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Tribute to Tony Rice

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Guitarist Trey Hensley pays tribute to the legendary Tony Rice. Rest in Peace.

Tony Rice was the North Star. I’ve thought about that a lot these past few days. He guided us all. Whether you knew it or not, his influence was present in so many musicians. Not only in bluegrass and acoustic music, but all over the musical genres. I’ll try to summarize a bit of the influence Tony had on my music and my life. I started playing guitar when I was 10 and shortly after I started taking a few lessons, a friend gave me a cassette tape that he had made for me of this guitar player that would “change my life”. Indeed, it did change my life. One side of the cassette was Tony’s “Manzanita” (a masterpiece), and the B-side was “Skaggs and Rice”, a duet record of Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs (another masterpiece). The first song on “Manzanita” is the Herb Pederson tune “Old Train”. The first thing you hear is Tony’s guitar. That tone, which was equally as iconic as his playing, and those notes. That was it for me…signed, sealed and delivered. All within 10 seconds. I’ve heard that from so many other players…hearing THAT changed everything. Fast forward a few months…I find out that Tony is coming to my hometown of Johnson City, TN, to play at the legendary Down Home and my dad immediately buys a couple tickets for us to go. If you know about Tony, this was around 2001 and Tony had already lost his (amazing) voice, so this was a “Tony Rice Unit” all instrumental show. I had no clue what I was in for. Tony kicked off the set playing a bluegrass tune, Jimmy Martin’s “Big Country”. Next up, an extended version of John Coltrane’s classic “My Favorite Things”. Tony talked about John Coltrane extensively after he played that song that night…which would be the first time I would ever hear John Coltrane’s name. So, in addition to so many other things, I have Tony Rice to thank for my introduction to jazz music. I bought “Kind of Blue”, because it had John Coltrane’s name on the cover. That album blew me away the same as “Manzanita” did. Again, thank you, Tony. 

If you haven’t taken a listen to the Tony Rice discography, there are so many musical gems to uncover.

He had the bluegrass side of his music: “Manzanita, “Cold on the Shoulder”, “Tony Rice Plays and Sings Bluegrass”, all of the Bluegrass Album Band albums, and of course the seminal 1975 bluegrass classic by JD Crowe and the New South (simply referred to as 0044 – referencing the serial number of the self-titled album). He also had the boundary pushing albums: “Me and My Guitar”, “Native American” (my personal favorite), the amazing compilation album “Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot”, and of course the groundbreaking “David Grisman Quintet” album. His record “Church Street Blues” is one of the most beautiful albums ever made and a high-water mark for all guitarists. But his contributions to jazz music were evident in his albums like “Acoustics”, “Mar West”, “Still Inside”, and Tony’s final Tony Rice Unit album titled “Unit of Measure”. Lastly, there is the album he did with David Grisman and Jerry Garcia (which has many legendary back stories) “The Pizza Tapes”. That would be another introduction for me and many others into Tony’s jazz influence. The trio cover the Miles Davis’ classic “So What” on that album and I think Tony really carries that jazz improvisational spirit into all of his solos on that album.

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Another story I will mention speaks for Tony Rice as a person. A few months after that first Tony Rice Unit show that I attended, it was announced that Tony Rice was going to be playing another show about 60 miles from where I lived at the time. So, of course, I had to go. This time, I got the chance to go back and say a few words to my hero. I was 12 years old and totally star struck, so luckily my dad was there to help me get up enough courage to say hello. My dad mentioned to Tony that I played guitar and that I spent most of my spare time sitting in front of his records with my guitar trying to learn. So, Tony (who had already packed his guitar away and was heading out the door) turned around and unlatched his guitar case and handed me his Santa Cruz dreadnought to play. He posed for a picture and he answered every question I had. He was patient, when I’m sure he was ready to get home, and he was extremely kind and generous to a kid who looked up to him so much. It’s something I’ll never forget. That’s a common story with musicians who got the opportunity to meet Tony. He was always kind and patient…and very generous with his time and with his instruments. In addition to his Santa Cruz dreadnoughts (like the one he let me play), Tony owned the most important Martin dreadnought guitar in existence: the famed 58957, his 1935 Martin D-28 that had previously belonged to Tony’s hero Clarence White. While I never got to play that guitar or see it in person, many others were given the opportunity to play 58957 thanks to Tony.  

Tony Rice was incredibly unique. Instantly identifiable. That’s the measure of a legendary musician.

In the same way of listening to “Kind of Blue” and picking out Cannonball’s parts vs Coletrane’s parts, you could easily tell Tony’s playing as soon as he played the first note. That is the most important legacy a musician can leave behind. And another important facet of Tony’s music was his ability to improvise. A quick search of some Tony Rice shows will prove that Tony never played the same thing the same way twice. He was constantly creating…constantly pushing the boundaries of his playing and his music. 

We all owe Tony so much gratitude for making the path for us. I am heartbroken that he’s no longer here…but I am so thankful that we have all of his amazing music to listen to for years to come. He may be gone, but his influence is all around and will be forever. 

Thank you, Tony. For everything – Trey

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