Book Reviews: Discovering Tony Rice / My Memories of John Hartford

by Dick Bowden

I read two very interesting new books last month. Both very well written and edited. Both highly recommended reading.

Discovering Tony Rice
by Bill Amatneek

Bass player Bill Amatneek has written a probing, yet sensitive bio of Tony Rice. I like it much more than the years-old book by Caroline Wright and Tim Stafford which read like a series of vignettes. Amatneek’s book has the advantage of working with Tony in his very early California days, and access to vital records and personal photos. It focuses on experiences that Amatneek and Rice shared, supported by many illuminating road stories and memories from musicians at the top of bluegrass, string jazz, and Americana music. It is well supported by nice photos, not widely seen prior. This book is “in depth” reporting.

I want to emphasize how “revealing” Amatneek’s book is. He says outright in the introduction that there are many embarrassing stories about Tony that would only sully his memory, so he didn’t include most of them. He did speak to a couple of issues however. But without dwelling over-long on “dirt”, the book is still a VERY sobering view into the awful decline in Tony Rice’s physical and mental health. It took a toll on Tony, and it took a toll on his family and ALL the people who used to be his friends. The only word to use is “disturbing”. The last years of the great Tony Rice were – VERY disturbing. The book gives a penetrating overview of Tony’s monster guitar skills; and also his “life skills” (or lack thereof). If you’re mostly into Tony’s flat-pick guitar style, you’ll enjoy a lot of the revealing tips about Tony’s methods and practice routines. Obsessive is a key word to describe Tony’s methods. If you want to know more about Tony Rice the man, you’ll be well satisfied (and surprised) with the book.

My Memories of John Hartford
by Bob Carlin

Bob Carlin is a clawhammer banjo picker from Philadelphia who worked and recorded with John Hartford over a 30 year period. In John’s last years of performing with his John Hartford String Band Bob was the de facto road manager and in as close contact with Hartford as could be – musically, business-wise, lifestyle-wise, etc. If anyone could say they knew Hartford “well” Bob Carlin could. Nevertheless Carlin admits Hartford was weird and not at all easy to know or understand. My Memories of John Hartford is an accurate title. Bob spent enough time with John to both love him and dislike him in some ways, which is pretty much how life goes.

Bob has gathered up all the vital statistics on John’s family, early life, early musical experiences, river boat work (as a teenager!), as a tv performer, a radio deejay, a LOVER of Earl Scruggs and Benny Martin, a square dance fiddler, banjo picker, and Grammy winning songwriter. These are supported by fine photos. He does a good job covering John’s career through Hollyweird (as John called it), Nashville top 40 country, the sharp switch to John’s personal love for bluegrass instruments making his own brand of music, and up through to O Brother Where Art Thou and the slow decline to his too-early death from cancer.

Bob uses road stories to illustrate John’s personality and quirks. He has gathered a great number of quotes from John’s musical collaborators and friends. The book is heavy with the solid ring of “facts”. Yet Carlin muses often on what seemed to be driving John Hartford, and wondering if he really could be understood or just guessed at.

I ordered the Tony Rice book directly from Bill Amatneek at his own publishing house in Sebastapol California – Vineyards Press. I ordered Bob Carlin’s book on John Hartford from Amazon. Both are affordable in paperback.



Bill Amatneek also sent along an older book he wrote titled Acoustic Stories. Each chapter focuses on Bill’s experiences as a professional string musician and the famous people he encountered along the way. One chapter in particular titled “Paris Remembers” was described by Pete Seeger as “a great story!”. It involves a tour with Bill Keith (a scholar of French language) that included Tony Rice. Other famous folks that Bill writes about include Peter Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan, Dionne Warwick, Frank Wakefield, Aretha Franklin, Mimi Farina, Bill Monroe, Jerry Garcia and many more (including a US President!). A delightful survey of 60 years as a sideman.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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