Memories of Tony Rice and my exploration of bluegrass music
On St Stephen’s day, we were notified of the sad news that bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice had passed away. It was strange – I felt so sad, although I’ve never known him, met him, or even had any particular connection to his playing style. Still, it’s like I sort of knew him, because his singing and his guitar playing has accompanied me for over 20 years.
The passing of Tony Rice was, in a way, the end of an era. It’s expressed by many that he was the most influential bluegrass guitar player of all time, and he will probably continue to inspire people for many years to come.
The guitar as a melody instrument
In the early days of bluegrass, the guitar didn’t have the role as a lead instrument. It was mainly used as a rhythm instrument, and later it played some fills and bass runs, by people like Lester Flatt and Maybelle Carter – the powerful melody playing of Maybelle (using the thumb!) can be heard on very early recordings. At this time the term bluegrass wasn’t used – it was oldtime music, oldtime country music or mountain music. What we know today as bluegrass music was developed from the 1940s by Bill Monroe and his band, and it quickly became very popular.
But also after bluegrass had gained popularity and there were several bluegrass band touring in the 1950s, the guitar was still quite much a background instrument and it was only in the 1960s that guitarists started to develop lead playing styles. One of the first was Doc Watson, singing a vast repertoire of old mountain songs that he accompanied on guitar or banjo, but he also used his guitar and flatpick to play fiddle tunes. He did all the cool stuff that fiddlers do – but on the guitar. After him came Clarence White and others – and the guitar had been given a new role.
Myself and bluegrass music
I started discovering bluegrass music in 1995, when I was looking for acoustic, or near acoustic, country music and came across an album with the Cox family. This was a new starting point in my musical journey – the power and passion, down-to-earth feel, but also complexity and artistry in this music almost overwhelmed me, and from the first note on that CD, I knew that I had sort of come home. Even now, when I listen to Cox family songs on YouTube, it brings tears to my eyes. The harmony singing, perfectly aligned instrumentation and powerful or haunting solos still strike me, and hearing songs like the one I’ve linked to above brings back such lovely memories from when I first started exploring bluegrass music.
This was before the internet, and I spent a lot of time in libraries to find more bluegrass records. After the Cox family, the next name I came across was Alison Krauss (who collaborated with the Cox family) – and then Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice. I also went to record shops and although I barely had any money, I bought bluegrass CDs because that was the only way to get my hands on more bluegrass. I remember the joy when I found a small shop that had a vast collection of CDs from Rounder Records, perhaps still the main recording company for bluegrass artists.
Perhaps the most important and inspirational album of all, particularly after I started playing the mandolin, was a project Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs did together, simply named “Skaggs & Rice”, a completely acoustic album, with only the two of them singing harmony and playing the mandolin and the guitar, a collection of some classic oldtime songs. The music on this album is so simple in terms of arrangement, but yet so beautiful, and perhaps the simplicity of it is why it touches me so deeply. This album remains one of my favourites of all time. You can get a taste of it here:
I have so many good memories connected to all those old (ish) bluegrass recordings, by Tony Rice and others. Many were the times that I sat at bus stops in Göteborg, Sweden, listening to songs like “Bitter green”, “Cold on the shoulder”, “Old home place”, “Greenlight on the southern” (which is written by Norman Blake as far as I know), Alison Krauss’ fiddle playing and the beautiful music of the Cox family – all these tunes and songs still follow and inspire me!
Tony Rice – an influencer
Tony Rice started appearing on stages in the 1970s with a powerful flatpicking style and a fantastic voice. I found his music on several collection CDs and later I’ve found his own CDs, either solo or with bands like J.D Crowe & The New South or The Bluegrass Album Band. Tony Rice has done a variety of different styles within bluegrass and folk, also to the limit of jazz, but he was who introduced me to the more hard driving, hardcore bluegrass. His playing style was very aggressive and innovative, with overkill solos including elements of both jazz and blues, and he has inspired guitar players the world over.
The more jazzy parts of his playing are the reason why I haven’t been particularly fond of his style, I prefer more “folky”, simplistic, chord and melody based solo playing and I like to improvise around the melody. My inspiration for guitar playing comes primarily from Norman Blake, Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson, but I would be lying if I said that Tony Rice hasn’t inspired me – with all that music he’s blessed us with over the years!
Back in the 90’s I was mostly interested in playing the mandolin and didn’t take much notice of the overall guitar style of Tony Rice, but now when I study bluegrass guitar and Tony’s picking style is being highlighted after his death, I begin to find more interest in his playing. Although his jazzy elements still aren’t my cup of tea, I look at other details. When you learn to play an instrument, I think it’s a good thing to get inspiration from several different sources, pick and choose what you like from those sources, to eventually develop your own style. This is particularly true in bluegrass, that is so much based on improvisation. Now I find myself trying bluesy licks on the higher strings or up the neck (not much success yet with the later, though!), to spice up my solos, and I love it.
The summer of 2020 was when I took up the guitar and started learning to play it “for real”, and I have high hopes for what this year can bring when it comes to music skills! These are bad times indeed but I’m so glad about how we’ve managed to use the bad times to do something good, inspiring and enjoyable in this house.