By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers 

In late January, San Francisco Bay Area guitarist Dix Bruce posted a video teaching the guitar chords for “Sweet Georgia Brown” and explaining how the progression uses the cycle of fifths.

“I sure have had a ton of fun over the years learning this progression, and when it finally sunk in what it was, how the progression moved, it was just like a lightbulb lighting up above my head,” he said. “I’ve played this with jazz bands, I’ve played this with country bands, I’ve played this with bluegrass bands, and you’ll find that there are literally hundreds of thousands of other tunes that use this basic cycle-of-fifths pattern.” 

Just over a week later came the shocking news that this versatile, knowledgeable, and always cheerful musician/educator had passed away suddenly and peacefully in his sleep. Bruce was 70, a devoted husband, father, and grandfather, and as always in the midst of all sorts of musical projects. 

As a teacher, Bruce was remarkably prolific, the creator of more than 50 titles for Mel Bay Publications alone, as well as founder of his own instructional company, Musix. But he did so much more on all sides of the acoustic music world. Drawn into David Grisman’s orbit early on by his interests in bluegrass and acoustic jazz, Bruce served as editor of Grisman’s Mandolin World News from 1978 to 1984. Over the years Bruce worked for Arhoolie Records, as a recording engineer, and as a songwriter—even composing music heard in the Sims City computer games. He began contributing lessons to Acoustic Guitar during my tenure as editor, and in recent years he created a series of videos for Acoustic Guitar Auctions showcasing instruments with a range of country, folk, blues, and jazz tunes.

Dix Bruce with his granddaughters
Dix Bruce with his granddaughters Tilly and Cece. Photo courtesy Gennie Bruce Gorback. 

As a performer, Bruce released the old-time/traditional solo album My Folk Heart, played big band music with the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, recorded with bluegrass mandolin master Frank Wakefield, and was the guitarist for 30 years with Jeremy Cohen’s Violinjazz band. (On April 15, Cohen is hosting a memorial for Bruce at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, California.)

Bruce also had a long-running duo with flatpicker Jim Nunally (Nell and Jim Band, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, David Grisman Bluegrass Experience). Bruce and Nunally made four albums of rootsy duets and also traveled widely as Martin Guitar clinicians. “The job, if one could call it that, was to go to stores or events that feature Martin guitars and play them for the attendees,” Nunally recalls. “Is that a dream job or what?”

Dix Bruce and Jim Nunally both with guitars
Dix Bruce and Jim Nunally. 

On their second album, The Way Things Are, Bruce and Nunally recorded Bruce’s original song “When I Die,” written in the style of a classic bluegrass duet. “I loved playing that song with him from the first time he played it to me and every show we performed it on,” says Nunally. “People connect to that song.”

Needless to say, Bruce’s song has taken on new resonance for his family and friends since his passing.

“I can’t express the deep connection between that song and the way I feel now,” says Nunally. “I wish he could somehow tell us all now what he knows.”

When I Die 

Words and music by Dix Bruce 

Will I float with the clouds up above when I die? 
With the stars in the heavens, will I fly? 
Will I shine with the sun, bound to the earth as one 
When I die, when I die? 

Will my soul be set free to walk the shallow stream 
Of the sweet thoughts and dreams in my mind? 
Will my heart beat as one with the earth and the sun 
When I die, when I die? 

Will I roam through the fields, down the mountains, ’cross the land 
Wade the rivers down to the ocean sand? 
Will I touch trusted friends in a whisper of the wind 
When I die, when I die? 

Can I be with my family, can I visit with my friends 
As they spend the short time they were lent? 
Will they quietly know that I really did not go 
When I die, when I die? 

Will the ones that I love someday join me up above? 
Will we laugh, will we sing, will we cry? 
Together will we be through all eternity
When I die, when I die?

Will I grow in the hearts of those I have known? 
Will they think of me fondly now and then? 
Will I live on and on when my life on earth is done 
When I die, when I die?