar room and sat on the edge of their seats, necks craned, trying to glean some wisp of insight into how those notes came plunging out of that D-28 in quick, tidy rows, gracefully interwoven with snapping chordal figures, probing harmonic substitutions, and consummate timing. He makes it looks so easy. When he arrives on stage at venues like Telluride and MerleFest, he’s greeted like a rock star.
Rice’s command of bluegrass music is legendary, but he also helped birth a new genre of American music as different from its bluegrass roots as bebop was from swing jazz. When he played it with the David Grisman Quintet on the West Coast, it was called Dawg music. When he played it back East with Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Stuart Duncan—a band that never took a name—it was called newgrass. Rice refers to it as spacegrass and brings it closer to the jazz it borrows from than any other musician in this rarified pool.
Over a 30-year career, Rice has impressed as a player, singer, composer, and arranger on dozens of projects with such important bands as the Bluegrass Alliance, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and the Bluegrass Album Band. He also cut one of the best acoustic country duet records of the modern era with Ricky Skaggs and made chamber bluegrass of the highest order on the first of Grisman’s Tone Poems recordings. These days, Rice can be found playing with Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements and occasionally with David Grisman, Norman Blake, or in a quartet with Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, and Todd Phillips.
He’s had one band he’s called his own, and his name for it, the Tony Rice Unit, suggests a good deal about his economical approach to music making and his emphasis on tightness. The first Unit was the all-star band that cut Manzanita in 1978, with David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, and others. The three subsequent Unit recordings featured various combinations of Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, Fred Carpenter, John Reischman, and others.
An entirely different Tony Rice Unit that included Rice’s brother Wyatt on second guitar, mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau, Ronnie Simpkins or Mark Schatz on bass, and fiddler Rickie Simpkins was Rice’s chief touring band from the mid-1980s into the ’90s. The band recorded its first album together at the end of 1996, when Rice was struggling with his voice and wanted to concentrate on his guitar playing.
The result was the first Tony Rice Unit record in almost 20 years, the instrumental release Unit of Measure. Some six months after his 50th birthday, Rice talked to me about recording the album as if it was all in a day’s work.
How did sessions from 1996 become an album in 2000?
Over the years, I have learned to record something and then sit on it for a while. As time went on, that period of time just sitting on material in the can became longer. I’m not the only artist that does that. Particularly in the jazz idiom, there are a lot of players who will record something and just walk away and leave it until they become interested in it enough to want to go back and select takes and do the editing. With Unit of Measure, a good two years went by before I listened to anything at all.
When you called the band together, did you do a lot of explaining and directing?
Not really. I rarely discuss music, anyway. Once you’ve been working together that long, you almost develop a sixth sense as to who wants to play next, how you might change the dynamics, and things like that. I would point to somebody and say, “Kick it off.” And then whatever happened to end up on tape was there [laughs].
You said in the liner notes that you’d been wanting to rerecord, or rework, “Manzanita” for some time. How did you approach that?
The original “Manzanita” was recorded back in ’78, when the tune was in its infancy. The concept came out of structuring a piece of music without regard to an even number of measures, which I’d heard a lot in modern jazz. I wrote various little snippets of the melody, and when I started to put them together, I thought, How am I going to make this symmetrical? And as I started playing it, I thought, Well, OK, there’s an uneven number of beats here in this measure, but really, who gives a shit? [Laughs.] Go ahead and play it anyway. And it became what it is. As time went on, I would noodle around with it on guitar, and it evolved to the next logical step, which was to keep the melody somewhat definitive and also allow for a little more improvisation. [When we rerecorded it on Unit of Measure], we took a few minutes to discuss an arrangement and where the ensemble was going to come in, because it differed so much from the original. It’s not a piece of music that just anybody can play. I wouldn’t present that tune to somebody who was more geared toward traditional bluegrass, for example.
“Jerusalem Ridge” and “Gold Rush” make a pretty striking contrast to “Manzanita.” How did you select which songs to include?
I saw myself as two different musicians: a guitar player and an instrumental string band leader. I wanted to choose tunes that would bring out the best in the other musicians. For example, Rickie Simpkins playing “Jerusalem Ridge.” How much better does it get than that? “Gold Rush” was a [vehicle] for my own lead bluegrass guitar playing. And Wyatt had always done an incredible job on “Beaumont Rag,” so I wanted to let him get in there and put his two cents in.
How would you compare the Tony Rice Unit with the newgrass all-star band including Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Sam Bush?
There are a lot of differences. Recording and performing with Béla Fleck requires a high level of concentration because some of the arrangements and chord changes are so well-defined. The Unit, all the way up until the album was recorded, was centered around vocals. There was the instrumental music that we did within the show, but the show was more or less vocally oriented. It’s a totally different world of music. I like being able to do both.
Do you think that newgrass, Dawg music, spacegrass, or whatever you call it has been recognized and sized up adequately by critics, or do you think that this is a chapter that has yet to be written?
I think the music that started with the Grisman Quintet—or actually before that, with Grisman and Richard Greene and John Carlini, a band called the Great American Music Band—is still ahead of its time. There’s so much unexplored territory in taking those instruments and playing them in that manner. There’s part of me that sees Grisman’s music as being an instrumental extension of newgrass, which in itself is an extension of bluegrass. And then there are other times when I hear it as a totally different sound unto itself. There are some amazing young cats out there who are going to pass on that torch. I’m anxious to find out what the next thrill is going to be in terms of acoustic string music, and I would like to be a part of it if I can.
You’re known for encouraging young musicians.
I try to. One of the musical gospels I like to preach to younger players is the importance of establishing their own musical identity. All of our musical heroes have one thing in common: you can identify them immediately when you hear them. When Stéphane Grappelli is played on jazz radio, you know once you’ve heard two notes of that music that that’s Stéphane Grappelli. The same applies to Vassar Clements, Grisman, Bill Evans…
Many of your signature techniques and licks got in people’s ears pretty early in your career, in the ’70s. Has that made your own progress more challenging?
I can get tired of hearing the same old shit, whether it’s coming from somebody else or from myself. If I get tired enough of it, I’ll woodshed and experiment some and see what I can come up with. I think most innovators go through periods of being real stale. There have been times when I felt totally uninspired, but whatever the next gig happened to be—be it with Peter Rowan or a bluegrass configuration of some kind or another—all of a sudden, there I’d be backstage before I’d go on, and I’d feel like going out there and creating something new.
One step toward developing your own sound is studying solos that others have taken. Have you ever sat down and tried to play, say, a Clarence White solo note for note?
I tried that years ago and found out that I couldn’t do it. Part of my own sound came out of my inability to do that. So, instead of being a clone of Clarence White or Doc Watson, I took the opportunity to put my own signature on [the music]. I think it happens that way with a lot of musicians: they develop a musical identity not deliberately but from an inability to be a clone of somebody else.
What parts of Clarence White’s playing did you find most frustrating?
Clarence was amazing at being able to play long sequences of notes with up and down pick strokes, in combination with the left-hand fingering that only he could do. In my playing, there aren’t very many long sequences of notes where the right-hand pattern is up-down-up-down-up-down. It’s constantly changing.
Were you around Clarence much, or did you rely on recordings to learn his music?
I was around him when we were young. His family and my family were close, and there was the bluegrass circle where I grew up in L.A. Believe me, man, that circle was small. There were only a couple of bands back then: the Country Boys and a band my father started called the Golden State Boys. Other than that, there wasn’t anybody in southern California who played bluegrass.
Do you get tired of the comparisons to him?
People compare me to Clarence White, perhaps in the same light that Art Tatum was a mentor for Oscar Peterson. I mean, people associate Oscar Peterson’s playing directly with Art Tatum. But if you listen note for note, the two have very little in common. What you hear is the approach, as opposed to the actual content of the playing itself. And I think the same thing applies to my relationship with Clarence White. It’s not so much that I play like Clarence White; it’s that I’m drawing on the approach that Clarence used.
There are a lot of players I learned from. A lot of my musicianship I learned from Doc Watson. And I learned to play loud from Dan Crary in the early ’70s. I spent time listening to Dan and used that as a model so that no matter what I did with a D-28, it was loud enough so that somebody could hear it.
When it comes to sheer tone of individual notes, it’s hard to beat [Norman] Blake. He plays so clean, and every note is right on the money. To this day, when I play traditional-sounding things on guitar, I find myself trying to think like Blake just for a second, to lay it back a little bit and think of the clarity of individual notes. And then there are other times when I get on stage with, say, Darol Anger and Mike Marshall and Todd Phillips, where I don’t give a shit about none of the above. It’s almost 100 percent improvisational, and whatever happens happens.
What made you decide that bluegrass needed more from the rhythm guitar than chords and time keeping?
My rhythm guitar style in bluegrass music is totally at the mercy of a mandolin and a bass as part of the rhythm section. Rather than simply being a timekeeper as part of that rhythm section, I try to create something chordally that’s interesting and at the same time fill a void that is constantly there between the mandolin and the bass, because the bass is playing on the beat and the mandolin is playing the offbeat. And that leaves a great big continuous hole there that can be filled up with all kinds of little interesting things if you allow them to happen.
Clarence White got away with it, and he made it sound good. Most people don’t know this, but Clarence White’s rhythm model was Jimmy Martin. And whenever I hear recordings of Clarence playing bluegrass rhythm, I can still hear that Jimmy Martin influence, as well as his putting his own identity to it with little syncopated things and chord substitutions. I thought, If Clarence could do this, then I guess anybody could do it.
Get stories like this in your inbox
What’s really hard is when people ask me to show them a rhythm pattern, because there’s really no pattern there. The pattern is more in the abstract than anything else. It’s more of a philosophy, if that’s the right word. An analogy I use came from Todd Phillips: the notion of a hobo in a boxcar. You’ve got a train moving down a track at a constant rate of speed. Well, that represents a pulse. But you’ve also got a hobo in a boxcar that represents a beat. The hobo is free to move from one end of the boxcar to the other while the train is moving, right? You can place the accent either a little before the theoretical beat in metronomic time, or you can place it a little bit after.
I understand that you’ve struggled with hand injuries in recent years. Is it true that one kept you from touring after Béla Fleck’s second Bluegrass Sessions album?
Yeah, I developed what’s called early osteoarthritis. I still have it and will always have it. Back then it was particularly bad, though, because I knew something was wrong but I continued to bash away anyway. The doctors said there’s no way in the world that my hand could endure that kind of playing, night after night after night playing hour-and-fifteen- to hour-and-thirty-minute sets. So, rather than do it and go halfway, I figured it’d be better to pass it on to somebody else. And since that time, I’ve had to restructure what I do on the road. I’m good for a couple of nights in a row, but then it’s certainly good to have a day or two to give it a rest.
Does it primarily affect your left hand or your right?
It’s the left hand.
How do you take care of it?
Well, there are snake oils that people recommend, and I’ve tried them, but none of them has ever done me any good. One of my musical heroes of all time is Oscar
Peterson. For the last 35 or 40 years, before he had a stroke a few years ago, he fought osteoarthritis in both hands. He just had to work around that, schedule dates accordingly. Even with severe arthritic conditions in both hands, musicians can endure up to a point. But if the inflammation gets bad enough, the fingers just won’t do what the brain is telling them to do. Then you back off, let the inflammation die down, and let everything go back to zero, and you’re ready to start again.
What about the problems you’ve had with your voice? Has struggling with the ability to sing made you focus on the guitar?
I don’t know if the two things are related. I might have sung once or twice a year throughout my tenure with the Grisman Quintet, because I didn’t really want to sing as much as I wanted to concentrate on the guitar. But there was a period of time with the Unit where the voice and the guitar were integrated parts of my musicianship. I started to really feel the voice wearing out in ’93. I’d essentially sung myself out. I do not have the vocal mechanism to sing bluegrass with that high, lonesome sound, but I did it anyway. As a result, I overtaxed my voice. I’ve heard rumors that I had throat cancer and all that stuff, and that I would never sing again and blah blah blah. Don’t pay any attention to them. I just put that on hold for an indefinite period of time. I feel comfortable with just being a guitar player, as opposed to a singer. It hasn’t bothered me. I’m glad, if I had to lose one or the other, that it was the voice. But it’s definitely getting better.
I understand that during the 1980s, you couldn’t always match your musical urges to your audiences—that you’d find yourself playing spacegrass in front of bluegrass crowds and vice versa. How have you learned to juggle that?
It was a weird time in the early ’80s, because I’d left Grisman and reformed a new instrumental Unit. People would see the name Tony Rice on the marquee, and they wanted to hear “Little Sadie” or “Blue Railroad Train,” which I wasn’t interested in at the time. I was interested in the guitar as a separate entity from the voice. So there were times when it was frustrating. Whenever I wanted to play bluegrass, I would just round up J.D. Crowe and Doyle Lawson or Sam Bush.
Sounds like the perfect scenario.
I’ve been blessed. I have been able to enjoy a real diverse range of musical genres within a genre. Only a few nights ago, Dan Tyminski and myself and Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins and Sammy Shelor played a bluegrass gig at the Birchmere, up in Washington [D.C.]. Man, this was really a bluegrass gig, and I had a ball with it. I love doing the Peter Rowan gig, too. It offers an enormous amount of freedom and exploration. It’s the spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment kind of music that I really like.
But there are other things I like to do. I like to play duets with Norman Blake. And Grisman and I occasionally get together and do a few dates of duets. We haven’t done it in a while, but I’m sure that we will this year at some point. Oh, I like doing it all. If it’s good music, that’s my only criteria.
What He Plays
Tony Rice plays a 1935 Martin D-28 that originally belonged to Clarence White. He strings it with D’Aquisto nickel-silver medium-gauge strings, which he endorses, and uses a tricornered tortoiseshell pick. He plays into microphones: a Sony C-48 in high-caliber listening rooms and mics from the AKG 400 series for more general gigs. He also likes the Shure SM81. As a rule, he avoids dynamic mics because he says they’re too unforgiving in terms of spacing between the instrument and the microphone.