Most music fans could walk right by Tony Rice on the street and not even notice the aging gentleman with the thin ponytail and gaunt face. But bluegrass lovers would likely do a double-take, and maybe even sneak a photo (or politely request one). In their world, Rice is a bona-fide deity.
The All Music Guide To Country pegs him as “maybe the finest acoustic guitar picker on the planet.” He doesn’t agree. But there’s no disputing his status as one of the most brilliant and influential flatpicking guitarists the genre has ever produced — right up there with his original hero, the late Clarence White, of Kentucky Colonels and Byrds fame. Influenced by Doc Watson, White was among the first players to elevate bluegrass guitar from rhythm to lead status; Rice went even further, heading into areas unmapped by fellow explorers Django Reinhardt, John Coltrane, former David Grisman Quintet guitarist John Carlini and even the man he calls “[his] favorite guitarist since 1970”: George Benson. (Rice credits a high-school teacher with igniting another passion: Gordon Lightfoot lyrics.)
Rice’s trusty companion for most of that journey has been a 1935 Martin D-28 guitar that’s considered as legendary as he is. Punch Brothers guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge says there’s something “weird and spooky” about its deep resonance that grabs him emotionally.
Former owner White, who once ran over it, had sold it before his too-early death. Rice tracked it down — then rescued it again after his Florida home flooded. Sadly, he doesn’t currently play it — or any other. Arthritis and lateral epicondylitis — tennis elbow — compounded by scar tissue, make picking painful. It’s treatable, but coupled with the long-ago loss of his rich baritone singing voice to muscle tension dysphonia, Rice has seen little point in stepping onstage.
“I’m just not going to do it on a substandard level,” he insists. “I have my own criteria to live up to, and I’m not about to go back out there until I get myself healed physically and mentally. There’s no telling when it will happen, but it will.”
But then he raises another issue: fatigue. After a 2012 concert with the Tony Rice Unit, he realized just how tired he was. “I did this 41 years straight,” he says. “My heroes in the world of modern jazz, when they reached their late 50s and early 60s, threw up their hands and said, ‘I’ve gotta take a break.’”
To keep his fingers and mind sharp, he rebuilds vintage Bulova Accutron watches, flicking on his old Sony Vaio laptop only when he needs their tiny tuning-fork movements or other parts. (He still uses a flip-phone, too.)
His last performances occurred in 2013 at the International Bluegrass Music Association conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. The first followed his induction into the IBMA Hall of Fame (he’s a six-time IBMA Instrumental Performer of the Year–Guitar award winner, in addition to other accolades). On that night, the Duke Energy Center audience heard him slip out of his hoarse, strained voice and into his old speaking timbre. He wanted to show his rehab progress as a message of support to his friend Alison Krauss, who had canceled her appearance because of the same malady.
“One day again, maybe I’ll be able to do what I have missed, at times, for 19 years, which is to express myself poetically through music,” Rice said.
Eldridge, who has known Rice since childhood, watched that moving moment from the wings.
“That was the voice you hear on [Rice’s 1986 album] Me And My Guitar, and it was this beautiful, beautiful thing,” he says. “I definitely welled up and I think so did everybody else who saw it.”
But summoning that voice requires practice, and motivation. During a wide-ranging nighttime conversation (it’s easier for him to talk after dark), Rice says, “I can only take it so far, and then I put it on hold for a while.”
The next night, Rice performed outdoors in downtown Raleigh with banjoist Béla Fleck, mandolinist Sam Bush, dobro player Jerry Douglas, bassist Mark Schatz and fellow guitarist Del McCoury. They filled the chilly air with transcendent playing on traditional instruments each had taken into nontraditional territory, traveling down roads in which bluegrass, folk, jazz and classical music no longer were forced to stay in separate lanes.
Whether road signs reference contemporary or progressive bluegrass, newgrass, “spacegrass” or other names, it’s a sound that has influenced countless players, from Eldridge and his Punch Brothers bandmates to Della Mae and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
“Tony will always be my biggest hero,” says Eldridge. “He has this amazing combination of virtuosity and an incredible sense of rhythm, coupled with this incredible heart and a really intelligent, very individual mind.”
Adds Woody Platt of the Steep Canyon Rangers, “Tony was the one who set the bluegrass hook into me. Even today, with all the amazingly talented guitar pickers and singers, when Tony’s music comes on, it has a magic that can’t be touched.”