If you like bluegrass music and haven’t heard of Tony Rice, the chances are you haven’t been paying attention. Tony is one of very few musicians who, in a career spanning more than forty years, has left a legacy not just of phenomenal recorded music but has also inspired countless musicians to absorb his guitar playing techniques and imitate his style. It’s hard to overstate the impact Tony’s unique way of playing has had on bluegrass as we know it today. Countless musical ‘licks’ and phrases that today’s guitar players consider ‘classic’ or ‘standard’ bluegrass runs can be attributed to Tony Rice.
Coming from a musical family (his father and brothers all played), Tony got his start as a member of J.D. Crowe’s New South in the early 1970’s. From there, he went on to collaborate with just about every notable bluegrass musician as a member of such outfits as the David Grisman Quintet, The Bluegrass Album Band and the ever-evolving Tony Rice Unit. Throughout this time he recorded under his own name as well as with Norman Blake, Ricky Skaggs, The Rice Brothers and Peter Rowan among many others.
Tony’s style seamlessly blends folk, bluegrass and jazz guitar playing together to provide the listener with colorful rhythms and powerful, melodic leads that broke new ground in the realm of flat-picked acoustic guitar. It’s easy to see (and hear) how he came to influence some of the most accomplished modern practitioners of that style like David Grier, Bryan Sutton and Josh Williams, to name just a few.
Throughout the years, Tony has been recognized by the industry and fans alike for his many contributions with a variety of awards and accolades. Sales of his older as well as more recent recordings remain steady: a testament to the younger generations of listeners his music is inspiring. His instructional DVDs also continue to sell well as guitar players from around the world seek to unlock the secrets of his style.
Even after all these years, Tony still frequently manages to take his music on the road, to the delight of fans across the country. Fortunately for Hudson Valley bluegrass lovers, Tony is bringing his most recent incarnation of the Tony Rice Unit to Poughkeepsie on May 13th. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us ahead of his visit. Here’s what he had to say:
I: Who do you think are your biggest influences? Who would you say had the greatest impact on your playing style?
Well it definitely would be Clarence White. Though not long after that a fellow musician who worked with my father brought over Doc Watson’s first Vanguard album and it was like, “Boy where did this guy come from?” Then a few years after Doc, Dan Crary came to notoriety around 1969 or 1970. Even before Clarence started playing lead though, there was a guy who was playing bluegrass guitar solos–amazingly and that was Norman Blake. He wasn’t doing it on a regular basis and hardly at all on record. It was always as part of a band or freelancing. In terms of creating bluegrass lead guitar and the sound of it as we know it, it very well could be that Blake was at the top of the list. He just wasn’t very well known. He was known as a musician but nobody knew how good he could flat-pick a bluegrass guitar solo.
I: You, in turn, have influenced many guitar players. Is it flattering to have so many pickers trying to learn your style of playing? Or do you feel that players should focus on developing their own style?
They should focus on developing their own style. I probably feel about as flattered as Earl Scruggs would with the banjo. Not that I’m comparing my achievements to his, but it’s similar in that we’ve created something that people envy enough that they want to emulate it, and that’s very flattering. You can’t play bluegrass banjo without playing like Earl Scruggs and, to a certain degree, you can’t play bluegrass guitar without playing a little bit like myself. Though having said that, look at some of the banjo players that came along since Earl Scruggs laid the cornerstone. You’ve got players like Allen Shelton who played with Jim and Jesse who was one of those guys that was instantly identifiable. After that came J.D. Crowe who had his own driving sound. Then there was a radical change with Bill Emerson who played with Jimmy Martin and then another real radical change around 1963 when Bill Keith came along. For a while it seemed like everyone who picked up a D28 wanted to play like me. I don’t want to use the word frustrating because it can be flattering at the same time but I hoped that these guys would go on and find their own musical identity. That’s still how I feel today. I hope that there’s an evolutionary process in bluegrass guitar playing like there has been in the other bluegrass instruments. Or any other instrument for that matter. It’s just that in bluegrass guitar it seemed to happen kind of slow.
I: You have had the good fortune, during your career, to play with some of the greatest musicians in bluegrass and acoustic music. Of all your past collaborations, which stand out as the most meaningful to you?
The first one of any significance was the collaboration with Sam Bush and the next would be when I started playing with J. D. Crowe. After that, the musical event that had the most impact on my musicianship and the one that I enjoyed more than any other is when David Grisman and I collaborated with Richard Greene one night. I’ve been a different musician since. We got together for an impromptu jam and that night changed my entire life. Without that night, I have no doubt I would be just another bluegrass guitar player.
I: Is there anyone whose music you admire that you would still like to play with and haven’t yet?
I’m sure there is. I’ve always wanted to play with my jazz heroes. Jazz remains every bit as dear to me as bluegrass. Most of my musical heroes that I have wanted to play with have passed on. Miles Davis, Coltrane, Oscar Peterson. The list goes on and on.
I: What’s keeping you busy these days? Do you have any plans to release any recorded material in the near future?
I do. I don’t have the same motivation to go into the studio with a group of musicians like I did at one time but probably late this spring or early summer I’ll be in a studio to put some tunes down. A lot of musicians who do what I’m doing have lost their motivation, so what they’re doing is going back through their archives and finding tracks that were never released or making compilations and so on. I do want to get back in there though.
I: What can we expect from this incarnation of the Tony Rice Unit?
It’s a mixture of new and old material. The Unit was only playing sporadically for the last 10 years or so. Now the activity is starting to pick up. I’m lucky to have a great six-piece band to play with. Josh Williams has a great voice, so we’re able to resurrect some of the old tunes from the Manzanita and Cold On The Shoulder albums.
I: Do you still practice – or is it second nature at this point?
It’s been kind of second nature for a long time. I do practice but I practice on stage during a performance. That’s the way my jazz heroes did it. It’s rare that I pick up the guitar at home. Instead, for many years now, I’ve been restoring a particular kind of wristwatch called the Accutron. They’re very elegant timepieces made by the Bulova corporation. I restore the cases and rebuild the movements. They run off a tiny tuning fork and are very sophisticated, so I need to work under a microscope. I love doing that. I do that more than any other thing, other than musical activities.
I: After all these years, how do you continue to challenge yourself? Is it hard to keep things fresh?
I mentioned my jazz heroes earlier. Those guys found a niche and a musical identity but, like me, when they hit the stage they had no idea what they were going to do. They’re improvisational artists more so than they are melodic artists. They hit the stage running and sometimes they can’t wait to get there to see what’s going to come out.
I: What would be your best advice for aspiring flatpickers?
Firstly, I would ask a question–which is–if they are seriously interested in the art of flatpicked guitar, what level do they want to take it to? In other words, are they content to have jam sessions with relatives in their house? Or occasional gigs in folk clubs? Or do they want to go full blast with it and go and make recordings and become a musician of notoriety? Where they would want to take it would determine the advice I would give them in terms of the mechanics and the rudiments of musicianship. Those things are more important than just the raw mechanics of playing. Anyone could sit down with my tab and learn my solo in ‘Red Haired Boy’ in probably 30 minutes. Though under what circumstances are they going to walk out on stage in front of a big audience and play ‘Red Haired Boy’ and entertain people with it and blow their minds away? I would say that if you’re going to get serious about it then you need to develop your own identity so that if people don’t have visual contact with you, you have enough of a musical identity that people know who you are just by listening to you.
I: If you hadn’t become a musician, what would you be doing now?
One of the things I’ve always been interested in throughout my adult life is the art of being a good, honest constitutional lawyer. When you think of how our founding fathers were able to come here and set up a way of life for us to be able to live in liberty and freedom… I gotta tell you, those guys were no fools. That document, the constitution, has made us the most envied nation on the planet. If I weren’t a musician I would like to see if I could become good enough at constitutional law to influence politicians to pick that document up and read it again.