Bluegrass Great Tony Rice Dies at 69

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Tony Rice, one of the leading lights of bluegrass music since the 1970s, and a 2013 inductee into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame, died suddenly on Christmas Day. He was 69.

“It is with a heavy heart we say goodbye to one of the most iconic voices and musicians in bluegrass,” the International Bluegrass Association said in announcing the death. “David Anthony ‘Tony’ Rice passed away yesterday, Dec. 25, at his home in Reidsville, NC. Few will ever match his skill and influence.”

More from Variety

Tributes from his bluegrass contemporaries and those influenced by him poured in Saturday as the news got out.

Rice was “the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years,” said Ricky Skaggs, who played alongside Rice in the group the New South in the 1970s and later rejoined him for a classic duets album, “Skaggs/Rice.”Not only was Tony a brilliant guitar player,” Skaggs added, but he was also one of the most stylistic lead vocalists in bluegrass music history.”

“I’m beyond heartbroken to hear about the passing of Tony Rice,” wrote Chris Thile. “No one has had a more profound impact on my musical world. His playing, singing, writing and arranging broke the bluegrass mold and will eternally attest to the fact that music can take you anywhere, from anywhere.”

“Rest in peace, my guitar mentor Tony Rice,” wrote Mark O’Connor. “We lost a giant of the guitar on Christmas yesterday. Of course it all comes flooding through the mind, how many times we played together since we first met in 1975. Will describe it all at a later date.”

“We’re gonna miss you Tony Rice,” tweeted banjoist Bela Fleck, with whom Rice recorded several collaborative albums. “Never equaled…”

Heralded upstart Billy Strings posted a photo of Rice looking slightly surly with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, tweeting, “Cool, elegant, badass, classy… always in the same mood as that old D-28.”

Accolades for Rice came from outside the genre as well, with country superstar Kenny Chesney telling how he became a huge fan while attending Eastern Tennessee State, where he played in a collegiate bluegrass band.

“When I was in college, I played a lot of music with a couple friends of mine, Shawn Lane and Marcus Smith,” said Chesney. “Every Wednesday night we played a place called the Down Home in Johnson City, Tenn. Whether it was ‘Green Light on the Southern,’ which was the first song we ever played, ‘Four Strong Winds’ or anything off the ‘Skaggs/Rice’ album, his music was always a staple of our set. Tony Rice inspired so many, including a kid like me from East Tennessee who was in awe of the way he sang and played ‘Me And My Guitar.’ I’ll never forget seeing him sing that at the IBMA Bluegrass Festival in Owensboro, Ky. It’s printed on my brain forever. Rest in peace, Tony Rice.”

Skaggs’ initial statement was a lengthy one, befitting the association that stuck with Chesney all these years.

“Sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee, our dear friend and guitar hero Tony Rice passed from this life and made his swift journey to his heavenly home,” Skaggs wrote. “It’s still quite a shock to the whole family. After talking with Tony’s wife Pam and their daughter India, they asked if I would make a statement on their behalf and give them some privacy to process during this difficult time. I was honored to help out. Tony is also survived by his brothers Wyatt and Ronnie, and all of you who loved his music and those who will continue to share it with others.

“Tony Rice was the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years,” continued Skaggs. “Many if not all of the Bluegrass guitar players of today would say that they cut their teeth on Tony Rice’s music. He loved hearing the next generation players play his licks. I think that’s where he got most of his joy as a player. With many IBMA Awards and a Grammy Award, Tony was a gracious recipient of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s highest honor as an inductee into their Hall of Fame in 2013.

“Not only was Tony a brilliant guitar player but he was also one of the most stylistic lead vocalists in bluegrass music history. When I joined the group the New South in 1974, I knew I’d found a singing soul mate with Tony. Our voices blended like brothers. In 1980, we recorded the album ‘Skaggs and Rice’ for Sugar Hill as a tribute to our duet heroes with just the simplicity of guitar, mandolin, and our voices. All these years later people tell me how much the purity of that record still touches their heart. That’s who Tony was, a singer from the heart.

“I will miss him as I’m sure all of you will. But where Tony is right now, he’s not missing us. He’s in the place that God has prepared for those who love Him and receive Him. Rest In Peace, dear brother. Thank you for your great talent and the music that will continue to inspire more and more generations to come.”

Before joining Skaggs in the New South, Rice was a member of J.D. Crowe’s New South in the early ’70s. His later outfits included the David Grisman Band, the Bluegrass Album Band (which included Doyle Lawson), the Tony Rice Unit (which for a time included Alison Krauss as a member) and Rice, Hillman & Pedersen (with brother Larry Rice, ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen). He was also noted for his work with Fleck and Jerry Garcia.

Rice had not played guitar publicly since his International Bluegrass Hall of Fame induction in 2013, due to medical conditions that made playing guitar difficult. He had not sung in concert since shortly after being diagnosed with muscle-tension dysphonia in 1994.

Tweeted country recording artist Charlie Worsham: “Tony Rice could make a Martin flattop guitar sing with more raw power than a than a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall stack. his signature style is embedded deep in the blueprint of my playing and certainly anyone who plays bluegrass guitar today. Yet even if Tony Rice had never played a lick, his voice alone was a singular force, & the songs he sang upped the game for songwriting in bluegrass & beyond. If you aren’t familiar with Tony Rice, please listen to his music. This wouldn’t be a bad place to start,” Worsham continued, posting a Spotify link to the Tony Rice Unit’s 1979 album “Manzanita.”

More to come…

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.