Every so often a musician accepts a gig that pushes them a far greater distance than initially expected. What might have started as a sideman job on a single record blossoms into a fruitful web of vast aural magnitude. To the individual driving this process, restructuring the environment in which they are working fulfills their own artistic needs. Expectations of the folks within the former’s sphere of influence are subsequently revised. When working with a fairly close-knit community, with members sharing prospects and ideas across the board, the potential for a few heavy-handed innovators to come in and shake up the whole scene is significant.
Despite it being one of few true forms of ‘American’ music, the Bluegrass community has remained markedly insular. Not in its exclusivity, but in its breadth of interest and influence. Almost a niche music – in the respect that it has never truly reached the masses at a large scale – the scene has been heavily shaped by a handful of standout performers. Hell, Bill Monroe’s 1945 recruiting of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt established the genre and set the expectation of what bluegrass music ‘was’ for nearly thirty years. The impact of such weighted influence feeds an almost echo chamber-like effect. This is not, of course, a bad thing. To reference another wholly American music, look at Blue Note Records’ decade long peak from the late-fifties to the late-sixties. The same names, playing with the same ideas, thought up by the same slew of clear-eyed individuals adorn every marvelous LP that bears that RVG stamp of approval. These groups feed off one another’s dynamics and ideas, establishing a scene of incredibly fruitful proportions. Full of innovation, heightened risks, and lifted limitations, the sense of gravity holding the music together is missing altogether. Possibilities become endless. During this period of artistic weightlessness (there’s probably a German word for this), one may find the momentum to rise above the niche or insular. Breaking away from any genre or scene restraints and trespassing into a higher artistic consciousness, these visionaries open the door to the next direction of their craft.
As the final notes ring out on his “Old Home Place” solo, Tony Rice makes clear that the reins are thrown off. In under ten seconds, an entire manifesto on acoustic flatpick-ery is enshrined in folk music lore. Brief, concise, delicate. In most cases, listeners would be left demanding more—requiring it for a proper assessment of exactly what they had just witnessed. In spite of the brevity, Rice says everything he needs in these two quick bars. A slurry of notes to erase every damn thing you thought you knew about Bluegrass guitar. Light to the touch with blazing speed. A dexterity to make the greatest players green with envy. Clarity that exposes every little movement on the fretboard. Technical proficiencies aside, each individual bar makes its own perfectly unique statement. The first recounts the entire history of flatpicked guitar: a showcase fully living within the tradition of Doc Watson, Dan Reno (more well-known for his banjo work, but an incredible talent on the six string), or Rice’s own educator and kindred spirit in innovation, Clarence White. The second bar shows the direction to come. Pulloffs and Hammer-ons abound as Rice works his way all over the neck. Against the old adage attributed to fellow guitar great Norman Blake, Rice found the money well above the fifth fret. With the full virtuosity of Rice’s abilities on display, listeners can pinpoint a potential departure point from his early years spent establishing himself as the premier picker in traditional music. With these two measures, he’s moving on to become one of the most astounding innovators of his instrument since John Fahey a decade prior. A cascade of notes ring out from the upper register of the neck for one brief moment before Jerry Douglas’s dobro plucks them from the ether as the tune concludes.
On the surface, it’s clear that Tony Rice was a master of Bluegrass guitar playing. But one aspect of Rice’s legacy missing in the accolades recorded following his death this past Christmas Day was his constant pursuit of a sound so seemingly far removed from the modest role of the guitar in Bluegrass music—an unelevated, though stable, time keeper. Through constant study, genre bending, and endless revision, Rice attained a level of cosmic fluidity that launched his playing toward that strange, near-divine altar of musical transcendence. Under the auspices of Bluegrass and traditional country, Rice could refine his abilities to – almost covertly – become America’s finest acoustic guitar player.
The idea of Tony Rice as undercover astral guitar god may be met with some hesitation due to the pesky connotations that come along with Bluegrass music. The nomenclature is typically reserved for those with deafening solos, the desire to chug through epic minutes-long workouts, and a showmanship that leaves one drenched in sweat and the odor of physical labor. Careful analysis of Rice’s career illuminates a far greater craftsmanship and time spent perfecting his trade. His dedication goes deeper than simply learning a few flashy tricks, with a significant portion of his working years devoted to tweaking the nuances and expectations of his chosen field. And what better metric for assessing undercover antics than an unassuming, standard tune in the traditional musician’s catalog.
The Beaumont Rag was first recorded in 1929 by Smith’s Garage Fiddle Band out of Cleburne, Texas. Bob Wills then took it out of the state with his immensely popular Texas Playboys. This was likely the version familiar to Doc Watson. On Doc Watson and Son (1965), he rearranged the tune to showcase the guitar in place of the fiddle. Rice closes his second album, California Autumn (1975), with the tune. Unlike Watson, who typically spent his recording hours solo, or with a single rhythm guitar player, Rice’s ‘Beaumont’ gets the full bluegrass ensemble treatment: guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, bass fiddle, dobro. The arrangement is tight. The band is spot on. Rice is firing on all cylinders and the respect paid to Watson’s version is obvious—though Rice does the honor of incorporating some of the flair he’s picked up with playing J.D. Crowe and other top-notch players of Bluegrass’s newest generation. For what it’s worth, this record (along with Rounder 0044) sums up this first period of Rice’s career. Showcasing his ability as a premier rhythm player – in the traditional Bluegrass sense – with the fretboard fitness to throw out some incredible solos. The listener would benefit from paying close attention to the first point. The way Rice plays his rhythms and arranges the Beaumont Rag is entirely within the grand Bluegrass tradition. The band is in lock step with each member stepping up for their solo, burning the house down, and returning to their spot in the mix to set the pace for the next performer. On principle alone, Rice’s group could have shared a 1947 stage with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys; looking on as Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise raised hell at the beck and call of their mandolin-clad captain.
California Autumn and Rice’s remaining output of the period seems to follow this adherence to the role of the performer in traditional tunes. Assemble a killer group. Interpret a standard cut. Throw in a bit of virtuosity and watch the crowds eat it up. With this formula, the artist creates something timeless. Unchanged for generations, yet endeared by the loyal audiences who nearly demand that the gilded rules of tradition remain intact. If it sounds the same for 50 years and people still find it arousing, why make the change? In Bluegrass, the leader’s job is to make sure the band stays within the lines, performs well, and, most importantly, respects the history of the song. But, what if that leader gets bored? What if they were to include an R&B tune popularized by a soul singer in the prior decade? Or how about the interpretation of a smash hit by a NYC folk duo? It’s on these numbers – “Scarborough Fair” and “Georgia, On my Mind,” dressed up and given the full bluegrass treatment – that Rice sets himself apart from the crowd.
While it may seem benign, the now customary act of recording songs residing on the pop charts was still novel in mid-seventies traditional music. And of course, “Scarborough Fair” had been recorded by dozens prior, with the song itself being hundreds of years old. Rice’s version, however, is clearly indebted to Simon and Garfunkel’s arrangement—a far cry from the many traditional versions out there. It was only natural that a new generation of Bluegrass musicians would begin to experiment with the contemporary songwriters they were regularly exposed to: Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, and in the case of California Autumn, Ray Charles and Paul Simon. These tunes certainly entertained an alternative subject matter and told some new stories. But, they were often subjected to a high-lonesome makeover of such a degree that, if inattentive, one could mistake it for a traditional cut originally belted out by Wade Mainer in the forties. Could pop songs – even obscured in all the trappings of traditional music – be incorporated into a long-term Bluegrass repertoire? If so, what sort of innovations would follow? And further, what about those aforementioned rules of tradition?
Rice’s popularity from the mid to late seventies assumes that mixing a few new pieces in with the old folk standards and originals – often composed in the manner of those old stylings – brought a breath of fresh air to Bluegrass music. These years were likely the most profitable period for the genre, and certainly the closest it got to becoming truly mainstream. Rice’s guitar credits proliferated. Playing with everyone from Kate Wolf, to Emmylou Harris, to Bela Fleck, and Mark O’Connor, Rice got the call if an artist needed a standout guitarist who could work his exemplary sound and technique into any group working under the traditional music moniker. Yet, there’s one musician Rice teamed up with multiple times, where the influence was decidedly symbiotic. When Rice teamed up with The Dawg, downright dastardly deeds commenced.
Check back again soon for part 2!
Major gratitude to James Rooney for allowing RCU to publish this excellent piece. You can catch Rooney spinning some killer records on his show The Comedown, on WXOX 97.1 Louisville/artxfm.com, every Wednesday from 6-8pm.