I have always found there to be a plaintive, simple beauty to bluegrass music; maybe it’s the austerity of the instrumentation, the honesty of the timeless lyrics or the countless years of history and tradition audible in the lilting melodies. The best art always seems to be more than the sum of its parts — to carry an emotional weight beyond the medium and to touch the souls of observers with effortless, awe-inspiring ease. Just as the finest painter needs only a brush, colors and canvas to materialize the ethereal, the most skilled artisan needs only their tools. Tony Rice, who passed away at age 69 last December, was such an artisan. With his guitar, hands and voice alone, Rice could fill a room with inexplicable magic; by listening to “Church Street Blues” (CSB) (1983), which celebrated its 38th anniversary on March 1, one can almost see the shadows of the campfire dance to the tune, hear the chirp of crickets on the warm evening breeze and feel the nostalgia of happy times spent with family.
The genre likely owes its gentle, pleading tone to its rich history. The roots of bluegrass music lie in a union of Appalachian folk songs and traditional African American melodies; a confluence of two of the most important genres in the history of American culture. Bluegrass music first became a bona fide style following the Great Depression, when modest instruments gave forlorn Americans a means to voice their blues — a particularly soul-stirring passage from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) describes a lone guitarist playing to a despondent crowd. Bluegrass guitar gained mainstream traction in the 1950s as amplification technology developed and guitar players like blind prodigy Doc Watson entered the scene, showcasing the guitar’s potential as a lead instrument.
Rice, born in Danville, Virginia, in 1951 and raised in Los Angeles, grew up during this popularization of bluegrass guitar. Influenced by country musician and future Byrd Clarence White (whose legendary Martin D-28 acoustic guitar Rice played for the duration of his career), Rice made his debut as part of a pioneering bluegrass outfit, “JD Crowe & The New South,” and continued to push the boundaries of the genre long after leaving the band to establish his own group, the Tony Rice Unit. Rice was known for his commitment to musical growth and the pursuit of excellence; after studying and recording with jazz guitarist John Carlini in 1977, Rice often improvised using complex harmonic ideas and earned a reputation for playing excellent live solos.
However, Rice is perhaps most widely known for his work as a solo artist. “Church Street Blues” is a masterclass in bluegrass guitar and remains one of the genre’s most celebrated studio efforts. Although Rice wrote many melodious originals, such as the Lightfoot-esque “Never Meant to Be,” he is renowned for his covers and performances of bluegrass standards. Rice’s version of the title track, originally by Norman Blake, remains among the most well-known standards in the bluegrass repertoire, with many crediting Rice with the song’s enduring popularity. In addition, Rice’s instrumental performance of the traditional “Jerusalem Ridge” continues to be used as the song’s reference recording by guitar teachers and students.
Despite his many talents, Rice is primarily remembered as one of the cleanest pickers in guitar history. His impeccable technique owed much of its finesse to the minute finger movements of his right hand; where many guitarists opt to grip the guitar pick with fixed digits, Rice’s dexterity allowed him to play fiendishly fast single-note runs and phrases by moving his thumb and forefinger alone. This technique, built through years of practice and experience, afforded Rice’s lead playing and rhythm accompaniment a clarity and precision that was on par with greats like Doc Watson and Rice’s hero Clarence White. Most importantly, however, Rice’s technique gave him the ability to sing with two voices: his own and that of his guitar. Many of the songs on “Church Street Blues” are built on a fundamental interplay between Rice’s singing and playing; this alternation between singing and strumming is used to great effect in “Streets of London,” a ballad originally by Ralph McTell, in which Rice uses his right-hand technique to emphasize the solemnity of the instrumental refrain. Rice’s complete mastery of his craft is evident in his awe-inspiring cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which closes the album.
CSB also showcases Rice’s rich baritone voice at its finest. Indeed, Rice probably could have had a career on the merits of his voice alone, and “Church Street Blues”’ “The Last Thing on My Mind” and “One More Night” feature particularly poignant vocal performances which display Rice’s surprising range and endearingly gravelly falsetto. In what might be the coolest video ever, Rice and his magnificent mustache perform a live rendition of the album’s title track. The video, taken from a 1980s instructional DVD, stands as a testament to Rice’s comprehensive talent — his singing, playing and laidback confidence combine to create a carefree and entirely wholesome atmosphere.
Despite his deserved renown as a bluegrass player, Rice wasn’t defined by the genre; Rice developed upon his jazz tutelage under Carlini, releasing the jazz-tinged albums “Acoustics” and “Manzanita” in 1979. 1993’s “The Pizza Tapes” is further evidence of this, which saw Rice joining the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and consummate mandolinist David Grisman in what initially appeared to be an unlikely union, as Rice’s bluegrass scene was somewhat removed from the Grateful Dead’s self-contained sphere. However, both Garcia and Rice had collaborated extensively with Grisman, and Garcia himself had deep roots in bluegrass, resulting in a seamless collaboration between the three musicians. The trio’s easygoing rapport, amusing inter-song banter and the addition of Rice’s jazzy colors resulted in “The Pizza Tapes” becoming a crossover favorite for Deadheads and bluegrass fans alike.
Rice’s reach and influence was expansive: the vast majority of today’s bluegrass stars, including mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull and guitar goddess Molly Tuttle, cite Rice as being among their greatest influences. Rice performed and recorded prolifically until tragically losing his ability to sing due to a diagnosis of muscle tension dysphonia in 1994. Despite the loss of his voice, Rice continued to perform on guitar until his induction into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2015, at which he delivered a profoundly moving and tear-jerking acceptance speech in which he thanked “everyone within earshot” for their support throughout his career and, seemingly miraculously, spoke in a voice temporarily free of dysphonial impairment.
A master musician who inspired countless guitarists, Rice will continue to bring joy and peace to millions through his work.