BY JONATHAN HOULON FOLK MUSIC EDITOR 2020 was a brutal year all around and the folk ghetto here at Phawker was hardly spared: John Prine (covid), Jerry Jeff Walker (cancer) and Billy Joe Shaver (stroke). And, then, they had to take down one more hero on the way out the door: legendary bluegrass singer/guitarist Tony Rice died on Christmas … of all days. In bluegrass circles, Rice was long acknowledged as one of the greatest ever, both as a picker and as a vocalist. But outside that rarified jurisdiction, he is almost completely unknown to the general public. Well, Deadheads – who most certainly are not members of said public — know Tony from his work with Jerry, most notably “The Pizza Tapes” named after a delivery man allegedly swiped a session tape off of Garcia’s kitchen table when dropping off a pie. My guess is that ol’ Jerry had a few more slices than Rice who was always rail thin.
I myself discovered Tony Rice via his membership in J.D. Crowe and the New South, whose eponymous release from 1975 is one of the most influential bluegrass albums of all time. To be sure, bluegrass is a genre in which the “album” is not especially privileged – you are more likely to hear a fan talk about a festival they attended or an artist they revere versus reference to any particular collection of songs. But Rounder 0044 – as fans affectionately call it after its label and catalogue number – is the exception that proves the rule. I came across it sometime in the 80s and it really knocked me out … but not for reasons usually associated with bluegrass. Sure, JD had assembled a peerless group of musicians, all very young at the time: Ricky Skaggs on mando, Jerry “Flux” Douglas on dobro, and, of course, Tony Rice on guitar. Rice pretty much redefined bluegrass guitar with his sparkling solos, impeccable rhythm, and unique voicings. But what made 0044 standout for me was the repertoire. I can only take so much of the traditional bluegrass fare i.e. songs about mama and Jesus. I mean, as Saint Strummer once declared, he who ***** nuns later joins the church. But it’s just not my jam. What I loved about Rice – both with Crowe and in his illustrious solo career that would follow – were the songs he sang and the way he sang ‘em. Rice leaned heavily on some of the best singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s, particularly Gordon Lightfoot. Moreover, vocally, he eschewed that high lonesome sound – associated with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley – in favor of a more honeyed, welcoming tone that better fit the sophisticated lyrics he sang.
So in celebration and in memory of the great man, I offer up five of my favorites from the Rice repertoire>>>
“Church Street Blues”: Lawd have mercy! 1) whatever you do, don’t try this at home 2) if this doesn’t instantly make you a Rice convert, you are beyond hope and I suggest you join the Republican party forthwith. Here Tony essays Norman Blake’s classic composition re: hard times. Blake is known more as an instrumentalist than a songwriter but this particular tune fits Tony like a flat-pick. It’s basically his signature. For you musos out there: this is a great example of cross-picking which is the foundation of bluegrass guitar soloing. And for you Martin guitar buffs: Tony is playing the D28 that he somewhere inherited from the late great Clarence White of Kentucky Colonels and Byrds fame who was also a mentor of sorts to Rice. Notice the enlarged sound-hole. What a tone, Tony!
“Shadows”: As noted above, Rice was particularly fond of covering Gordon Lightfoot. In fact, there is a wonderful Rounder compilation called Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot consisting entirely of Tony’s renditions of good old Gord, arguably Canada’s finest songwriter (and, yea, that does take Neil and Joni into account). Rice covered Lightfoot chestnuts such as “Early Morning Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and made them his own. But he also unearthed lesser known gems like “Shadows” which he performs here with the Tony Rice Unit. I always dug the fact that Rice subtracted banjo from the bluegrass equation and replaced it with a second guitar (played in this video by his brother, Wyatt). Banjo surely gives bluegrass its incredible drive but, to these ears, it quickly becomes annoying AF. So good riddance! Also check out dobro whiz Jerry Douglas’ mullet. That’s some party you’ve got going on in back, Flux!
“Why You Been Gone So Long”: From the pen of late songwriting legend, Mickey Newbury, who surely deserves a Wire of his own at some point. This one is from the same session as “Shadows” and features the wonderful mandolin and harmony vocals of Sam Bush. Take a listen to Douglas and Rice trade solos starting at 2:10. So many people can play fast and these two certainly could. But very few play with this kind of soul. Tony always dressed to the nines, his classy appearance reflecting his classy sound.
“Summer Wages”: I had to include one from Rounder 0044. What really gripped me about this record was that the New South could play with blinding speed on bluegrass standards but they tempered that (im)pulse with uncommonly beautiful ballads sung by Tony. I can’t even hear leader J.D.’s banjer on this track which is, rather, highlighted by a very young Ricky Skagg’s fiddle. Sounds double-tracked to my ears but we’re not purists here, are we? Ian Tyson – another great Canadian songwriter whose “Four Strong Winds” is practically considered an alternative national anthem up there in the land of snow – wrote this one that begins with the following words to the wise: “Never hit 17 when you play against the dealer.” So noted!
“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”: This one’s from Tony’s Cold on the Shoulder LP which is named after yet another Lightfoot composition and also is a good place to start investigating Rice’s work. Randy Newman wrote this number and it contains both lyrics and music that most bluegrassers wouldn’t touch with a ten foot cross. Try the opening stanza on for size: Broken windows and empty hallways // a pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray // human kindness is overflowing // and I think it’s going to rain today. Can you imagine, say, Uncle Dave Macon singing let alone comprehending the irony contained therein? But Rice delivers it in dulcet tones that somehow make Newman’s words seem almost hopeful.
Well, that’s enough of yet another sausage fest. I’ll let Patty Griffin have the last word from a song, to be sure, about someone else that popped into my head for obvious reasons: “Hey, Tony, what’s so good about dying? // He said I think I might do a little dying today.” But wait, Patts, how about trading in that flaming red for a little blue sky? And I think it’s going to rain today!