Tony Rice, surely the most influential guitarist and vocalist in the history of bluegrass music, died on Christmas morning. He was 69 years of age, and died swiftly without pain.
Tony changed forever the way bluegrass guitar is played, both as a lead and an accompaniment instrument. Audiences saw hints of his genius during his stint with Bluegrass Alliance in the early 1970s, but it appeared fully formed with J.D. Crowe & The New South in 1975 on their classic recording for Rounder Records, known colloquially by its catalog number, 0044.
Those of us fortunate to be alive at that time will clearly remember the first time we heard it. By the end of the banjo intro to Old Home Place, it was obvious that something new and different was going on. Rice’s guitar filled the track from top to bottom and side to side with an aggressive rhythm style that brought together the power of Jimmy Martin and Del McCoury, with the dexterity and grace of Clarence White. It propelled the band forward like nothing we had heard before.
And then he started singing! His deep baritone voice crackled with soul, and transformed that Dillards song into bluegrass majesty. Over his multi-decade career, Tony Rice’s voice became a favorite in and around bluegrass, a rare treat combined with someone of such singular instrumental capacity.
He showed those skills on Old Home Place as well, laying down a blistering half-break near the end of the song that had flatpickers scratching their heads in wonder. There was more throughout the record, and on the many others released over a career that endured for 40 years, until arthritis took away his ability to play proficiently, just as a nervous system condition had robbed him of his voice a decade earlier.