January 04, 2021
Guitarist and Singer who took bluegrass in new directions by experimenting with its traditional repertoire
Tony Rice obituary
In the second half of the 1970s a loose group of young American bluegrass musicians rewrote the prospectus of that somewhat hidebound idiom, introducing, often in untypical accents, uncanonical songs and unconventional ways of playing them. Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, David Grisman and Tony Rice became crucial innovators in “newgrass” and “new acoustic music” – so effectively that Rice could reflect, years later, that “bluegrass is a term that means so much more now than it did”. He added, perhaps gently chiding conservative critics, that “as soon as you become a diehard anything, be it jazz or bluegrass or whatever, you’re depriving yourself of a whole world of music”.
Rice, who has died suddenly aged 69, was not only exceptionally gifted as a guitarist and singer, but he constantly refreshed the bluegrass repertoire, reshaping familiar material and inserting new songs by writers he admired, such as James Taylor, Ian Tyson, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Rodney Crowell and above all the Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. The singer Alison Krauss, talking to Dave Simpson in the Guardian, recalled: “When I was about 13, I was out of my mind for [Rice’s 1984 album] Cold on the Shoulder. He’d do songs by Lightfoot, or Jimmie Rodgers, and totally change them. The stories and poetry in all those songs were amazing. I daydreamed about playing fiddle in Tony’s band.”
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