Guitarist Tony Rice 1951 – 2020

By Andy Kahn Dec 26, 2020 7:13 pm PST

Acclaimed bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice has died at the age of 69. The International Bluegrass Association, Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum and others confirmed Rice passed away yesterday, December 25 at his home in Reidsville, North Carolina.

Born David Anthony Rice on June 8, 1951 in Danville, Virginia, Rice was raised in Los Angeles around a family of musicians that included his father Herbert Rice who had a band with Tony uncles called the Golden State Boys. After starting on mandolin, Rice soon moved to guitar and performed publicly for the first time when he sang on the radio at age 9. It was there the Rice met The Kentucky Colonels guitarist Clarence White who was an early influence on Rice’s lead guitar playing.

In 1970, Rice was asked to replace Dan Crary in the Bluegrass Alliance, which he joined for a one-year stint. Rice was then recruited by J.D. Crowe & The New South that by 1975 also included Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas. The group released a critically acclaimed self-titled album for Rounder Records, known by its catalog serial number “oo44.”

Later in 1975, Rice joined the David Grisman Quintet. The era also saw Rice issue the solo albums Guitar, California Autumn and Tony Rice as well as forming the Tony Rice Unit for the albums Acoustics and Manzanita.

In the 1980s, Rice released additional solo albums alongside Tony Rice Unit records as well as collaborations with Norman Blake, Bela Fleck, Ricky Skaggs and his brothers Larry Rice, Wyatt Rice and Ronnie Rice. From the early-1980s through the mid-1990s, Rice and Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson and Todd Phillips recorded several volumes of Bluegrass Album Band albums.

Rice recorded what became the Pizza Tapes with Grisman and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1993. The session recorded at Grisman’s studio was eventually officially released in 2000 after bootleg recordings circulated for several years.

The International Bluegrass Music Awards named Rice Guitar Player of the Year five times in the 1990s, but the decade also saw Rice diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia, which impaired his ability to sing. His last public vocal performance occurred in 1994.

In the late-1990 and into the 2000s, Rice joined his brother Larry Rice, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen in recording and releasing three well-received albums. Rice came together with Peter Rowan for tours and albums, releasing the Quartet album on Rounder Records in 2006 with Bryn Davies and Sharon Gilchrist.

Rice was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall Of Fame in 2013. The ceremony was his last public performance as playing guitar became difficult due to health complications.

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