Tony Rice - Biography

By J Poet

Guitarist and singer Tony Rice is one of the top flatpickers in bluegrass, known for his clear ringing tone, impeccable timing and imaginative lead lines. He’s also a first-class rhythm guitarist and the sideman of choice for a legion of A-list bandleaders including David Grisman, J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Peter Rowan and the late Jerry Garcia, to name just a few. Since the mid-1990s, Rice has experienced on-going vocal problems and focuses more on his renowned guitar prowess than his singing.


Rice was born in Danville, Virginia in 1951, but grew up in Los Angeles, California. His father, Herb Rice, was a well-known amateur bluegrass picker and introduced Tony and his brother Larry to the southern genre when they were very young. Tony and Larry modeled their early playing on the sounds of Roland and Clarence White of the Kentucky Colonels, with Tony choosing a Martin D-28 in emulation of White. The brothers also jammed with notable young up-and-coming players like Ry Cooder, Herb Pederson and Chris Hillman.


In 1970, Rice had moved back to Kentucky to join the Bluegrass Alliance, but J.D. Crowe spotted him and added him to the line-up of ensemble, J.D. Crowe’s New South—a super-group of contemporary bluegrass. When Ricky Skaggs joined in 1974, the band made J.D. Crowe & the New South (1973, Starday) considered by many as the first newgrass album. When it was reissued on Rounder (1986), it became the label’s biggest hit to date. Rice picked up some pointers on his own timing and finger work from watching and working with Crowe, but when innovative mandolinist David Grisman called, he moved to San Francisco to become part of the first David Grisman Quintet. His jazzy guitar picking helped forge Grisman’s so-called “dawg music,” which is alternatively called newgrass. During his five years with Grisman, he appeared on The David Grisman Quintet (1975, Kaleidoscope; 1990, Rhino) and Hot Dawg (1978, A&M). Rice then started his own eclectic band, which he called The Tony Rice Unit.


As a solo artist, Rice was able to give free reign to his creativity and recorded California Autumn (1975, Rebel) with members of The New South backing him up. The album featured renditions of older tunes such as “Beaumont Rag” and “Red Haired Boy.” Tony Rice (1977) with Grisman, Crowe and Jerry Douglas, followed—the first of many to be released on the Rounder label—and is considered by many hardcore bluegrass fans as Rice’s greatest album.


Acoustics (1979, Rounder; re-issue 1994, Rounder) with the Unit and Sam Bush and Mike Marshall came out two years later, further propelling so-called new acoustic music. In 1979, Rice put out Manzanita (Rounder), a banjo-less bluegrass outing, and the Unit’s Gypsy jazz combined well with the bluegrass. Mar West (1980 Rounder) was a showcase of talented acoustic players ranging from Sam Bush, Todd Phillips and Richard Greene, whose violin work stands out.


When Crowe created the studio-only Bluegrass Album Band in 1981, Rice was the guitarist and made five albums with the group: The Bluegrass Album, Vol. 1 (1982 Rounder), The Bluegrass Album, Vol. 2 (1982, Rounder), The Bluegrass Album, Vol. 3: California Connection (1983, Rounder), The Bluegrass Album, Vol. 4 (1984, Rounder), and The Bluegrass Album, Vol. 5: Sweet Sunny South (1989, Rounder).


Under his own name, Rice made Skaggs and Rice (1980, Sugar Hill) a traditional close harmony bluegrass outing, and Still Inside (1981, Rounder) a jazzy foray that he entered into with the Unit. Backwaters (1982, Rounder) is considered the Unit’s jazzgrass masterpiece, as it crosses plains and blurs the lines between jazz, bluegrass and ethereal new acoustic music. The solo Church Street Blues (1982, Sugar Hill) was next, followed by Cold on the Shoulder (1984 Rounder), which covered contemporary singer/songwriters like Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and Randy Newman. Me & My Guitar (1986, Rounder) further investigates Lightfoot songs and re-imagines them, and Native American (1988, Rounder) was more about being an American citizen than an indigenous people, featuring a small electric band backing him up. Native American boasts the track, “John Wilkes Booth,” a sort of continuation to a song about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln from Me & My Guitar.


Rice also participated in more than a dozen side projects over the years, including the low-key traditional folk albums Blake & Rice (1987, Rounder) and Blake & Rice 2 (1987 Rounder) with Norman Blake; The Rice Brothers (1989, Rounder) and The Rice Brothers, Vol. 2 (1994, Rounder) with his brothers Larry, Wyatt and Ronnie; River Suite for Two Guitars (1995, Sugar Hill), which is a meditative two-guitar suite with John Calini; Out Of The Woodwork (1997, Rounder); Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen (1999, Rounder); Runnin’ Wild (2001, Rounder) with a super-cast of himself, Hillman & Pedersen; You Were There For Me (2004, Rounder); and Quartet (2007, Rounder) with Peter Rowan. In 2008 Rice released the compilation Night Flyer: The Singer Songwriter Collection, which included a few unreleased tracks.



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