Thursday, October 3, 2013


It seems that in any endeavor there will always be one person who ends up standing apart from the crowd and becomes a singular force. Someone that everybody else chases. Someone everybody else wants to be like. Someone that comes to be the embodiment of whatever it is they are doing.  They change the game. Its their world and the rest of just live in it. If you're in the know then these folks are easy to pick out. They're likely to be famous. How these folks come to achieve such lofty pinnacles of artistry and accomplishment is very interesting to me and after studying music and the paths of musical improvement I feel like I have a bit of a better understanding how these folks get to where they are. But there's something else that's very mysterious about it. Luck plays no small part. Or is it fate? Or is it just plain love?

In the world of bluegrass guitar playing and singing that person is David Anthony Rice, or as he's better known, Tony Rice. I first heard Tony Rice's music about 14 years ago when I was first getting into bluegrass music. A good buddy of mine told me I had to listen to his album, Manzanita. Released in  1979 Mazanita, I think its fair to say, is one of the most important bluegrass records yet recorded. Nothing else in bluegrass really sounds like it. Sonically and creatively its unique. Rice's playing and singing is flawless and sophisticated but still exhibits the best qualities of 1st generation bluegrass music. Drive, emotion, virtuosity (but not at the expense of musicality), and cohesion. The band that plays on the record is an all star cast of bluegrass musicians. It bridges old bluegrass styles with more progressive arrangements and picking and is arguably Rice's best loved record. When I first heard it I didn't know anything about bluegrass, it just sounded good. It was good music. Period. Only now that I've devoted so much of my life to studying bluegrass music do I understand HOW important it is.

At this point Tony Rice is the most important and copied bluegrass guitarist and will likely remain un-eclipsed in that regard. He's like Earl Scruggs on the banjo. You either play like him or you try NOT to play like him. At a certain point I realized that lots of guitarists were trying (often unsuccessfully) to play like Rice and for fear of being a hack (still fearing that!) I stopped paying attention to the details of his guitar style. The truth is that his guitar style is more like his essence. You can no more play like him than you can BE him. Rice's playing is amazingly sophisticated at times. He clearly has an amazing ear and a great technical knowledge of the guitar and music but he doesn't let that get in the way of what feels right to him. And that seems most important anyway. As a friend of mine once said, "I think he's just really smart." There's seems to be no doubt.

Rice's guitar is perhaps the most hallowed acoustic guitar that's yet been made. Clarence White's 1935 Martin D-28. Once owned by Rice's obvious influence and perhaps mentor, Clarence White, its only fitting that Rice would resurrect the guitar after White tragically passed away after being struck by a drunk driver. Rice seems to have a signature tone on any guitar he plays but the sound of that D-28 is nearly unmistakable. Rice has one of the most fluid right hands to ever hold a flat pick. He doesn't pick the strings so much as glide the pick over them. His left hand one of the most economical. As much as I would like to play that guitar just out of curiosity I imagine my inadequacies as a guitarist would only seem all the more apparent.

Tony Rice is equally lauded for his singing. At times mellow and at times soulful but always full of emotion, Rice's singing is just as singular as his guitar playing. His recorded vocal music covers the territory of traditional bluegrass, old folk ballads, as well as unique covers of great songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot and Norman Blake. Tragically Tony Rice lost his ability to sing many years ago and this only seemed to elevate his legend that much more. From the beginning I heard the rumors about the loss of his voice, of which I won't go into here, but no doubt the loss of his voice only helped to contribute to his legend. It seems our heroes often deal with a great deal of tragedy and it makes us love them all the more for being so human. The truth is that we all deal with tragedy but our heroes like Rice have to deal with it while the masses also know about it.

What seems clear is that we won't see another bluegrass musician like Tony Rice anytime soon. Rice carries himself publicly with a style and stage presence that's downright stately. Its as if he has to bring his stage persona up to the level of sophistication of the music being played. Chris Thile and Bela Fleck can play (on camera) Bach partitas in socks and jeans but could you imagine Tony Rice playing Nine Pound Hammer in an T-shirt! Hell no. Nobody else really does that. Rice stands almost like a statute as he plays. He doesn't show off with rock and roll inspired head bobs or movements but yet he's never stoic. He's just, as John Hartford described him, the coolest guy in the room.

Rice was recently inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, an honor that (however predictable and customary) seems somehow backward to me. Rice could induct bluegrass into his hall of fame, know what I mean? During his award speech, which has became the stuff of instant legend, Rice looking very drawn and weary delivered a speech that was truly electric. His raspy and weak voice almost whispering into the microphone as he gave a somewhat standard yet heartfelt thank you. You could imagine the speech ending pretty quickly and Rice bowing out to great applause. But then he did something magical, he asked for a moment to gather himself because whatever he was about to do required a lot of focus. What on earth?

You could hear Rice hum quietly to himself and then he stepped back up to the microphone. When he returned the raspy and hoarse voice from before was gone and he was miraculously speaking a soft and gentle but normal voice. Wow! I can only imagine the mood of the room when Rice started speaking again. Somehow he had managed to speak normally again! This was miraculous even for Rice. It would be quite amazing to hear Tony Rice be able to sing again but that seems to be shooting the moon. For me Rice couldn't have secured his legacy any more resoundingly.  Asking the question of, how did he ever do that with his voice is like asking how he played the guitar or sing like he did. I think Rice described himself best as he did describing music in a guitar instruction video he made several years ago. He said (paraphrasing Wynton Marsalis) that music can only be described in one word, mysterious. Tony Rice is very mysterious indeed. He's also happens to the best.


Kelly Cole said...

His speech was astounding. With spasmodic dysphonia the problem is uncontrolled spasms of the vocal folds. Somehow he's discovered a little trick to relax those vocal folds as he brings them together at the start of phonation, maybe similar to some strategies that stutterers are taught. I was almost in tears listening to him, and I'm a middle-aged man! Time will tell if he can sing again, but most types of dystonias are tough nuts to crack.

Kelly Cole said...

Tony's speech was astounding. Spasmodic dysphonia, like focal dystonias, are tough nuts to crack since they manifest as uncontrollable muscle spasms when to try to perform voluntary motor tasks. It sounded like Tony was using a soft onset to his phonation (often taught to stutters) to try to keep his vocal folds as relaxed as possible and yet bring them together for vibration.

Hearing is old voice almost brought tears to my eyes. You know that he's trying it in private for singing, but that's like comparing batting practice to live pitching. We'd all love to hear him sing again.

Kelly Cole said...

Sounded like he was using a gentle onset to phonation, which is a strategy often taught to individuals who stutter. Amazing to hear his old speaking voice after so long.