On Christmas Day, 2020, guitarist Tony Rice passed away at the age of 69. Rice was a pivotal figure in bluegrass guitar. His music spanned from traditional bluegrass to jazz-influenced New Acoustic music to songwriter-oriented folk. I first became aware of him reading Guitar Player magazine who gave a glowing review to the 1977 album, The David Grisman Quartet, a landmark of acoustic string band music. The album was comprised of original material that blended jazz, bluegrass, and classical styles and totally blew me away and I became an immediate fan. The album became a huge influence on musicians like Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor who all went on to create their own versions the music.
David Grisman Quartet – E.M.D. (David Grisman, Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, & Rob Wasserman)
David Grisman Quintet Reunion – Swing 51 – Floyd Fest 2003
Before that, Rice, as an integral part of the bluegrass band JD Crowe and the New South, helped to define the template of the progressive bluegrass band with their highly influential, self-titled album for Rounder Records, known by its catalog serial number “oo44.”
In the early ‘80s, he made another classic record, “Church Street Blues,” which consisted of just himself on guitar, as well as records with his band, the Tony Rice Unit records and collaborations with Norman Blake, Bela Fleck, Ricky Skaggs and his brothers Larry Rice, Wyatt Rice and Ronnie Rice.
Tony Rice – Church Street Blues
The Tony Rice Unit – Blue Railroad Train
The Tony Rice Unit – Tipper
Tony Rice & Norman Blake – New River Train
Tony Rice – Gold Rush
Tony Rice & Friends – “White House Blues” ( Tony Rice, along with Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck & Mark Schatz,)
Tony Rice with Bela Fleck – Whitewater
Tony Rice & Friends – “Freeborn Man”
Most Deadheads may be familiar with Tony Rice when Rice recorded what became the Pizza Tapes with Grisman and guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1993. The session recorded at Grisman’s studio was eventually officially released in 2000 after bootleg recordings circulated for several years. Strengthening the Dead connection, Rice came together with Peter Rowan for tours and albums, releasing the Quartet album on Rounder Records in 2006 with Bryn Davies and Sharon Gilchrist. Deadheads familiar with the Jerry Gracia bluegrass band Old and In The Way would be familiar with the material.
Peter Rowan – Tony Rice Cold Rain and Snow
Peter Rowan Tony Rice Quartet “Midnight Moonlight” 3/26/2005, Live Oak, FL
Peter Rowan Tony Rice Quartet “Hobo Song” 2/17/06 Asheville, NC
Peter Rowan – Tony Rice – Shady Grove
Time and touring took it’s toll on Tony Rice. In the 1990s, he was diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia, which impaired his ability to sing. His last public vocal performance occurred in 1994. Eventually, other health complications forced Rice to stop playing guitar altogether with Rice’s induction into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall Of Fame in 2013 being his last public performance.