At 58 years old, Tony Rice has been considered the best acoustic flat-picking guitarist of his generation for more than three decades. Originally making his mark for speed, dexterity, fluidity and musicality, he still impresses and enthralls with his phenomenal technique and impeccable taste. When you hear him perform, you’d never know that he has played with the pain of arthritis for the last twenty years.
“I tell people that I don’t really have an excuse,” he said in a recent telephone conversation, “because my favorite musician of all time had arthritis all of his life, and nobody would ever have known. Would you ever have thought it possible that [jazz pianist] Oscar Peterson had arthritis? He had osteoarthritis all of his life and look what he did.”
Rice, who performs with his band, The Tony Rice Unit, at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts on October 17, has been an innovator since helping to birth the “newgrass” movement of the ‘70s with Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas in J. D. Crowe & the New South. He was later at the forefront of the “new acoustic” genre creating “dawg music” with David Grisman and playing what he called “spacegrass” on albums like Manzanita and his 1982 masterwork, Backwaters. He was also a heckuva folksinger until he was afflicted with a rare vocal disorder called muscle tension dysphonia.
“And I’ve got tendonitis in the right elbow,” he added. “Just things that come with the aging process. In my case when you add a few years of partying to that—I’ve been totally clear of all alcohol and reefer for eight years and three months. It feels good to not be drunk and not wake up with a hangover!”
Born in Danville, Virginia, he grew up in southern California at the height of the rock and roll era. But unlike so many young musicians of the time, he never went electric.
“At an early age,” he explained, “a certain part of musicianship got in my soul and just stayed there. I certainly don’t have anything against electronic music at all; in fact a lot of the music I love is done by electric instruments. But I never went that route.”
He’s been playing guitar so long that he’s not certain when he began:
“My parents have told me I was around five or six. I made my first performance in public on the radio when I was nine. That was in 1960, so next year it will be 50 years that I’ve been doing this, standing up in front of a big audience and playing a guitar.”
His earliest influence was another Californian who had begun playing as a youngster, Clarence White, who would make his mark with the Kentucky Colonels and later with The Byrds.
“Our families were close,” he said. “We all met each other in 1960, my family and the White brothers. So we were always around them. The newer generation of guitar players think it’s stunning when I tell them that when I started to learn to do this, there was only one guy in existence that played lead bluegrass guitar as you and I know it. That was Clarence White. He was just starting to play arpeggios, and in a couple of years he was able to take solos and things like that.”
Tony Rice’s discography is remarkable for its range, reflecting his diverse interests and restless musical spirit.
“Well,” he said, “I’ve got more jazz heroes than I’ve got bluegrass heroes: Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans and the horn players like Coltrane. Though George Benson is probably my favorite guitar player to this day, I would say what has influenced my guitar playing more than any other single facet would be the musicianship and approach I’ve learned from horn players like Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon.”
As for songwriters, Gordon Lightfoot is his guy. In his singing days, he sprinkled versions of Lightfoot songs throughout his records. A compilation called Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot collects seventeen of those tracks onto one CD.
“He was the guy that raised the bar,” Rice said, “that took me out of the old Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe type of tunes that were real simple and real soulful. You got to admit that some of those Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs tunes, a five year old could’ve written in three minutes. Along came Gord with some really beautiful poetry. When I first heard it I thought, god almighty, somebody’s got to do this stuff with bluegrass instrumentation! So I ended up doing that and I’ve been doing it all these years. His material was always a challenge but I think the results were worth it.”
At the Suffolk Center, Tony Rice and his band will cover the same wide swath he’s been exploring all these years:
“We’re still getting spacegrass and instrumentals, more progressive instrumentals that come from the dawg grass era. With Josh Williams being able to sing as good as he does, fortunately I’ve been able to resurrect some of the old vocal tunes that I’ve recorded.”
He’ll be coming to town on Route 58 from his North Carolina home.
“I’m on the Carolina-Virginia border, about fifteen miles from Greensboro. I’ve been here since ’93. I was in Florida before that for eight years, but most of my life I spent in California. But I’m a southerner by birth. They can’t take that away from you.”
The Tony Rice Unit
Saturday, October 17 – 8:00 pm
Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts
copyright © 2009 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.