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Barry Waldrep says there was no lack of artists who wanted to honor Tony Rice on a tribute album
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Barry Waldrep says there was no lack of artists who wanted to honor Tony Rice on a tribute album

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When Tony Rice put his hands on a guitar, the instrument was transformed. It became a a time capsule, a vessel containing the purest essence of a multigenre-spanning journey helmed by a pilot with his feet firmly rooted in tradition but his head in the skies.

With Rice, traditional took on new meaning. He was loyal to traditional bluegrass but had no qualms about mixing in swaths of sound from other genres and styles that crossed his path. And what Rice put together, few were able to duplicate. His soul came out through his fingers, flowing so rapidly it was sometimes hard to keep up with. But once it soaked in, it stayed with you, coming back again and again to haunt you, making you hungry for more.

Rice passed away last Christmas Day at his home in Reidsville. To honor his legacy, producer/multi-instrumentalist Barry Waldrep (Rollin’ in the Hay, Telluride, Zac Brown, John Berry, Waldrep and Friends) organized a 21-song tribute to Rice — “Barry Waldrep and Friends Celebrate Tony Rice.”

Rice left behind a sizable catalog that reflected his group affiliations and collaborations with a wide variety of artists in several genres. But Waldrep wanted to approach Rice’s life work from a different angle.

“The whole intention was to do an album with all featured artists outside the bluegrass world who were influenced by Tony,” Waldrep said by phone recently from his Alabama home base.

Beginnings

Born in 1951 in Danville, Va., David Anthony Rice was destined to be a travelin’ man. His dad, Herbert Hoover Rice, a welder by trade, soon moved the family to California in search of opportunities for his daytime profession as well as his nighttime one, playing bluegrass guitar.

Rice senior achieved considerable notoriety for his efforts in the Golden State Boys, a group he founded with some of his mother’s siblings and which included Del McCoury at one time. Tony was entranced by the music, founding his own group, The Haphazards, in 1962. But Herbert was a restless sort, moving the family from California to Florida to Georgia to Texas, then back to Florida before Tony left home at the age of 18 to pursue his own musical career.

Living with relatives in North Carolina at first, Tony met mandolinist Sam Bush at Camp Strings Bluegrass Festival in Reidsville in 1970 and moved to Louisville, Ky., to join the Bluegrass Alliance. The Alliance brought oldgrass to a new generation of fans under the guise of newgrass. But Rice only spent a short time in the Alliance, jumping to the II Generation with Eddie Adcock in August of ‘71 before joining up with J.D. Crowe and the New South at Camp Springs on Labor Day, 1971.

Rice, initially influenced by Byrds guitarist Clarence White, had big ears, absorbing tidbits from a variety of genres into his unique style. By the time he hooked up with David Grisman in 1975, Rice had been listening to John Coltrane and Oscar Peterson as well, adding jazz to his musical vocabulary as a contributor to Grisman’s “Dawg music,” incorporating jazzy elements to bluegrass and folk.

By ‘79, he had his own group the Tony Rice Unit, with its debut album “Manzanita.” Rice played and recorded with bluegrass greats and former colleagues over the years, appearing at the first MerleFest in 1988 with Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, John Cowan and Bela Fleck. Rice was voted IBMA’s Instrumentalist of the Year in ‘90, ‘91, ‘94, ‘96 ,’97 and ‘07.

Rice lent his signature guitar sound and vocal talents to collaborations with Ricky Skaggs including the glorious vocal harmonies on 1980’s “Skags and Rice,” also touring and recording with Peter Rowan beginning in the late ‘90s. He put out a string of memorable albums in the ‘80s — ‘83’s “Church Street Blues,” ‘84’s “Cold On The Shoulder,” and “Me and My Guitar” in ‘86.

But at least one of his peers thought that Rice sometimes overplayed. Sam Bush, while working on Bela Fleck’s ‘99 project, “The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2” said that Rice was coming in at inopportune times.

“The thing is, he would do a bunch of stuff that you didn’t ask him to do,” Fleck told Molly Tuttle in an “Acoustic Guitar Magazine” interview this summer. “Sam Bush would be always like, ‘Hey Tony, you’re not supposed to play there. Your solo is later.’ And I’d be like, ‘Sam, don’t say that. That was so cool. He just came in out of nowhere and added this whole other thing underneath someone else’s thing.’”

But the reality is, in any situation, Rice was the whole other thing, creating an indescribable element that materialized when Rice’s fingers went to work. Rice’s vocals were a part of the magic, but in the early ‘90s, he began to feel the effects of laryngeal dystonia, spasms of the larynx that prevent a person from speaking or singing. The spasms eventually halted his vocal participation.

His magnificent flatpicking skills still kept him performing until 2013, but that fell victim to a crippling case of tennis elbow which Rice diagnosed as just plain wore-outness from overuse of his hands for so many years.

By 2003, Rice was back in North Carolina, where he lived till his death last Christmas.

A tribute

Waldrep never toured or recorded with Rice, but he did get to play with him one memorable night after a long conversation with the guitarist on the way to a gig in 2011. Rice was averse to flying, preferring to drive to his shows. After bonding on the five-hour car ride, Rice invited Waldrep up onstage to play.

“To play with your guitar hero and have him look over with a smile during your solos was a great feeling,” Waldrep remembers. “I felt like I got his stamp of approval.”

Waldrep’s influences included Doc Watson and Norman Blake, as well as his dad, a part-time auto mechanic who played bluegrass on the side. But Rice’s style loomed large in Waldrep’s musical education.

“Tony’s playing was so outside the box that it was very inspiring for someone to realize that they could do their own thing in music, so it didn’t have to be the same as everyone else,” Waldrep said. “Tony Rice was more than an influential guitar player to me. He moved me emotionally with everything he played. It all came from the heart through his fingers on to the strings of the guitar.”

This tribute got its start seven years ago when Waldrep was asked to go in and cut a song for an earlier tribute album to Rice. He got John Cowan, Oteil Burbridge and Benji Shanks to accompany him to Nashville to cut James Taylor’s “Me And My Guitar.” But the project was shelved until Waldrep came up with the idea for this record, adding drumming and song a remix. Waldrep takes over Rice’s guitar slot on the cuts, featuring a dazzling array of artists from a variety of genres.

The version of “Me and My Guitar” on this album is a total makeover from Taylor’s orchestral folk rock live version. Cowan’s incredible vocals takes it into another dimension, almost outshining Rice and accomplices Jerry Douglas, Vassar Clements and Sam Bush’s jazzy bluegrass ‘86 take.

Jimmy Hall’s lead vocal on “Why You Been Gone So Long” presents Hall doing a style far different from his revival preacher shouting Wet Willie frontman days, blasting out rockin’ bluegrass like he’s been doing it his whole career.

“He was asking me what I thought, and I said ‘I don’t have anything in mind for you to do other than just go be Jimmy Hall, do what you would do,’ and that’s exactly what he did,” Waldrep says.

Vince Gill steps up to the mic for the lead vocal on “I’ll Stay Around,” first recorded by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys in the early ‘50s and recut by Ricky Skaggs on ‘83’s “Sweet Temptation.” Gill shows off his mandolin skills as well on this high-and-lonesome cut.

John Jorgenson’s take on “Cold on the Shoulder” is as head-spinning as Rice’s performance on the original. “I would have to say that he is the finest musician on the planet at doing everything,” Waldrep says. “He just has the right musical attitude, and he’s a great guy as well.”

Recorded at the NuttHouse Recording Studio in Sheffield, Ala., the album has echoes of the Muscle Shoals/Fame studios sound that cranked out so many great soul/R&B records of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Owner Jimmy Nutt worked at Fame recording Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Clarence Carter, The Drive-By Truckers before starting his own shop. Swamper Spooner Oldam adds a nostalgic touch to the proceedings with his piano on Summer Wages.

There’s much more, including Emmylou Harris, Warren Haynes, Radney Foster, John Berry, Jim Lauderdale, Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell and Rodney Crowell.

Even with 21 tracks, Waldrep says he’s got enough interest from people who want to be involved to do another one or more.

“I hope this really exposes Tony to a lot of people who are not familiar and expands the love for his music,” Waldrep says. “If you take Jimmy Hall and Vince Gill and anybody else who’s on this album, when people who are fans of them say, ‘I don’t know who Tony Rice is, but I wanna check him out now that they’ve done this,’ that’s the intention. So we’ll keep rolling as long as there’s interest.”

Contact Grant Britt at gbritt1@triad.rr.com.

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