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Tony Rice: 1951–2020

Photo by Jon Sievert/Getty Images

Bluegrass torchbearer Molly Tuttle mourns the passing of one of the genre’s most formidable giants.

Like so many guitar players and music fans around the world, I have spent the last 48 hours mourning the loss of a man who inspired us by reaching for the outer limits—on his instrument and within himself. Tony Rice played guitar in a way no one had heard before, and in the process inspired people of all ages around the globe to pick up a dreadnought and a flatpick. Some of us, myself included, have built our lives around this inspiration and the trail Tony blazed on the instrument.

My own journey started when I was 8 years old and begged my parents for a guitar after unsuccessfully trying to learn piano. Finally, one day my dad brought home the tiniest guitar he could find, a Baby Taylor, from the music store in Palo Alto where he taught lessons. He showed me simple chords and melodies, and after the initial learning curve (and callous building) I was hooked. I played for hours every day.

My dad was a huge Tony Rice fan and I gradually realized many of the songs and licks he taught me were based on things he had heard Tony play. In fact, one of the reasons my dad moved to Silicon Valley from the farm in Illinois where he grew up was that he loved the David Grisman Quintet and knew they regularly performed around the Bay Area. He got to see Tony play with them many times. When I got older and discovered Tony’s music for myself, it was like a light bulb went off: I realized his playing and singing were already ingrained in my own. He became my first true guitar hero as well as a big influence on my singing. I never got to meet Tony but almost felt like I knew him through the countless hours I spent sitting on my bedroom floor with my guitar—listening to his records and trying to learn his solos, note for note, from my Tony Rice guitar tab book.

David Anthony Rice was born in Virginia in 1951 but spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles. It was there that he met guitar legend Clarence White, who was playing guitar in the Kentucky Colonels at the time. Clarence had pioneered a new style of highly technical and improvisational bluegrass guitar playing and became both a mentor to and main influence on Tony. Clarence was tragically struck and killed by a drunk driver in 1973, but his Martin D-28 was eventually acquired by Tony—an event that cemented that instrument as the holy grail of bluegrass guitars and proved something of a symbolic passing of the torch. Tony took the style of lead-guitar playing that Clarence developed and pushed it in new directions by refining his technical abilities and incorporating jazz-influenced phrasing and note choices. Tony studied great bluegrass players like Doc Watson and Clarence White, but like his heroes before him, he had a voice on the instrument that was truly his own. He created a signature sound that struck a rare balance of being incredibly clean and complex while staying musical and full of heart.

In 1974 Tony made his first big splash with J.D. Crowe & the New South, recording one of the all-time classic bluegrass albums with their eponymous 1975 LP for Rounder Records. At that point, guitar solos were still uncommon in bluegrass, and Tony’s virtuosic solos (and singing) captured the attention of bluegrass fans far and wide. Shortly after, Tony met mandolinist David Grisman, who was forming a band around instrumental compositions that fused bluegrass and jazz. Tony joined Grisman’s band that same year and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he recorded the landmark 1977 David Grisman Quintet album on Kaleidoscope Records. This iconic album had a huge impact on the acoustic music scene and influenced string musicians across many genres. While touring and recording with the highly successful Grisman Quintet, Tony also recorded a string of stellar albums under his own name and with his band the Tony Rice Unit—including his 1979 masterpiece Manzanita, which many regard as his most distinctive solo album. It’s truly mind-blowing to think about the amount of music he recorded in the mid ’70s and early ’80s—as well as how many lives these albums continue to touch. In 1985, Tony left California for Florida and continued to record and perform with his own band, as well as with the Rice Brothers, Peter Rowan, and many others.

Tony is not only one of my favorite guitar players, but I also believe he was one of the greatest singers of all time. I fell in love with his signature baritone voice at a young age, when my favorite record was Skaggs & Rice—the duet record he did with Ricky Skaggs in 1980. I used to listen to their version of “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” on repeat, and it made me want to learn how to harmonize with others and accompany vocals on guitar. Unfortunately, by the time I was born, he had all but stopped singing live due to vocal dysphonia, so I only ever heard him sing on recordings. However, I did get to see him play guitar live on a few unforgettable occasions. Tony was no longer living in California by the early 2000s, but he flew out to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco in 2005 to play with Peter Rowan. My dad and I staked out a good spot, hours in advance, to beat the massive Golden Gate Park crowd. His solos cut through the San Francisco fog and I remember how each note seemed to sparkle. The crystal-clear tone he got out of a guitar is still the thing that blows me away each time I hear his playing. Many of us have spent countless hours learning his licks note for note, but you can tell instantly when you hear them played by Tony himself. His love for the instrument oozes out of each note.

As I reflect on the life and legacy of Tony Rice, I feel inspired by the way he built upon those who came before him, while giving so much of his own spirit to the world. I think about my friends, like Billy Strings, David Grier, Bryan Sutton, Trey Hensley, Jake Workman, and many more, who love Tony and continue to carry the torch by finding new exciting ways to express themselves on the instrument. Even though I’m heartbroken by Tony’s passing, it’s comforting to think about all the ways his music continues to live on and will continue to be celebrated for generations to come.