In this tribute to Tony Rice, acoustic guitarist Curtis Jones explains how he was influenced by the legendary guitarist.
I remember in the mid-’80s, going to The Moon Shadow Saloon in Atlanta, Ga to see and hear my favorite Bluegrass/Acoustic Band- The Tony Rice Unit. I was a young aspiring flatpicker and was awestruck by the pure power, tone, timing, and phrasing of Mr. Rice’s guitar work. About halfway through the show, Tony announced “ Now we will do something entirely different! Here is a Jazz tune called “ My Favorite Things”. I honestly didn’t get it near as much as I do now. It was my first exposure to Jazz. Tony ripped through it at high-speed Bluegrass tempo with the same beautiful tone and power he was known for! He soared through the distinctive melody and showered down incredible lines of improvisation. This moment in time for a young aspiring musician such as myself was critical to my development.
Later that same year, I was headed to Crystal River, FL to play music with Tony’s brother, the late great Mandolinist, Vocalist, and Song Writer, Larry Rice. While I was there at Larry’s home, I got to spend a little time with Tony! It was a truly staggering time talking with such a humble, intelligent, and fantastically gifted artist like Mr. Rice. I learned so much on that trip. For instance, Tony’s love of Jazz Music! He was a huge fan of John Coltrane! This explained his fiery version of “My Favorite Things” as it was vastly inspired by Trane’s Version. I learned that day as well that Tony was a huge fan of both Django Reinhardt and Jazz Guitarist George Benson. He also drew inspiration from various horn players and piano players too. On that same day, when we were talking, he gave me the best advice that to this day, I have ever received. I played for Tony and he said “ Son, that’s impressive for sure that you have sat down and figured my solos out! But honestly, I’d rather hear your voice! I already have heard me play them. Now, let’s hear you play them like Curtis Jones! He told me “ Son, as an artist, you must always search for new roads, new territories, and new paths to take”. This is so true! I know of 1000 Tony Rice clones but there was only one Tony, and never will be another. I left there playing like Curtis Jones.
David Anthony Rice ( Tony) was born January 8th, 1951 in Danville, Va. He grew up with a love for music, especially Bluegrass and Jazz. He befriended Flatpicking legend Clarence when he was young. The influence Clarence had on Tony’s playing was very evident, especially in his early recordings. In the mid 70’s Tony’s Jazz style really started showing up. He joined the David Grisman Quintet and they recorded their debut album titled after the band name. It remains one of the most spectacular and influential recordings in the genre of Dawg Music and Acoustic Jazz. One Huge highlight for me on the David Grisman Quintet album is Tony’s lead and rhythm guitar on the tune, “Fish Scale’. His intro is basically a workshop on timing and tone. His improvised solo is jaw-dropping -complete with melody, crosspicking, triplets, and bends! All while never compromising on the beautiful sound of his old Prewar Martin Flattop. Tony would go on to record many albums with David Grisman and they did many show-stopping live performances together as well. During these years, Tony also spent much time with Jazz Guitarist John Carlini. During that time, he was able to hone in on his Jazz chops, chords, and ideas.
Mr. Rice went on to record many of his own Jazz records under his own name including Acoustics, Mar West, Backwaters, and Still Inside. All of which are soaked and served with the absolutely beautiful sound of Tony’s guitar! All were very strong in melody and never missed a chance to stretch and improvise. One note of interest here is that Tony used his Ovation Legend on many of these recordings. This is a very strong statement on the strength and quality of Ovation guitars as Tony had what is probably one of the most famous Martin guitars in the world! Tony’s Legend was a late 70’s all Acoustic and it had the same bold and powerful sound that his Martin did.
Zane Fairchild was one of Tony’s dearest friends and spoke to him on a daily basis. While recently on the phone with Zane, he shared a few personal stories about his conversations with Mr. Rice. One of the stories goes that while at the Great American Music Hall in California, Tony got to meet one of his favorite musicians, Oscar Peterson. While backstage that night Tony met Oscar and shook his hand. He said he was amazed at the size of Mr. Peterson’s hands! He said they were huge and strong, which, is not that surprising to anyone who has ever heard Oscar play.
In his free time, Tony loved to listen to Jazz records and to work on old watches. Tony wasn’t just a virtuoso guitarist; he was also an accomplished watchmaker. He would often acquire old Bulova Accutron Spaceview watches and would repair them, rebuild them, and make them new again. It is safe to say that Mr. Rice, on top of being the most influential guitarist in Bluegrass music also inspired a whole generation of musicians to wear and collect these fine timepieces. He was also a gifted painter, had impeccable penmanship, and was a great photographer! The Ultimate Renaissance Man!
One of Tony’s favorite Modern Jazz guys was guitarist, Mike Moreno. Tony loved Mike’s “ Children of The Night” and would listen to it over and over again. Tony even told Zane once that if Mike played Acoustic guitar, he would consider giving him the “ Antique”. That’s Tony’s given name to his famous and priceless 1935 Martin D-28 Herringbone – Serial Number 58957. That guitar is widely considered in the acoustic guitar world as The Holy Grail.
I will share a story about that guitar and the very humble master of it. I was a teenager and very obsessed with acoustic guitar (Mr. Rice was and still is a big reason for it!). I met Tony backstage in Atlanta, GA at a Tony Rice Unit Show. It was the first time I shook the hand of one of my heroes! He looked me in the gleaming eyes and said,” Son, have you ever played this guitar?”. I said,” No Sir, I have not”. To which he replied, “Well, there it is. Get to it!’. I remember my hands shaking and my nerves were off the chain! I mean, not only was I about to play guitar in front of the greatest flatpicking guitarist of all time, I was about to do it on his famous and priceless 1935 Martin Guitar!!!! I settled down pretty quickly though because Tony was so nice and down to earth. He was a true gentleman with no ego whatsoever and that is a cherished memory that has stuck with me all these years.
For those reading that are not familiar with Tony Rice’s body of work, I’d like to make a few recommendations. These are all incredible works of art by the master himself. Give a listen to “Gasology” from the album “Acoustics”. Tony wrote this composition and I feel that it is the perfect marriage of Bluegrass and Jazz. His phrasing and power come through loud and clear on this track while weaving in and out of jazzy-inspired flatpicking magic. “ Waltz For Indira” also composed by Tony, is a hauntingly beautiful tune rich with a strong melody, beautiful chords, and as always with Tony, incredible tone and feel. This song is on the album called “Devlin”. A must-listen is also “ E.M.D.” on The David Grisman Quintet’s debut album. This tune was composed for a Ron Howard film and stands for “ Eat My Dust”. The massive power of Rice’s rhythm shines through here along with his burning improvised solo. This is a very fast and edgy instrumental that will get your pulse going! One of my all-time favorite instrumentals is “ Backwaters”, the title track on the album “ Backwaters”. This original by Rice is an absolutely beautiful melody gorgeous chords, and stellar arrangement. The guitar work here is simply stunning! The tone was impeccable! I also love Tony’s choice of outside notes into his solo here. He also has some very beautiful harmonics in the melody. “ Common Ground” from the same “ Backwaters” album is also an acoustic guitar masterpiece. Again, I feel the tone that Tony pulled on this cut is unexcelled. It is a wonderful melody with rich deep chord progression – an amazing piece of music by a master.
Tony Rice passed away on Christmas Day, December 25th, 2020 in his home in Reidsville, NC. He left behind an undeniable impact on Bluegrass, Acoustic Jazz, and Acoustic Guitar. It will live on much like Django, Jaco, and Coltrane. There will not be another shining light quite like Tony Rice to come down the pike. I thank Mr. Rice for so many great memories and a lifetime of inspiration to take the Acoustic Guitar to untraveled roads. Also, I’d like to send many thanks out to my dear friend, Zane Fairchild for so many wonderful conversations and stories about Tony, music in general, and a flat-out fantastic friendship!
I’d like to also thank Bob Bakert at Jazz Guitar Today Magazine for asking me to write this article on the one and only late, great Tony Rice as well as for many years of friendship too.
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