In Memoriam: Iconic Acoustic Guitarist and Garcia/Grisman Collaborator Tony Rice

December 27, 2020
In Memoriam: Iconic Acoustic Guitarist and Garcia/Grisman Collaborator Tony Rice

Known for his otherworldly skills on the acoustic guitar and his soulful, affecting vocals, bluegrass titan Tony Rice passed on Christmas Day at the age of 69. He is survived by his wife, daughter and two brothers.

Rice, who was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2013, has long been heralded for his innovative efforts as a flatpicker. “Tony Rice was the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years,” Ricky Skaggs noted in an official statement. “Many if not all of the Bluegrass guitar players of today would say that they cut their teeth on Tony Rice’s music. He loved hearing the next generation players play his licks.”

Molly Tuttle was one of these individuals and she offered a testimonial on her Instagram, reflecting, “You could hear his love for the guitar in the way he made each note sparkle. I’ve spent countless hours trying to learn his solos and tunes note for note, just like so many other guitar players who he inspired. No one can make the guitar sound like Tony could but his music and spirit lives on.”

Rice first gained renown for his work with J.D. Crowe and the New South in the early 1970s. That group, which also included Crowe, Skaggs and Jerry Douglas during this era, helped expand the bluegrass repertoire beyond the traditional canon, drawing on a palette of rock, country and folk.

Rice departed that group in the mid-70s and joined David Grisman to co-found a new five-piece band that released its celebrated David Grisman Quintet album in 1977. Rice’s association with Grisman is how some members of the Deadhead community first came to hear him. Rice appears on  The Pizza Tapes, a 1993 acoustic collaboration with Jerry Garcia and Grisman.

“It’s with a heavy heart that I mourn the loss of my dear friend and colleague, Tony Rice, who passed away yesterday,” Grisman wrote upon hearing news of Rice’s passing. “Tony was the original guitarist in my quintet and his playing established a standard for acoustic flat-top playing that remains unequaled to this day. I’ll never forget the time, shortly after we started playing together, that Tony said to me, ‘I can’t write tunes.’ I told him that he absolutely could, and the very next day he came in with his first composition, ‘Swing ’51,’ which we recorded on the first DGQ LP.”

Beyond his work with Grisman, Rice released over a dozen solo albums, and also recorded with the Tony Rice Unit, Bluegrass Album Band, Peter Rowan, Norman Blake and many others.

The International Bluegrass Music Association honored him numerous times, starting in 1990 when the Bluegrass Album Band received the IMBA award for Instrumental Group of the Year, while Tony was honored as Guitarist of the Year (an award he would also win in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2007).

In 2013 Rice was inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame in what became a profound and poignant moment. Rice had stopped singing in public back in 1994 following a diagnosis of muscle tension dysphonia. After Peter Rowan and Sam Bush delivered heartfelt tributes at the ceremony, Rice stepped to the mic. In looking back on what ensued, one attendee recalls, “In accepting the induction, Rice shocked the audience when, with intense concentration, he changed his speaking voice from his then-typical raspy growl, to a clear tone — the voice that had deserted him — to the electrified cheers of the crowd, who had not heard his ‘former’ voice for many years. This exceptional feat capped a legendary career, in one of his last public appearances.”

Upon accepting the award, Rice proclaimed, “It’s unbelievable what this organization is about and I think it’s our duty not as musicians, but as participants of this music form, that it be like any other music form in history. It’s been allowed to grow and flourish… and at the same time retain the most important part and that is the essence of the sound of real bluegrass music. I love you all, thank you so very much.”

Ricky Skaggs continued to work with Rice after their time in New South, on such projects as their critically-hailed 1980 duo album and the Tony Rice Unit’s acclaimed 1979 record Manzanita (which also featured Grisman, Bush, Douglas, Darol Anger and Todd Phillips). He also offered these reflections:I will miss him as I’m sure all of you will. But where Tony is right now, he’s not missing us. He’s in the place that God has prepared for those who love Him and receive Him. Rest In Peace dear brother. Thank you for your great talent and the music that will continue to inspire more and more generations to come.”

Editor’s note: With the deepest of thanks to Pete Wernick for his guidance and encouragement in amending this text.

Watch Rice’s IBMA Hall of Fame Induction, stream The Pizza Tapes trio’s version of “House of the Rising Sun” and check out Grisman, Skaggs and Tuttle’s tributes below:


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