´NEATH THE STRENGTH OF STRINGS
By Norman Warwick, collecting memories of Tony Rice
During a recent Skype call from here on Lanzarote my son, Andrew, in South Korea, asked me if I had heard about the death of a particular musician. He was speaking of Tony Rice, and I had heard the sad news but I was still slightly surprised that not only had Andrew heard of him but was also obviously moved by his passing. It was a commemorative article by Geoffrey Himes in the Paste on-line magazine that later reminded me that the artist Andrew and I had been talking about was a bluegrass musician ´who changed our thinking about the acoustic guitar´ in a way that must have particularly interested my aspirant banjo-picking, bluegrass playing son.
To be remembered as a virtuoso bluegrass guitarist is surely legacy enough but Geoffrey Himes, (right) in the Paste on-line magazine makes a case that Tony Rice, who sadly died on Christmas morning at the age of 69, should be acknowledged as the man who changed our thinking about the acoustic guitar and its use in American music.
Initially, ´in the days before the widespread use of microphones and amplifiers,´ the acoustic guitar was almost always a rhythm instrument, unable to compete with the volume of the fiddle and banjo when playing single notes.. Although gut strings were eventually replaced by steel strings and although players began to use picks or plectrums instead of fingers, the instrument could still barely makes its voice heard. It had to shout out loud strummed chords to earn its place in the orchestra.
One of my lad´s heroes, North Carolina’s Doc Watson, the Louis Armstrong of American guitar, preferred to avoid having to do that by instead playing solo or in duos and trio with another guitarist and/or bassist. Without the fiddle and banjo involved in most string bands of the time Watson was able to deliver the amazing things that his hollow-box instrument could do. His breakthrough was built upon by California’s Clarence White, a musician who, having used a microphone to make himself heard in the Kentucky Colonels, switched from acoustic to electric guitar to join the Byrds and was killed by a drunk driver at age 29.
So Tony Rice sought to consolidate the innovations of Watson and White and walk them across new territories. Pioneering the acoustic guitar as a soloing instrument in string bands showed him to be a brave frontiersman but then pioneering the use of jazz harmonies and rhythms in those bands might have been seen as not so much brave as to be inviting ridicule.
He had only been eight in 1959 when he first met Clarence White, who was himself only 15 at the time. Nevertheless, White was already playing guitar with a rhythmic forcefulness and a harmonic imagination that Rice had never heard before, not even on record. The younger boy was soon following his older hero everywhere he went, staring at his hands and memorizing every note in the hope that he too could someday play the guitar as something more than a background rhythm instrument.
´Clarence was an amazing player even at that age,´ Rice told Geoffrey Himes during an interview in 2002.
´He was playing mostly rhythm, but he was doing something magical that was different from what Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin were doing. And when his older brother Roland got drafted into the army in 1960 or ’61, the band was left with no one to play leads. Clarence figured out real quick that he could play those mandolin leads on the guitar. At first he copied Roland’s parts, but he was soon inventing his own lines.
About that same time, I heard Doc Watson, who was playing leads on acoustic guitar much like Clarence was. They were different because Doc came out of old-time mountain music, while Clarence came strictly out of a bluegrass mode. But they were both brilliant; I can’t put into words how special it was to hear Doc Watson live or on album in those early days. What people don’t realize is how much Clarence White influenced Doc; they had a lot of mutual respect for each other.´
White proved to any doubters that the acoustic guitar could solo on bluegrass changes with all the verve and invention of a mandolinist like Bill Monroe, a fiddler like Paul Warren or a banjoist like Earl Scruggs. If it could handle those tunes, why couldn’t it handle jazz changes like Django Reinhardt over in France or Charlie Christian from Oklahoma?
“Clarence never gave me lessons or anything like that,” Rice told me; “we were just two kids hanging out together. But I would try to do everything he did, and when I couldn’t I’d invent something of my own. When word got out how good Clarence was, everyone wanted to play with him. He started hanging out with James Burton [Elvis Presley’s guitarist] and listening to Django Reinhardt. Just as I couldn’t match Clarence, Clarence couldn’t match Django but in trying he came up with something more daring than he’d done before.
In 1970 the 19-year-old Tony Rice replaced Dan Crary in the Bluegrass Alliance, a group that contained Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson and Harry “Ebo Walker” Shelor, representing three-fourths of the future New Grass Revival. In 1971, though, Rice joined his brother Larry in J.D. Crowe & the New South. By 1975, the band included Crowe, Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and Bobby Slone, and that year’s album, J.D. Crowe & The New South, is still considered one of the top bluegrass albums of all time. All this was actually even before my own son had was born but these would be artists he still listens to and admires now in his forties.
For the first time, they had created what was a traditional bluegrass line-up where the guitarist was taking solos that held their own with those of the banjo, mandolin and dobro. But this only whetted Rice’s appetite for more challenges. Later that same year, Rice joined banjoist Bill Keith—who had just left Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys—to make a more adventurous kind of string-band album. The new band’s mandolinist was a young, frizzy-haired New Yorker, David Grisman, (left) who would also make quite a reputation for himself.
´Grisman brought along this tape he’d made with [fiddler] Richard Greene and [guitarist] John Carlini,´ Rice continued during his interview with Himes, ´and I had never heard anything like it. Coming out of these bluegrass instruments was a form of modern string-band jazz. The chord changes were unusual and the solos were wild, but still everything was pleasant to the eardrum. I remember thinking, ‘Boy, it would be an honour to someday be a part of that.’ Before too long I was.
I had the bluegrass background Grisman was looking for, but I had my work cut out for me. My only knowledge of modern jazz was listening to it and loving it; I had no idea how to play it on guitar. Carlini, who became a good friend, tutored me and I had to learn music theory for the first time. I had first heard jazz when I was a sophomore in high school. My girlfriend had an eight-track tape player in her car, and one day when she turnedthe car on, Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ started playing. It grabbed me the same way Flatt & Scruggs had back in 1955.´
Rice spent four years with the David Grisman Quintet, before forming the Tony Rice Unit, an instrumental ensemble that pursued Grisman-like string-band jazz but with original compositions by Rice and a bluegrass-flavoured sound. At the same time, however, he made solo albums that also showcased his handsome voice.
Singing songs by Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot, Rice expanded his audience considerably. But when his voice gave out at the 1993 Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, he stopped singing for good. The diagnosis was dysphonia, a cramping of the throat that prevents singing and gives even the speaking voice a perennial trace of hoarseness. Many musicians would have been devastated by such a setback, but Rice insisted that he shrugged it off and returned to his first love, the guitar.
´I don’t worry about it as much as people think,´ he said in his talk with Geoffrey Himes.
´The guitar was always the main thing for me. I spent four years with David Grisman where I didn’t sing at all. I got so far into that music, in fact, that I didn’t care if I ever sang again. As I was losing my voice, I was getting more interested in the guitar again; I was getting back to where I was during the Grisman years.´
I loved Rice’s gentle, almost chatty voice as it delivered contemporary a set of folk songs on the 1996 Rounder collection, Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. His high-rise voice on the classic 1975 album, J.D. Crowe & the New South, or on any of the Bluegrass Album Band projects he headed up, always had that high, lonesome authentic bluegrass sound.
´But that was the whole problem,´ Rice pointed out when speaking to the freelance writer, Geoffrey Himes.
´My voice gave out from all the abuse of trying to sing too high for too long. Because I was so dedicated to that high, lonesome sound, I was singing out of my range for all those years. I was trying to get my vocal mechanism to do something it wasn’t designed to do. It was a gradual thing over the years; I first noticed something was amiss way back when I was with Crowe.´
To fill the role of his missing voice, Rice began to tour as a duo with Peter Rowan, a former member of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and of Jerry Garcia’s Old and In the Way.
Peter was also a man I saw perform with Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and John Stewart at Romiley Forum in the nineties, I think, in a four man headline tour of the UK. Freed, in this duo, from his former vocal duties, Rice was able to further develop his guitar innovations.
´If I do a gig with Peter,´ he once reflected ´and I’ve been listening to some small-combo jazz CDs, I become conscious of an attempt to emulate their approach, even if I’m not playing the same tunes. I get more input and motivation from listening than most musicians do. I listen to the Marsalis brothers, Pat Metheny and Eric Dolphy. I’m a John Coltrane* fanatic, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m also a Jascha Heifetz junkie. And some days I’m in the mood to hear some Flatt & Scruggs from 1952.´
Rice was in the right place at the right time, As a baby-boomer in Southern California in the early ’60s, to grab hold of the tectonic changes in the use of an acoustic guitar. His parents had grown up in North Carolina, so their sons were rooted into the bluegrass and old-time string bands of Appalachia. But the sons were also plugged into the exploding pop culture of L.A., where folk music, rock ’n’ roll, jazz and classical music were equally available. Although many young guitarists were bombarded by this smorgasbord of stimuli, but only Rice, it seems, was able to translate it into unprecedented guitar playing.
´Because I grew up in Los Angeles, where bluegrass wasn’t an accepted form, I became a very different kind of bluegrass guitarist than I might have back East,´ he summarised in his talk with Himes.
´Because bluegrass was a smaller part of the scene, the folk boom was much more important, and that made me a different kind of singer and picker. And because I met Clarence White at an early age in California, I became a lead guitarist rather than the usual rhythm guitarist and singer you might find in a traditional bluegrass band.´
So, let me add a little summary of this article in the same way as Tony Rice encapsulated his career in that chat with Geoffrey Himes.
A brief comment by my son about the recent passing of Tony Rice reminded me to put in a piece here to commemorate the artist, and to stress his importance in the continuing development of music. In doing so, arrived at some this mythical cross roads, although I´m not sure if these were temporal or spatial or musical, or they might have even been the crossroads where Robert Johnson once stood, as we heard echoes of…
the bluegrass and string bands of Doc Watson, Clarence White, The Kentucky Colonels and The Byrds, Flatt & Scruggs, Sam Bush, Ricky Scaggs and Jerry Douglas, Bill Monroe, Dave Grisman, Richard Greene and John Carlini,
and the jazz sounds of Django Reinhart, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane
laid over the contemporary folk Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot,
and the Americana of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and John Stewart
and on one side of the road we had Gerry Garcia
and on the other, Pat Metheny
and right there, in the centre, directing traffic, was Tony Rice !
We seem to meet interesting people whenever we step off the main streets and follow sidetracks & detours, so don´t forget that from February 28th to 11th March our joined up jazz journalists deliver the inaugural annual Sidetracks & Detours Joined Up Jazz Festival, including Steve Bewick´s special feature on John Coltrane, as well as Gary Heywood-Everett´s of Gil Davis and many other exciting features. The presentation is in association with Hot Biscuits
Steve Bewick, Hot Biscuits Jazz Broadcaster