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Tony Rice, Bluegrass innovator with pick, dies at 69

Tony Rice, a hugely influential singer and guitarist in bluegrass and the new acoustic music circles that grew up around him, died Saturday at his home in Reidsville, NC, at the age of 69.

The International Bluegrass Music Association has confirmed his death. No cause was specified.

“Tony Rice was the king of the flat-to-flat guitar,” singer-songwriter Jason Isbell said on twitter. “His influence cannot be overstated.”

Mr. Isbell was referring to what is commonly known as flatpicking, a technique that involves hitting the strings of a guitar with a pick or pick rather than with the fingers. Inspired by the powerful fretwork of pioneering bluegrass conductor Jimmy Martin, Mr. Rice’s flatpicking was singularly agile and expressive.

“I don’t know if a person can do anything more beautiful,” Mr. Isbell continued in his tweet, describing Mr. Rice’s smooth and punchy playing, in which the feeling, whether expressed harmonically or melodic, took precedence over the flash. .

Mr. Rice has left his mark on a host of prominent musicians, including fellow newgrass innovators Mark O’Connor and Béla Fleck, heirs of acoustic music like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss, and his select followers Bryan Sutton and Josh Williams.

“There’s no way it could ever go back to what it was before him,” Ms. Krauss said of bluegrass in an interview with The New York Times Magazine for a profile of Mr. Rice in 2014. She was barely a teenager when Mr. Rice first invited her on stage to play with him.

Beginning in the 1970s with his work with the group JD Crowe and the New South, Mr. Rice built bridges that encompassed traditional bluegrass, 60s folk songs, jazz improvisation, classical music and singer pop. -composer.

He was a catalyst for the newgrass movement, in which bands broke with the bluegrass tradition by drawing inspiration from pop and rock sources, using a more improvised approach to playing, and incorporating previously untapped instruments like the guitar. electric and battery.

The Bluegrass Association named him six-time Instrumental Performer of the Year, and in 1983 he received a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Fireball,” a track recorded with JD Crowe and the New South.

Not only a virtuoso guitarist, Mr. Rice was also a gifted singer and a master of phrasing. His rich and supple baritone was as comfortable singing at home in three-part bluegrass harmony arrangements as he adapted Gordon Lightfoot’s troubadour ballads under the Newgrass banner.

But his career as a performer was abruptly brought to a halt starting in 1994, when he learned he had muscle tension dysphonia, a severe vocal disorder that deprived him of the ability to sing in public and compromised his voice. He won’t be performing on stage or speaking to audiences again until 2013, when the Bluegrass Association inducted him into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame.

Shortly after this diagnosis, Rice learned that he also had lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as tennis elbow, which made it too painful for him to play guitar in public as well.

David Anthony Rice was born on June 8, 1951 in Danville, Virginia, one of four boys of Herbert Hoover Rice and Dorothy (Poindexter) Rice, known as Louise. His father was a welder and an amateur musician, his mother a carpenter and a housewife. It was his idea to call his son Tony, after his favorite actor, Tony Curtis. Everyone in the Rice house played or sang bluegrass music.

After the family moved to the Los Angeles area in the mid-1950s, Mr. Rice’s father formed a bluegrass group called the Golden State Boys. The group, which has recorded several singles, included two of his mother’s brothers as well as a young Del McCoury at one point, before he became a master of bluegrass in his own right. The group inspired Mr. Rice and his brothers to create their own bluegrass outfit, the Haphazards.

The Haphazards sometimes shared local bills with the Kentucky Colonels, a group whose dazzling guitarist Clarence White – a future member of rock band The Byrds – had a profound influence on Mr. Rice’s early development as a musician.

(Mr. White was killed by a drunk driver while loading equipment after a performance in 1973. Mr. Rice subsequently recovered Mr. White’s 1935 Martin D-28 chevron guitar, which he bought from its new owner in 1975 for $ 550. the guitar he started playing with, affectionately calling it “the Antique.”)

The Rice family moved from California to Florida in 1965 and then to various cities in the Southeast, where Mr. Rice’s father pursued one welding opportunity after another.

He also drank, creating a tumultuous family life that forced Mr. Rice to relocate at the age of 17. Tony Rice has struggled with alcohol himself but, according to his account, had been sober since 2001.

After dropping out of high school, Mr. Rice bounced back among the homes of his loved ones before moving to Louisville in 1970 to join the Bluegrass Alliance. Band members, including mandolinist Sam Bush, continued to form much of the founding core of progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival.

Mr. Rice joined JD Crowe and the New South in 1971. Three years later, Mr. Skaggs also signed, replacing Mr. Rice’s brother Larry in the group. Dobro player Jerry Douglas also joined the New South around this time. In 1975, the band released an album titled simply “JD Crowe and the New South” (but commonly known by their first track, “Old Home Place”), which modernized bluegrass in ways that shaped music in the 21st century.

Mr. Rice, Mr. Douglas, and Mr. Skaggs left the band in August 1975. Mr. Rice then moved to San Francisco and helped found the David Grisman Quartet, a pioneering ensemble with bluegrass instrumentation that merged sensibilities classical and jazz to create what M.. Grisman called it “dawg music”.

“The music presented in front of me was unlike anything I had ever seen,” Rice told Times Magazine in 2014. “At first, I thought I couldn’t learn it. The only thing that saved me was that I’ve always loved the sound of acoustic, breakout, modern jazz.

After four years with Mr. Grisman, Mr. Rice formed his own band, the Tony Rice Unit, which has been acclaimed for its experimental and jazz-infused approach to bluegrass, as heard on albums like “Manzanita” ( 1979) and “Mar West” (1980).

Mr. Rice also recorded more mainstream and mainstream material for many other projects, including a six-volume album series that paid homage to the formative bluegrass of the 1950s.

“Skaggs & Rice” (1980), another history-conscious album, featured Mr. Skaggs and Mr. Rice singing harmonious and soulful harmonies in homage to the sibling duets that prevailed in the pre-bluegrass era.

Most of Ms. Rice’s outings after 1994, the year he was diagnosed with a vocal disorder, were instrumental projects or collaborations, such as “The Pizza Tapes,” a 2000 studio album with Mr. Grisman and Jerry Garcia. of the Grateful Dead fame; Mr. Rice contributed to the acoustic guitar.

His survivors include his 30-year-old wife, Pamela Hodges Rice, and brothers Ron and Wyatt. His brother Larry died in 2006.

Mr. Rice made a dashing figure on stage, with finely tailored suits and a dignified demeanor, as if to contradict the disrespect bluegrass has sometimes received outside of the South, due to its rough rural beginnings.

Mr. Rice was as aware of this cultural dynamic as he was of the limitless possibilities he saw in bluegrass music.

“Maybe the reason I dress the way I do is when, if you went out on the streets, unless you had some kind of ditching job to do, you made an effort. so as not to sound like a slob, ”he told his biographers, Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright, for“ Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story ”(2010).

“In the heyday of Miles Davis’ most famous bands, you wouldn’t have seen Miles without a tailored suit,” he continued. “My musical heroes wear costumes.”

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