Tony Rice - A Remembrance
The first time I ever heard of Tony Rice was a record called “The Bluegrass Album, Volume 2”. You see, I lived in a somewhat musically-sheltered household. I only knew first generation musicians like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and Mac Wiseman. But at the age of 12, I started taking banjo lessons at a local music store from James Alan Shelton. James made it his personal mission to educate me about all the bluegrass that I didn’t know was out there. He instructed me go to Joseph’s Music Center and buy “Volume 2”, which had just recently been released. I brought that record home, put it on the turntable and settled back in my bean bag to pour over the cover and listen to what all the fuss was about. The music that began to pour out of those headphones blew my mind and would forever change my life. And it would put me on a course to eventually get to work with and know this “Tony Rice” fellow.
Fast forward nine years to 1991. I had gone on to become a professional musician and had been a member of Alison Krauss & Union Station for about a year. My musical trajectory was forever changed by Tony and the musicians that were in his sphere. People like J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, David Grisman et al. We were booked on a series of shows that summer called “The Ricky Skaggs Pickin’ Party”, which was a mini bluegrass festival of sorts featuring acts such as us, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, the Tony Rice Unit and a full country set from Ricky. One of the highlights was a reunion of the famous 1975 incarnation of J.D. Crowe & the New South, which included Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and Tony. I had gotten to know Ricky’s tour manager and I also knew that the New South’s bass player from that era, Bobby Sloan, wasn’t available. So I started doing some lobbying. As it turned out, the first time I was ever onstage with Tony Rice was as the fill-in bass player for the ’75 New South! I’m surprised I didn’t just pass out and fall over on the first note. It was incredible! Even though nobody really knew my name, they were all very complimentary and kind to this 21 year-old kid. What a special memory that is to this day!
Over the years, our paths crossed more and more often, playing on recording sessions together or chatting backstage at a bluegrass festival we were both working. I was usually at a loss for words and unable to carry on a meaningful conversation. What do you talk about with one of your heroes? Particularly Tony. He was always very kind and gracious, albeit soft-spoken and not a “small talker”. One time I thought I had a great angle for a real conversation with him. I knew he was a serious student of the Lincoln assassination, and John Wilkes Booth in particular. I am a student of the American Civil War, so I figured we had some common ground there. I said “Tony, are you a Civil War buff or just a historian of Booth?” His response - “Just Booth…”. Conversation over.
So fast forward a few more years to 2007. An Alison Krauss & Union Station tour was put together that focused on Tony and his music. What a thrill to have him onstage with us, reimagining so many of his classic cuts that had meant so much to us over the years! I was SO looking forward to the bus rides with Tony, listening to hours and hours of stories! But alas. Try as we might, we could not convince him to ride a bus with us. He couldn’t relinquish that much autonomy. It was well known that Tony loved to drive to shows in one of his immaculately-cared-for automobiles. I don’t think he had flown to a show in well over 20 years. But we thought this was different, as it was a big production tour that went to many cities over many nights, with lots of shows back-to-back. Not just a couple of weekend sets at a festival. A compromise was finally reached and he agreed to hire a driver, although in truth I feel pretty sure Tony still did all the driving.
We had so much fun at soundcheck, running through any and all TR classics that came to mind. But eventually Tony would say “I gotta pee! Where’s the bathroom?”. Which actually meant “I’m tired of playing and you won’t see me again until showtime”. It was such a special thing to see him presented in a manner that was fitting of the respect he deserved. We performed mostly in well-appointed Performing Arts Centers over a state-of-the-art sound system with master audio engineer and Doc Watson compadre Cliff Miller at the mixing console. There was always some people in attendance that just came to see Alison and had no idea who Tony was. But he was always able to captivate any audience we had with a few whispered words, his musicianship and his dignified stage presence. Even though this tour offered a great chance to be up-close and personal with Tony on a daily basis, I still never really felt like I knew him.
Humor me one last fast forward, to 2010. Tony’s booking agent, Keith Case, called me and asked if I would be interested in doing some fill-in dates with the Tony Rice Unit. Would I?!?! I jumped at the chance, thrilled but more than a little nervous. It was one thing to have Tony with us on the AKUS tour, but this would be going full-on into his world, following in the footsteps of some incredible musicians, playing some incredible music. Over the course of the next couple if years, I was honored to do quite a few shows with him. The first show we played, we kicked off the set with “My Favorite Things”, the Rogers and Hammerstein classic from “The Sound of Music”. Tony recorded it some years back as an acoustic jazz showpiece. Now, I have never been a jazz player, nor a soloist. So at one point, Tony looks back at me and nods for me to take the next solo. Fully aware of my limitations, I shook him off like a pitcher that thinks his catcher has lost his mind. So we get through the show and it went pretty well, all things considered. But it kept eating at me. Who shakes off Tony Rice?? So I decided that next time, I would take the solo. Then he would see how bad it was and would just stop nodding to me. Except that didn’t happen. Every show, he would look around and nod for me to solo. Not only on that song, but multiple times throughout the set. But you know what? I made it through. And I learned some things. I learned that I was capable of a lot more than I had been giving myself credit for. And I learned that Tony could be an amazing band leader that pushed those onstage with him to greater heights with only a look or a nod or a subtle guitar accent. He made all of us better musicians in the moment.
It was during this period that, as much as was possible with TR, I got to know him somewhat. He always treated me like a peer, even though I always felt like that 12 year-old kid looking at him on an album cover. And he always insisted that I was a member of the Tony Rice Unit even though I only saw myself as a passable fill-in. He would call me from time to time. Imagine! Looking down at my phone to see I had a call coming in from Tony Rice! He always wanted to know how I was doing. What I was up to. Sometimes he would talk for an hour or more. Nothing major nor terribly memorable. But always kind, humble, respectful, and funny. As thrilling as that time was, it always hurt me to see Tony having to play any gig that came in just to “pay the bills”. He was always in pain from arthritis and nerve issues in his arm, which made it hard to consistently play up to his own standard. The long drives were hard on him. The venues and sound systems were not always the best. But he consistently gave it his all, whether onstage or talking to one of his legion of devoted fans at the stage door.
There are many tributes that do more justice to his overall career and musical genius. There are reminisces from folks who knew him better. But after all he did for me, both before and after I actually met him, I wanted to put my few experiences with Tony down on paper. If just so I would get to relive the journey.
It’s taken me a few days to process it all and let it sink in. I’ve remembered things. I’ve looked up show dates on old calendars. I’ve watched videos of times we played together. I’ve wished I had been able to get to know him better. But at the end of the day, I thank you, Tony, for the ways you’ve touched my life. And I thank you, Lord, for Tony Rice.