The Rice age

The often stoic stage presence of Tony Rice — disturbingly unemotional and stylishly, if stiffly, presented in three-piece suits (even on 100-degree midsummer festival stages) and slicked-back hair — offers a stark contrast to the fluid runs released from his 1935 Martin D-28.

For nearly 30 years, the guitarist has been perhaps the most prominent talent surrounding the instrument, offering repeated and various displays of his flatpicking mastery through many groups and across numerous genres.

And while he still has the power to construct albums of immense strength, as evidenced by 2001’s Unit of Measure (Rounder), the loss of his singing voice (much rumored to be from heavy cigarette-smoking, though Rice asserts it’s from over-taxing his vocal chords) and arthritis in his left hand has led to a diminished touring role. The latter affliction kept him from supporting Bela Fleck’s second Bluegrass Sessions album, while the loss of his voice has allowed Rice to concentrate fully on guitar.

Following the footsteps of early acoustic innovators such as Clarence White and Doc Watson, Rice now finds his groundbreaking style a heavy influence on the next generation of flatpickers, including Larry Keel, who teams with Rice at the Grey Eagle on June 26.

Born in Virginia, Rice was raised in the small but emerging Southern California bluegrass scene. It was here that his father, an accomplished bluegrass musician, introduced Tony and his brothers to traditional bluegrass as well as to the music of the Kentucky Colonels and guitarist Clarence White (in fact, the guitar Rice uses today was previously owned by White).

White had broken the guitar out of its then-standard position as a rhythm accessory and into a lead role with his trademark array of clean and quick licks, offering a sound that would serve as a benchmark for the development of Rice’s style.

After a stint in the late ’60s with Bluegrass Alliance, Rice began his work with progressive bluegrass in pioneering J.D. Crowe’s New South. A relative who’s-who of bluegrass innovation at the time, the band used drums and electric instruments and featured Rice alongside Crowe’s banjo, Jerry Douglas (dobro), Bobby Slone (bass), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin, fiddle). He gained a reputation as one of the fastest-rising stars on acoustic guitar — but it was Rice’s next act that propelled him far across the progressive envelope, where he still resides.

Blending Bill Monroe’s bluegrass, the jazz structures and improvisation of Miles Davis and the gypsy-guitar movements of Django Reinhart, the David Grisman Quintet of the late ’70s was a landmark assembly of musicians and creativity. DGQ’s stunning compositions and live performances pushed the “newgrass” genre (a term originally coined by Rice’s Bluegrass Alliance) into a wide-open realm of possibilities, led by Rice, Grisman (mandolin) and Darol Anger (fiddle).

The jazz arrangements and phrasing employed by DGQ launched Rice into new avenues of exploration, where he became well-versed in chord theory and reading charts, as well as diversifying the ranges, tempos and styles of his playing. Leaving DGQ in 1979, Rice embarked on his now-familiar pattern of bridging the gap of jazz and bluegrass he’d so deftly navigated, recording Acoustics, a jazz-based instrumental record, and the classic Manzanita that same year, a bluegrass-heavy offering that showcased Rice in his vocal prime.

Since then, Rice has seemingly roamed the open plains of music, exploring and settling at will, only to pick up and stake claim far away from where many thought he might rest. Combining his bluegrass background and folk-styled songs with critically acclaimed records such as Cold on the Shoulder, Rice traversed back toward experimentation and jazz. With the Tony Rice Unit, the guitarist exposed his admirers to “spacegrass,” revealing the extremes of his musical wanderlust, his ever-expanding ability, and his instrumental and compositional vocabulary.

Collaborations have highlighted Rice’s recent career, as he’s become commonly associated with any number of top artists from contemporary acoustic Americana. Norman Blake, Grisman, Peter Rowan and now Keel have enlisted Rice’s talents both on stage and in studio. A live viewing of Rice may leave you dizzy and disoriented, his blurred fingers milking countless miracle-laced guitar runs with confident ease.

Today, though, he seemingly stands at yet another crossroads, moving from musical maverick to mentor. Rice forms the nucleus of future developments in these genres, which will be seen and heard through his own playing yet to be presented — but, perhaps more importantly, from the next wave of Rice-styled stars, including Keel, Bryan Sutton, David Grier and Scott Nygaard. The remainder of Rice’s career might serve less as a memorial to what he’s done and more as a beginning chapter in a long book of future innovators.

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