Tony Rice 1951-2020

  by Ricky Skaggs

photo by Joan Harrison

Sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee, our dear friend and guitar hero Tony Rice passed from this life and made his swift journey to his heavenly home. It’s still quite a shock to the whole family. After talking with Tony’s wife Pam and their daughter India, they asked if I would make a statement on their behalf and give them some privacy to process during this difficult time. I was honored to help out. Tony is also survived by his brothers Wyatt and Ronnie, and
all of you who loved his music and those who will continue to share it with others.

Tony Rice was the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years. Many if not all of the Bluegrass guitar players of today would say that they cut their teeth on Tony Rice’s music. He loved hearing the next generation players play his licks. I think that’s where he got most of his joy as a player. With many IBMA Awards and a Grammy Award, Tony was a gracious recipient of the International Bluegrass Music Award’s highest honor as an inductee into their Hall Of Fame in 2013.

Not only was Tony a brilliant guitar player but he was also one of the most stylistic lead vocalist in Bluegrass music history. When I joined the group The New South in 1974, I knew I’d found a singing soul mate with Tony. Our voices blended like brothers. In 1980 we recorded the album “Skaggs And Rice” for Sugar Hill as a tribute to our duet hero’s with just the simplicity of guitar, mandolin, and our voices. All these years later people tell me how much the purity of that record still touches their heart. That’s who Tony was, a singer from the heart.

I will miss him as I’m sure all of you will. But where Tony is right now, he’s not missing us. He’s in the place that God has prepared for those who love Him and receive Him. Rest In Peace dear brother. Thank you for your great talent and the music that will continue to inspire more and more generations to come.

On May 13, 2011, The Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association presented the Tony Rice Unit concert to a capacity audience. It was a magical night and one we will always treasure.

Please be sure to read Iain Birchwood’s pre-concert interview with Tony and take another look at the photos captured by Joan Harrison.


4 Responses

  • I saw The Tony Rice Unit at the Christ Church on May 13, 2011 – thanks to the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association . It was my first and only Tony Rice Show, I was reflecting on meeting and speaking with Tony ( a rare thing) between sets at the show when i saw he died and i was shocked. back to the show story – I had just started listening to him in 2010 and was so excited to see him in the flesh and to meet him, well that was a dream come true. Im one of those artist who lets Tony influence my playing but not by means of replication…more an approach and a few licks here and there.
    My heart goes out to the Rice Family…to have lost a husband and father on the High Holy day of Christmas – must be heart shattering. Thank you hudson valley and Tony Rice!

  • Whoever attended that May 2011 concert will never forget it! Almost 400 people showed up to hear an all-star band play in Poughkeepsie.

    Behind the scenes and before the concert, the band was invited to have dinner at our house. Tony and Wyatt decided not to come to dinner. However, Tony called me while we were eating to request a “doggie bag” of the food we were serving. He listed all the items he wanted.

    I brought the bag over to him, went upstairs to prepare for the concert and then…bam….it occurred to me that I had forgotten to include one of the items that Tony had specifically asked for.

    Anyone who knows me knows that this in itself is NOT unusual. I forget a lot of things. But, how could I have messed this one up? After the concert I went to say goodbye to Tony and to apologize for my forgetfulness. Washing away my guilt, Tony smiled, gave me a warm hug, and told me he would love to come back and play for the HVBA again.

    Sadly, that never was to happen…but that hug will always remain one of my favorite moments.

  • My experience with Tony and my Bulova Accutron watch..
    The Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association had a Tony Rice concert on May 13, 2011.
    Before the show I read the interview done by one of our members, and I learned about Tony’s other passion, restoring Accutron watches. I remembered I’d had one dis-assembled and inoperative for 30 or 40 years just languishing in a little plastic drawer. I pulled it out the afternoon of the concert and took photos (see below).
    During the break between sets at the Tony Rice Unit show, I approached Tony and pulled out the plastic bag with the Accutron watch parts. One of the guys asked what it was. I think it was Wyatt Rice who said, “I know exactly what it is!”
    The instant Tony saw it through double thick plastic, on a dark balcony, he identified it as a Model 218!
    I asked Tony if he’d fix it up and give it a new home; and all I’d ask is that he email me and tell me when he gets it running. He shook my hand and said, “Well, bless your heart. I’ll get it running alright.”
    A little after 11 PM on May 16, just 3 days after the show, as I was getting ready for bed, the phone rang. There seemed to be a bad connection so I didn’t immediatley recognize the voice on the other end. He repeated his name, Tony Rice. I was mad at myself for not realizing it was him!
    He had already gotten the watch running, completely polished up, and reassembled.
    He explained that the problem was the battery manufacturers currently make batteries with more voltage than in the past, causing too high an amplitude to the tuning fork coils. But interestingly, the adjustment is not electrical, but mechanical. He explained the details, but lost me.
    He also said that even with the quartz movements (“and you can have your Patek Philippes”) nothing can still compete with the time-keeping accuracy of the Accutron.
    Tony explained that he used to be into photography, but stopped when the digital age came in. But he had a pretty good cell phone and he would email me a picture if the reconditioned watch. (See below) He thanked me again and reassured me the watch has a good home.
    I’ll never forget that phone call….Thank you, Tony
    See the photo:

    My complete tribute to Tony:

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