Photo by: Brian Blauser
Mention Tony Rice and you’ll hear a lot of responses – he’s known for being a little eccentric, some say dark, but all say talented. Recently, his was the closing performance in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.’s first ever StringTime in the Smokies, a two-day festival that also headlined Del McCoury. Rice’s flatpick guitar work lived up to his legend for talent – and for eccentricity, at least musically.
Blue Ridge Country caught up with him a couple weeks later from the studios of WVTF public radio in Roanoke, Va. whose jazz programming Rice listens to whenever he’s home in North Carolina. We spoke the day after fiddle legend Vassar Clements died, and the day before Rice was to leave for Nashville, where he would serve as a pallbearer at Clements’ funeral. Rice talked about bluegrass and about jazz, and how the two have blended together in his playing over the years.
Tony Rice: The jazz influences come from what you would probably consider to be the norm – not so much jazz guitar players as jazz horn players and jazz keyboard players,
Cara Ellen Modisett: Could you give some examples?
TR: Sure. John Coltrane, one, and Miles Davis, and more extravagant horn players too… In terms of keyboard players, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, those guys that just – their approach to music offered me a different way of thinking about things. So I became a different guitar player as a result of listening to them.
In 1975, while Rice was working with J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas in The New South, he met David Grisman, who was playing experimental acoustic music in California. Rice fell in love with Grisman’s work and moved to California, where he was part of the original David Grisman Quintet. Their music inspired banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, the Turtle Island String Quartet and other innovators to come.
TR: I’m lucky to have been part of that.
CEM: A lot of these musics have been called “new grass,” which has changed in definition over the years. What’s your definition of new grass?
TR: I think new grass has always been a vague term at best. There’s so many ways you could interpret it, but a generic interpretation is that it is simply bluegrass music that’s a little more progressive.
CEM: Your father played bluegrass, right?
TR: Yeah, he was what you’d call a serious amateur musician. He was very good at playing Bill Monroe style mandolin… [he was a] very, very country traditional mandolin player and rhythm guitar player.
CEM: [For you,] why guitar? Do you remember what drew you to the instrument?
TR: No, I don’t really. I have a vague memory, which my mother apparently says is correct, that I first took interest in mandolin, and my brother Larry first took interest in the guitar. And then I didn’t like the mandolin and he didn’t like the guitar, so we at some point just swapped.
CEM: Simple as that.
TR: Yeah. That simple.
CEM: Acoustic music – especially bluegrass, traditional music – has been so mainstreamed. Is there a danger of it being overplayed, overdone, old hat?
TR: I think it already is, but that’s just my perception of it. I think the musicians and the bands that will survive are the musicians and bands where the roots of the music that they offer are unique and at the same time musically valid – unique enough that they be recognized by their own sound and their own identity.
You mention how saturated things have become, and I agree with that a hundred percent. For example, there’s never been this many bluegrass bands in history that sound alike. There’s never been as many string bands that sound alike. And the list goes on. And I’m talkin’ about various little facets and offshoots of this one genre we call bluegrass and string music.
But you know, once in a while somebody comes along and they're unique and they're liked forever.
Tony Rice's website: www.tonyrice.com