Tony Rice: 1951 – 2020

Béla Fleck on the influence and inspiration of the bluegrass legend and guitar giant.

Tony Rice c. 2000. Credit: Stephen A. Ide/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The bluegrass community lost one of its giants on Christmas Day with the passing of flatpick guitarist Tony Rice at age 69. Rice recorded dozens of albums as a bandleader and collaborator with the likes of J.D. Crowe & the New South, Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, Jerry Garcia and Norman Blake. He had not performed publicly in several years, having first lost his singing voice to muscle tension dysphonia, then his playing ability to lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow.

Like Rice, Béla Fleck is a pioneering musician with roots in bluegrass. The two collaborated in the studio and onstage across a span of more than 30 years, including a performance following Rice’s 2013 induction into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. Here, Fleck recalls how Rice shaped the direction of not only his music but that of almost everyone who heard him.

Tony Rice was the Holy Grail, the guy I wanted to play with so badly. When it happened, it was even more than I expected.

The first time I played with Tony was on his Cold on the Shoulder album. I had never played bluegrass on that level with anybody. The feel the band was able to get, simply by listening to him, changed how I wanted my whole future to sound. When I listen to that record, I think, “Dang, that’s what music’s supposed to sound like!”

There’s a rightness to Tony’s playing. It sounds etched in stone, like it’s meant to be. He had this feel that made you want to play. He enabled you to do things you couldn’t typically do.

Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas were more his peers. I was from a slightly younger generation, so I was always a fanboy and he was always the hero. He was like a big brother; you could never quite be on his level.

In my head, I determined, “I’m going to be the banjo player who can hang with Tony Rice. I’m going to work on the stuff traditional guys can’t do as well. Maybe I’ll get to be the guy that gets to play with Tony, Sam and Jerry some day. And it really happened, so, for me, that was a dream come true.

Drive, the first record of mine with Tony, was a stunning experience. Tony, Sam, Jerry, Mark O’Connor, Stuart Duncan, Mark Schatz and I did it all live together in a room, and it happened fast. He didn’t like to rehearse much. He wanted it to happen right there in the studio. And it did.

We did another record of my music, The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2, in 1999. That was essentially the same band, but Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements and John Hartford joined us. By then, Tony had started having issues with his hands. His voice was already a problem, but for my music I was mostly interested in playing with him instrumentally. I wanted that quality in my music of effortless flow and dancing. That was the last time we recorded together.

Most people focus on Tony’s lead playing, but at almost every session I played with him, after he left the room and went home, everybody else stayed to solo up his rhythm tracks and listen to him play. I can’t think of another musician we’ve ever done that with. The timing of his playing is astonishing. People talk about great drummers who are such propulsive players that they bring music out of you that you can’t create anywhere else. He had that. I’ve heard people say his guitar playing reminded them of Elvin Jones’ drumming.

His influence changed bluegrass singing as well as guitar playing. You didn’t have to like bluegrass or country music to love Tony’s voice. It was so stark and pure and evocative. He never did the faintest bit of melisma or over-singing. It always sounded like a true, sad story from a real person.

It has been hard not being able to play with him over the last several years. It stopped me from making bluegrass music for 20 years.

I played with him after his Hall of Fame induction in 2013, his last public performance. He didn’t rehearse. He just appeared at the side of the stage when it was time to go on. He pulled out his guitar, stood next to me and started strumming. I began rolling my banjo along with him. We started getting in a slow pocket together, and there was the feeling I had been missing for all those years.

I could tell his hands were hurting, and my heart sinks to think how it must have felt for him to play. But he showed up. He wanted to be there with us.

I would say there’s no guitar player left unchanged by Tony Rice. He created a new language for the instrument. When you hear bluegrass guitar now, it just sounds like bluegrass guitar. You don’t realize that half of what people play today was never played before Tony played it. He made the music better than it was before he came along.

Earl Scruggs did that, too. When Earl came along, he changed banjo for everyone. When Tony came in and started playing flatpick guitar with such precision and feel, so rooted to the ancient sounds in a new way, he changed the whole ballgame for everyone.


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