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A Day In The Life
Of The World's Best Guitarist
by Caroline Wright

cover of Listener from Listener Magazine
July/August 2002

Author's Note: I wrote this article at the invitation of Art Dudley, the wonderful editor of the now-defunct Listener Magazine. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. Art was very specific in his instructions: "Cut back and forth between bio, interview, and, primarily, one select 24-hour period in Tony's life," he directed. "Almost as important as what he does during his day are the things he doesn't do."

Tony was very, very generous with his time, and his wife Pam was immensely helpful with all the little details that are so important in an article like this. Two of the photos are hers: the one of Tony and his beloved Mustang, and the historic shot of David Grisman, Tony, and Jerry Garcia. Tony took the self-portrait of himself and Pam and their puppies, and the shot of The Guitar. I am grateful to them both.

TO SEE CAPTIONS AND CREDITS, MOVE YOUR CURSOR OVER EACH PHOTO.


It's 11:45 on a Tuesday morning, and Tony Rice enters his kitchen to make a strong pot of coffee. His freezer - a sleek space-age appliance covered in black leather - is filled with sacks of coffee beans. Most of the people in his neighborhood have already been awake for a long time, but last night, Rice stayed up late messing around with his audio system. For the next several days, he will keep the hours of a vampire.

Tony: “It sometimes lasts for weeks and weeks. The only thing I want to do is hear really good recorded music. I like to do that late at night, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. Keeping an audio system up and running and well-tuned is kinda like having a Ferrari. And I get into night moods, where I like the night more than the day.

I quit adhering to any kind of schedule years ago. I take it a day at a time. If it's the right time of the year, and I want to be outdoors fishing or taking photos, I'll get on an early-morning schedule so I can make the best of that.

I consider myself to be a serious amateur photographer. I'm almost ready to publish a book of my color wildlife and landscape photography. I use older Canons, manual focus F1s. I've got eleven of them, believe it or not, and 33 or 34 lenses!”

“I think Tony is about one of the slickest guys I've ever seen play.
He doesn't even look like he's moving.
Where are all these notes coming from?”
--- Terry Clements, guitarist for Gordon Lightfoot
quoted in
Acoustic Guitar Magazine, January 2000

Tony and Pamela Rice at home with their puppies; photo by Tony Rice He laughs sheepishly, sitting in his leather chair, listening to his birds (yes, Tony Rice does, indeed, have a bird named Dinah and a dog named David), surrounded by magazines, coffee cups, ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, and cases filled with lenses. He likes white ceramic cups, because they don't burn his mouth. As he drinks his java, he has a few quiet moments. Occasionally he glances at the wall, upon which hangs a photo of Vassillie, the 17th century fiddle owned by the legendary Vassar Clements.

Tony: “Vassar Clements is somebody I really admire. The photo is of the fingerboard of his old fiddle. I look at it in awe of the music that originated in the mind of that man, and transformed into sound via that fingerboard and those strings.

In the morning, I like to meditate a little bit, and have a conversation with my Maker. It's kind of a strange relationship I have with my Maker, because he doesn't want to talk with me until I have my coffee. So I get that out of the way first.”

"Hey, Tony - I think you played your ass off.
So - what's it like not having an ass anymore? Love, Béla"
--- undated note from Béla Fleck

The telephone rings. At any given time it could be his booking agent Keith Case calling from Nashville, his pal Ricky Skaggs calling to say howdy, or Peter Rowan, calling to discuss an upcoming gig with his Texas Trio. In this case, it's Homespun Video, calling to talk about his new instructional video, a follow-up to his immensely popular An Intimate Lesson With Tony Rice. Narrated by Happy Traum himself, this two-part instant classic called The Tony Rice Guitar Method is the first DVD Homespun has ever released.

Tony: “I recorded the first one in 1984, so it's been 18 years. I don't play as fast as I used to. Combine the aging factor with some osteo-arthritis… it makes you slow down a bit. A lot of people say that they like my musicianship more than ever, just because I have slowed down! At my age, I can't assimilate things as fast as I could when I was 20. I'd rather listen to musicians who play slower than I would musicians who rip notes off so fast that I don't have time to listen to them!

The report from Happy Traum is that the video is very good; they're really proud of it. Once we got rolling, over at Duke University's audio-video facility, the visual and the audio was so good that there was enough footage for two volumes.”

"Tony Rice has a golden touch, making him one of the most respected and emulated flat-picking guitarists in bluegrass and acoustic music. The woody tones of his lead runs are instantly recognizable, and his timing is impeccable."
--- Michelle Nikolai for
Country.com, December 8, 2000

He hangs up the phone, hops in his car and goes to town to make some almost-too-late bill payments. If it's raining, he takes the Lincoln. An veteran of many road trips - disgusted with travelers-as-cattle airline policies, he hasn't flown for years - Rice has driven Town Cars for 20 years and swears by them. Tony and his Mustang; photo by Pamela RiceIf it's a nice day, he'll drive his 35th Anniversary Mustang with a Rausch conversion package and a throttle body extension. A sleek black ride, barely street-legal, it's a fabulous car that gets him to jobs on time.

Tony: “I'm a procrastinator! Some people have everything paid on time. I'm not those people. If a bill is due on a certain day, and I would rather listen to Heifetz play a Brahms symphony that day, then I'll listen to Heifetz. So far, I've never been on welfare and I've never claimed bankruptcy, so that's pretty good.”

When he's done with the dreary business errands, he might head to the bookstore, or the record stores.

Tony: “I'm still a vinyl fanatic to some degree. There's a place in Greensboro with gobs and gobs of vintage vinyl. Whatever they take in is generally in very good shape. I have quite a few early Oscar Peterson things that I really like, a lot of RCA Red Seal recordings. Things that were still being pressed on vinyl, right after the advent of CD. A couple days ago, I was flipping through a bin, and there it was: a pristine copy of Marsalis Standard Time, Volume 1, on vinyl. I've had the CD for over ten years!”

“I think he is the greatest guitar player since Clarence White.”
- Guitarist Bull Harman, from undated CD review at
bluegrassrules.com

Rice stops at a drive-through and grabs lunch: a cheeseburger with chili, slaw, and onions (that's “all the way” for you Yankee folks). Then he drives home, thrilled with his purchases. He kisses his beautiful wife, Pam, whom he's been with since 1987 - actually, they were friends when they were children, in the strange way that a hyperactive, guitar-obsessed little boy and a half-wild Southern tombelle can be friends. Now they're married and utterly comfortable with each other, spending days intensely pursuing their own interests. Pam is making soap today, and their daughter India is visiting.

Rice fusses at the dogs a bit - all big handsome standard poodles, including a litter of eight born at the end of January - then heads downstairs to his listening room. It's mostly underground, with a fireplace, plenty of comfortable furniture… and his stereo.

Tony's button from the Japanese tour; photo courtesy of the RicesTony: “The heart of the system is a Marantz Model 7 tube preamp from the late 50s. I found it used in an audio store in Nashville. It's driving a pair of huge Marantz Model 500 power amplifiers from 1971, in a balanced configuration. Each amp is driving just one speaker; they're over 1000 watts because they're driving 6 ohm loads. Some of the stuff I have is old, but it's very well-tuned. In particular, I'm proud of the speaker system that I bought out of a recording studio in Tampa, FL. It's still a recording industry standard for accuracy in control rooms - the Urei 811s, professional control room monitors with the original Altec 604 drivers.

My analog stuff comes off a Ordofon MC30 phono cartridge, and an old direct-drive turntable. I'm not one of the belt-drive fanatics! On the digital end, I have one of the newer Marantz models that also plays super audio CDs. I run that into an Audio Research DAC 3 Mark II all-tube output stage digital-to-audio converter. I've got one of Sony's ES 2000 DAT machines, which I don't use that much anymore, because it's just as easy to record onto a CD as to DAT.

My entire system is cabled with Audio Quest cable. A lot of audiophiles are into things like cabling. I think things like that are overdone. About a month ago, I was at an audio store in Raleigh, and a guy pulls up in a 50-ft-long BMW, and he and his buddy went in and proceeded to debate over whether to buy the $24,000 pair of speaker cables, or the $30,000 pair! I'm thinking to myself, 'Not only can these dudes not hear the difference between that and the speaker cable they buy at Radio Shack for a dollar a foot, but they should be giving that money to victims of the 9/11 tragedy or something!'

John Carlini and I recorded River Suite For Two Guitars in this room with a single stereo microphone, an Audiotechnica AT825, plugged directly into the mic inputs of a Sony DAT machine. More often than not, Carlini and I had played together in somebody's house, or a hotel room. We thought that since there was only the two of us, why not do this as simply as we can? Why don't we go back to the roots of stereo recording: just hang a mike between us and play? That's the way the album was made.”

David Grisman, Tony Rice, and Jerry Garcia; photo by Pamela Rice

"When Rice bursts out of a chorus with a startling run in the middle of
Mississippi John Hurt's "Louis Collins," you can hear
all three musicians [Grisman, Garcia, and Rice] stop and catch their breath."
--- Seth Mnookin, writing about
The Pizza Tapes,
on
Salon.com, April 2000

He doesn't practice every day. Actually, he tends to do a lot more listening. It's a ratio of about 30% hands-on with the guitar, 70% listening to whatever tickles his fancy.

Tony: “John Hartford and I were talking about this. Where do you get ideas without listening? I guess there's some people, if you locked 'em up in solitary confinement, they could come out of there with some amazing music. Myself, I get input listening to all kinds of music forms: anything from atonal avant garde screaming horn players to something as soft as Handel, the Bach Partitas, or sonatas played by Heifetz… five minutes later it might be a Del McCoury album, or Nickel Creek. These days, I've been listening to some interesting stuff - a Terence Blanchard collaboration with female singers like Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson, the new Metheny, and a recently released Heifetz Tchaikovsky symphony recorded in 1955.

Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, and Béla Fleck, MerleFest 2001, photo by Caroline WrightI'm such an admirer of Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush and Béla Fleck, and other musicians who have worked with me. Sometimes I get the irresistible desire to hear one of these guys play. If it happens to be on one of my own albums, I put it on to hear them. I've already gotten an earful of what I did.

I kind of detest the word “practice” at my age. I think a lot of musicians will tell you the same thing: instead of practicing, they play. If I'm motivated, that's what I'll do. If there's something specific I want to learn, I will go through that process of trying to learn it if I can. If I'm on a roll, I'll get lost in the process and sometimes stay at the guitar for hours, with very little break. That's kinda rare. It happens maybe a few times a year.

Last night, I picked it up and I didn't really like what I was hearing. I only played for a few minutes and then just put it right back in the case again. Sometimes you don't know till you take it out of the case. Sometimes it starts a cycle in motion. I start concentrating on trying to reestablish some of these things I've lost… being lax about playing!”

"Tony Rice [is a] phenomenal musician."
--- Singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg
from undated interview by James Jensen for
Acoustic Music Resource

Folks who have heard him recently say that Rice is absolutely at the top of his game. He's focused more on live performances now than ever. As this article is being written, his agent is putting together the 20-city Jamgrass Tour, which will feature powerhouse progressive acts like the David Grisman Quintet, the Sam Bush Band, the John Cowan Band, and Peter Rowan and his Texas Trio - with very special guest Tony Rice.

Tony: “I work more with Peter more than anybody else right now. It's not anything I have to rehearse. I'm free to just play whatever comes to mind, within a certain framework. It's always different and exciting, the type of thing musically that offers me a lot of freedom.

It's so amazing, the concept of being able to create something from scratch, a spectacle. It's really an amazing feeling to know that you have the ability to gather people together in a place. It's something I try not to take for granted. I am grateful for that, really.

The past few years, I've been in a lull. Not that I'm comparing myself with him, but somebody like James Taylor will do a good album, and then you may not see another for six years. I'm in one of those periods right now where, musically speaking, I don't feel I have anything to say that's new. I've got things in my head, but being able to commit them to the guitar in a presentable form is another thing altogether. Sometimes it's just not there.

Who knows? Three months from now, I could be busy working on a solo guitar album.”

"Tony Rice is one of bluegrass' most inventive flatpicking guitar players.
Although he's displayed a mastery of the genre's traditions,
Rice set the standard for more contemporary styles."
--- Craig Harris,
All Music Guide, 1996

Young Tony and Larry Rice would often appear on their father's Saturday morning radio show in California. Photo courtesy of the Rices.

Let's talk about those albums, those classic recordings in which his guitar riffs fall like a light rain of quicksilver on the ear of the listener. Over the course of a career that began when he was just a teenager, Rice has led the way on over two dozen projects that are acclaimed by critics and fans alike as classics. Manzanita, Backwaters (his personal favorite), and last year's excellent Unit of Measure are all products of the Tony Rice Unit, which has, at various times, included Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Richard Greene, Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins, Jimmy Gaudreau, Darol Anger, Todd Phillips, and Rice's brothers, Wyatt, Larry, and Ronnie, with whom he's recorded separately. On his solo recordings, he's joined by guests like country chanteuse Mary Chapin Carpenter; pop/rock singer/songwriter Jonathan Edwards; and saxophonist Cole Burgess. A master of both traditional and progressive bluegrass, Rice has gone into the studio with such diverse artists as J.D. Crowe, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Garcia, and Norman Blake, with consistently incredible results, whether the product is “Monroe's Hornpipe” or Django Reinhardt's “Swing 42”.

Tony: “Every now and then I hear the term “world's greatest acoustic guitar player”. At times I'm kind of afraid of that. There's a world of guys out there who have a right to question that. I think of all my guitar heroes: Pat Metheny, Chuck Loeb, people like that. One thing I admire about my musical heroes: they have a sound that's instantly identifiable as their own. That encompasses so many different musical forms and musicians - men and women who have worked their asses off to achieve what they've got.”

"Thank you, Tony. Isn't it funny how the stuff
still holds water after all this time."
--- Gordon Lightfoot, from a letter dated March 12, 1996

Exclusive! Note from Jerry Reed to Tony, delivered by the late Chet Atkins. The note says: 'Tony, I love your playing so very much! Your 'Big' Fan Jerry Reed'. Chet's note says: 'Tony, sorry this got malingered. I'm not a very good delivery person. Chet A. '91'. Photo courtesy of the Rices.When he talks about the current state of affairs in Nashville, and the world of popular music in general, Rice doesn't beat around the bush.

Tony: “I've known this for 30 years: John and Jane Doe will buy anything you shove at them over a radio if you shove it at 'em enough. They will buy the worst-sounding bullshit in the world. If it's the only thing they can find on that dial, they will go buy it.

Probably the music I listen to the least, because I think it's so mechanized and commercial, is country music, stuff from the last 30 years. The only thing the record company executives and A&R people want out of the music business is a couple three-story houses and two or three BMWs in the driveway. That is the extent of their involvement: to have those things, rather than to care about the artist and the music.

I applaud the return to roots music. For years, record company executives on all the major labels in Nashville were saying, 'Well, there's no way this acoustic string stuff is gonna sell.' Then comes along somebody like Alison [Krauss], who creates music that is so amazing, so precise, so pretty, that John and Jane Doe will not reject it. I applaud that! It destroys the notion that in order for it to be a success, it has to be mechanized and formulated. There's still a lot of good music out there that John and Jane Doe will never hear, because the record executives have control, and not the artists. That's a shame.”

"For two decades, Rice has been the most important guitarist
to play in the bluegrass mold,
though he has never limited himself to any one form."
--- Dave Royko, concert review,
The Chicago Tribune, December 2, 2001

Suppertime, 8PM, and it's one of his favorite meals: Pam's Thai chicken curry with fresh broccoli, and spinach and steamed carrots on the side. As Rice makes his second pot of coffee, he talks about his new projects. A forthcoming live album, from Rounder Records, will feature Rice with Sammy Shelor, Ricky and Ronnie Simpkins, and Dan Tyminski (Grammy-winning voice of George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

Tony: “The Live At The Ram's Head thing, which was recorded on January 1, 1999, is straight-ahead bluegrass, no doubt about that. From the first note to the last, anybody would know they're listening to the roots of bluegrass music. Its release has been delayed because Dan's career has taken off. He wants to release his new solo album before this goes out.

Note from a palRowan and I have some tunes in the can that we did about four months ago in Portland, Maine, with Billy and Brin Bright. We'll probably finish it up at Bias Recording Studios with [engineer] Billy Wolf. We went in and did a few takes, and a few of them sound really good, but a few need work, or possibly re-recording. I'm not the kind of guy who goes in and does an entire album in one sitting. I did that back in the 70s, but I quit.

Rounder's got an instrumental compilation in the works. A vocal compilation will follow it up. I have no idea yet what will be on them.”

"Tony Rice's damaged vocal chords may still be healing, but his guitar playing has remained nimble, adventurous, and inviolable."
--- Roy Kasten, undated review of
Unit of Measure, amazon.com

About the problem with Tony Rice's voice: it's called muscle tension dysphonia, and it originates and exists at the level of the neck or the larynx. Rice hasn't sung onstage or in a studio since the early 90s. What his fans probably don't know is that they miss his voice more than he does.

Tony: “I've always enjoyed playing guitar so much more than my voice anyway. I think back to the Grisman years when I rarely sang. I didn't miss it then, and I can honestly say that I don't miss it all that much now. It may one day come back by itself; I don't know. A very reliable otolaryngologist - John Starling [formerly with the Seldom Scene] - and my two voice therapists assure me that if I want it back, I can get it. They have all warned me that it will take extensive therapy. I just haven't been interested in that enough to pursue it. It's gonna be very hard, because I'll have to isolate myself from the world and talk only to my doctors.

It's painful if I talk long enough. I have good days and bad days, and days when I don't think about it, and days when I'd rather not talk to anybody, period.”

"I see what he's doing but it's way out past me.
Sam Bush and Tony and those guys,
they developed a thing all their own.
It's a whole new style... like a new jazz style, really."
--- Norman Blake, quoted in
Flatpicking Guitar Magazine,
July/August 1997

Rice decides to play. He fetches the case containing his “antique”, the legendary 1935 D-28 Martin guitar once owned by Clarence White. Shrouded in myth, the D-28 is instantly recognizable for its oversized soundhole, blank peghead, and extended but shorter fingerboard. Clarence's dad bought the guitar for $25 or $35. It's been run over with a van (by Clarence, after a gig); pawned (by Clarence in 1966; he'd joined the Byrds, wasn't playing it, and needed the money); and left in its case for almost a decade before Rice tracked it down and bought it for $550.

The Guitar. Photo courtesy of the RicesOver the next 17 years, Rice played and recorded with it almost exclusively, and had only minor repairs done. In 1993, the Storm of the Century hit the East Coast like a runaway freight train. The guitar was found in Rice's flooded Florida home, floating in its case. Ohio luthier Harry Sparks helped revive it, and Santa Cruz Guitars now offers several interpretations; the Tony Rice Professional Model comes closest to recreating its sound and tone.

Abruptly, Rice changes his mind, and reaches for the case containing the latest prototype of this guitar. He spends a few minutes tuning it, and playing a few riffs to loosen up.

Tony: “This new prototype is the best one I've ever played by them. I got it on the 24th of December, 2000, and I've played it almost exclusively since then. It just has a sound of its own, real precision and beautiful tone. Cosmetically, it's beautiful. It's a delight to own and play. I've used the antique guitar very little. I still love my antique, but there's something about this Santa Cruz. At times, it's magical to be able to play and own it.

As long as somebody can go into a room and have eye contact with somebody on a stage who's playing an acoustic instrument, creating sound that's pleasant to the ear, I've got to believe that acoustic music as we know it will survive and flourish. There's something real about that.”

The room fills with joyous crescendos of unparalleled beauty: compilations, interpretations, and old memories played with such elegance and grace that the whole world seems perfect for a few sweet moments. Thanks to Tony Rice, the increasingly fragile garden of extraordinary acoustic music continues to survive a drought perpetrated by exploitation and greed. Over the last half-century, an astonishing variety of musical seeds have been planted in the fertile ground of this man's imagination. They sit there germinating, mingling and merging and sprouting, and when they take root and grow, the results are delectable.

©2002 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Caroline Wright is a freelance writer who lives in Hawai`i. She recently began working on an authorized biography of Tony Rice with guitarist Tim Stafford from the band Blue Highway. (Read the press release here.) She welcomes your comments and feedback on this article. Please send them to c@wrightforyou.com .


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