Happy Birthday Tony Rice: Performing At 1st MerleFest With Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor & John Cowan
Legendary guitarist Tony Rice was born on this date in 1951. The influential and massively talented musician was 69-years-old when he died on December 25, 2020.
Rice was an iconic figure in the modern bluegrass movement, positioning himself among the all-time great pickers. From his first public performance on the radio age 9 through the end of his career, Rice amassed an important body of work both in the studio and on stage. He was given the International Bluegrass Music Awards honor of Guitar Player of the Year five times in the 1990s.
That same decade saw Rice diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia. A noted vocalist as well as guitar picker, the disorder ultimately ended his singing career with his last public vocal performance occurring in 1994. The International Bluegrass Music Association Hall Of Fame inducted Rice in 2013. The ceremony turned out to be his last performance in public as further health issues made playing guitar difficult.
Rice’s career was noted for his solo work, including his 1973 debut LP, Guitar. In nearly every musical setting Rice was in, he surrounded himself with some of the highest caliber bluegrass musicians, regularly picking alongside fellow legends David Grisman, Vassar Clements, Ricky Skaggs, J.D. Crowe, Norman Blake, Peter Rowan and Doc Watson, among scores of others. One such memorable collaboration took place onstage at the first MerleFest, the annual event founded by Watson in 1988 in honor of his son Eddy Merle Watson.
Held on April 30 and May 1, 1988, the inaugural MerleFest has been followed annually each year since, except for the pandemic-canceled 2020 edition. MerleFest 2021 returns to the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina on September 16 – 19.
MerleFest has continuously grown in size and scope since 1988. The first event was described by fiddler Mark O’Connor as taking place “on the back of a tractor trailer for a stage and with just a few hundred people in attendance.” Those lucky attendees witnessed Rice and O’Connor take part in an all-star performance that also featured the incredibly gifted lineup of banjoist Béla Fleck, mandolinist Sam Bush, dobro player Jerry Douglas and bassist John Cowan. Rice discussed the set in 2019 interview by Jan Johansson, stating:
“Have you heard any of the stuff that was done by the group of myself and Sam, and Bela and Flux [Douglas], and Mark O’Connor? Have you heard any of that stuff? It was back at MerleFest, there’s quite a bit of footage of us playing live. There’s tunes like ‘Freeborn Man’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer,’ where – you talk about an ensemble … Mark O’Connor playing that bluegrass fiddle like that was just absolutely mind-blowing. I’ll go and get on my computer and listen to that stuff and listen to him playing those solos in ‘Freeborn Man’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ – listen to Jerry Douglas’s solos – and I think, ‘Jesus, this is just amazing shit.’”
Taking the spotlight among the amazing collection of bluegrass players, Rice led the ensemble through versions of the traditional tunes “John Hardy” and “Nine Pound Hammer,” both of which appeared on Rice’s debut album. Watch Rice lead performances of those songs at the inaugural MerleFest in 1988 below: