The Old Home Place: Remembering Tony Rice and Bluegrass Music’s Spacious Renovation (pt. 2), by James Rooney

If you missed out on part one of James Rooney’s piece on Tony Rice, click here to check it out.

David Grisman was not a Bluegrass player. Sure, he honed his chops in some old-timey string bands, but by 1965, Grisman was a key player in Boston’s weirdo psych scene. A bona fide member of the excellent Earth Opera with Peter Rowan, the Dawg was taking his mandolin in a decidedly hazy direction. Think more along the lines of The Fugs than Scruggs. Careful to keep his options open, Grisman remained an arm’s length from Bluegrass and traditional music and was a prominent session man upon Earth Opera’s demise. As the decade turned, Grisman had his fateful run-in with American’s finest psychedelic influencer. Never fully satisfied in one medium, The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia was looking for additional creative outlets, resulting in a rekindling of his love of Bluegrass and Americana. The relationship evolved beyond Grisman’s masterful contribution to American Beauty and alongside Rowan, fiddler Vassar Clements, and bassist John Kahn, the short lived Old & in the Way fulfilled the needs of both visionaries. The exposure of working with one of the world’s most recognizable musicians put the highly improvisatory Jazz and Swing-inflected grooves of their one live LP on the radar of listeners. Securing an audience ready for more, the second half of the seventies saw Grisman deliver two revelatory records featuring none other than Tony Rice.

The David Grisman Rounder Album and The David Grisman Quintet hit turntables in 1976 and 1977, respectively. The first was a formal chance for Grisman to introduce himself to the Bluegrass world. After years as a sideman and then in shadow of Garcia, this was an essential step in creating the solid listener base he would maintain for generations. Rounder Album saw an ensemble of some of the greatest players in Bluegrass and traditional music – Bill Keith, Vassar Clements, Rice, Jerry Douglas, Grisman, Todd Phillips, and Ricky Skaggs – absolutely tearing the house down. On Quintet we see something altogether different. If the 1976 album was Grisman’s formal introduction to the Bluegrass community, Quintet was his blueprint for string band music of the future. The record absolutely SWINGS. Aside from the instrumentation, there’s almost no trace of Bluegrass in these grooves; the finest example of Hillbilly Jazz to be released unto this point. Like its predecessor, the ensemble dynamic is of the utmost importance, but all players involved have their moment in the spotlight on this one. Licks are traded back and forth and built upon as the song progresses. Each solo brings about a new phase of the tune, or everyone reunites in a grand spontaneous theme. At times, it can be tough to keep up, but underneath it all (when not lighting his fretboard ablaze) is Tony Rice. For the first time, perhaps, he’s unleashed the secret weapon that he had been working on with Grisman since leaving the New South in 1975.

In his time with the Grisman Group, Rice had entirely reworked the guitar’s role in Bluegrass music. The stable and steady timekeeper was gone. Replaced with rhythms that ebbed and flowed. More circuitous than straightforward, the foundation that Rice arranged kept all involved on their toes. He could change the entire direction of the tune at the drop of a hat, and tie everything back together if the band found themselves sprawling out in alternate directions or playing against one another (which does happen at a few points on the record). In the span of a year Rice seemingly evolved into a new guitar player altogether. There are even moments that one could mistake the style in which Rice runs through his key changes for Grisman’s old bandmate Garcia. Particularly, the way he eased the group (and listener) into each chord to minutely morph the song, then quickly reiterating everything he did through a short solo, and letting the new change ring out with the full force of Clarence White’s old Martin D-28. 

It’s with great fortune that we can experience Rice and Grisman team up on the Beaumont Rag during this period of pushing Bluegrass to it’s limits. The duo was recruited to back up Eric Thompson on Bluegrass Guitar for Stefan Grossman’s Kicking Mule records in 1979. Thompson takes the first solo on the traditional cut, Grisman drops a fine run, and finally Rice – supposed to be rhythm only – lays out a monster. The techniques applied to his rhythm playing on The David Grisman Quintet have now made their way into his solos. Unlike his upper register noodling on California Autumn’s Beuamont, Rice hangs around the low end, tossing out chorded runs á la Jimi Hendrix or Richard Thompson (and on an acoustic guitar mind you!). But, of course, Rice was going to be on fire. Just months earlier he formed what would become the most significant group of his career: The Tony Rice Unit. 

This latest development would go on to become nearly unrecognizable from Rice’s Bluegrass origins. The boundaries were tested in his solo albums and accompaniments on others’ records; he laid the foundation for something new altogether in his work with Grisman. This was not, however, where Rice intended to stay. This was territory established by another artist and Rice was purely the necessary co-conspirator in its founding. The waters had been tested though. It was now clear that a new generation of Bluegrass audience found experimentation and musical cosmopolitanism favorable. With the departure point established it was time for Rice to set out and make waves yet again, this time in decidedly more Kosmische course.

The first Tony Rice Unit LP Manzanita was a stylistic cousin to Rice’s recent solo records—attentively played Bluegrass with considerate inclusion of the genre’s rapid developments over the prior decade. But, this was still a Bluegrass album. And while often considered his magnum opus, the best was yet to come. Rice graced listeners with a taste of what would soon follow on the title cut, but overwhelmingly, this was exceptional Bluegrass (though without a banjo in sight). Acoustics was another step in Rice’s progression, but the run of Mar West, Still Inside, and Backwaters was the behemoth that brought the walls tumbling down. Nearly all traces of Bluegrass musicality vanished. This was pure acoustic Jazz churning from a Bluegrass band. Not Hard-Bop, not quite Free, but absolute loose improvised glory. While the music coming out of the band on these records doesn’t retain the form, structure, or sound of Bluegrass music, it does retain something inherently American: old, weird, sprawling, and traditional. Just listen to the explosive opening to Mar West’s title cut. Right out the gate, the band is firing on all cylinders. Todd Phillips could be mistaken for Dave Holland, contributing a sustained attack like no Bluegrass bassist had ever displayed. Sam Bush demonstrates why he’s the period’s reigning king of the mandolin (and still would be, if not for Chris Thile’s unfathomable abilities). Rice matched his collaborators with such high-performing peers that it forced everyone to play at their absolute best. Risks must be taken for this music to work. 

There was a reason Tony Rice referred to this music as Spacegrass. The essence of this idea is best articulated on Backwaters. Perhaps the pinnacle of the Tony Rice Unit’s aptitude, this was the album that brought Rice’s revolution of Bluegrass music into full view. Taking hints from Jazz greats, Rice showcased three showtune/Broadway-musical numbers with five originals. Even more clarifying of his artistic headspace may be the inclusion of the Rodgers and Hammerstein-penned, but John Coltrane-owned, “My Favorite Things.” Rice imitates Trane’s sheets of sound glissandos, running up and down the fretboard without ever stopping on a particular note. No matter your opinion on them, Rice created the genre of Bluegrass ‘jam band’ with the innovation on this album. Similar to standard jam bands owing everything to The Dead, yet being nothing more than abysmal imitations of the authentic thing (The Grateful Dead was NOT a jam band for the record), the Tony Rice Unit created ideas so fertile that even musicians possessing little to no natural or learned talent could build entire careers upon them. Backwaters further stands out in bizarre contradiction. It is simultaneously the most rural/roots-y AND the most spaced-out and jazzy of the Unit’s records. It lives in a rarely touched organic cosmic rusticism inhabited only by the likes of John Fahey, Ted Lucas, and more recently, Jack Rose and Joseph Allred. The record is a masterwork—the definition of astral pastoral.

Had Rice ended his career immediately following Backwaters, we would still be referring to him as the greatest guitar player in Bluegrass music. Instead, his development dominated another two decades; seamlessly engaged in projects on the Spacegrass and traditional folk side. Outstanding collaborations with the likes of Norman Blake, John Hartford, and John Carlini fill out a résumé already brimming with creativity. And with the passing of another decade, we have a reunion of old friends. In one of the finest set of home recordings ever stolen, we find Rice reunited with Grisman, alongside none other than Jerry Garcia. 

Recorded over two nights in 1993, The Pizza Tapes feature Rice, Grisman, and Garcia running through a huge swath of traditional, contemporary, and off-the-cuff jams. Rest assured, the trio is generous with spontaneous creation. From Lefty Frizzell to Gershwin to Miles Davis, it’s as if the group’s primary concern is interpreting the whole of American music (akin to all three’s respective careers). The recordings were never intended for release, so there’s a relaxed atmosphere with banter, false starts and stops, noodling about between cuts, and a few lessons taught on the fly. In many ways, this is the real value of the date. Hearing these musicians – so often steeped in mystique and lore (particularly in the case of Garcia) – in an informal setting gives the impression that these could be any three dudes hanging out in the garage for a few beers and a quick pickin’ session after work. 

The casual atmosphere – while beneficial to longtime listeners of these fellas – creates one major setback: the lack of need to showcase anything new or constructive. It may be looking too far into it (it definitely is), but we could assume that had this interaction blossomed into a standing project, we would have seen something far more interesting than The Dead chugging along on autopilot for another two years, or Grisman using his proximity to the Head-scene to stay relevant. If there’s any glimpse into what could have been it’s the impulsive jams. “Shady Jam” morphs from a loose workout of the introductory phrases of Rice’s “Manzanita” into a free-from space-age rollick that near rivals The Dead at the height of their creativity in 1973-74. Garcia pulls the group from those misty mountaintops and effortlessly locks them into the traditional “Shady Grove” with some quick picking of the theme. Similar developments dominate Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Miles Davis’s “So What,” featuring Garcia and Rice with their best impressions of Cannonball Adderley and Coltrane, respectively. 

Of course, we can’t dabble in ‘What-Ifs.’ The fact remains that The Pizza Tapes leave the listener with a degree of yearning. Standout moments aside, this is a Garcia who, in his own words on the closing “House of the Rising Sun,” is past his prime. Even the revival of his creative genius at the turn of the decade has been exhausted from yet another collaborator’s death in the form of Brent Mydland’s passing. Far too often, these recordings are praised for their first-hand account of Garcia when the stage lights are out and he’s around his preferred company—a document of musical voyeurism. Rice is addressed primarily as a footnote, summarized with: he managed to keep up. Bluntly, Rice is the most interesting player on this date and – as often is the case – holds the performances together. Jerry unquestionably serves as yet another catalyst in Rice’s development. To reference recorded sources, this get-together was about as far out as Rice had travelled outside the orbit of his Bluegrass origins. It is only safe to assume that Garcia provided that extra boost to get there. 

With the sessions that became The Pizza Tapes, Rice had built out a collaborative association with America’s greatest musicians. Whether fully immersed or on the periphery of the traditional music scene, each served as creative catalyst to Rice’s constant reinventing of Bluegrass music. Truly, many of the latter projects cannot even be classified within a set genre, but were simply ‘Guitar Music.’ This carried over briefly into the 21st century with Rice’s true final album. Recorded for the first time since Backwaters, The Tony Rice Unit was back in action for Unit of Measure. Much of the material was recorded in 1996, but performances supporting the 2000 album gave the new millennium a healthy helping of what Rice had cooked up over the last four decades. Ranging from straightforward fiddle-sawing/flatpicking attacks in the purest Bluegrass vein to subdued open-ended jams, Unit of Measure serves as a wonderful career retrospective. A revisited “Manzanita” – slowed down and slightly spaced – acts, not as an introduction to Spacegrass, as it did on the original, but as a summation of where the undertaking has landed. A ripping live “Sally Goodin” closes the record with enough bombast and virtuosity to leave Bill Monroe shaking in his grave. There’s even a final recorded appearance from “The Beaumont Rag.” Rice’s interpretation had evolved from fiery (though conservative) reading of a standard to a familiar crowd pleaser to virtuosic showstopper to – finally – a laid back guitar workout leaning toward the swing (think more like a hammock than on a dance floor) side of country and western.  This is a Rice who is more than comfortable in his role. No longer is there a need to show off. The strict rules about respecting a cuts traditional role had long been cast away. Rice could effortlessly throw in Jazz key changes or a free form solo and his audience wouldn’t bat an eye. 

The most illuminating moments on Unit of Measure come from the rare moments where Rice is unaccompanied. Despite dozens of albums, there are decidedly few moments where Rice is completely alone at the microphone. Rice’s free form take on the classic Irish aire “Danny Boy” is in a different galaxy than the now-corny version familiar to so many. And the traditional “Shenandoah” gives us three minutes of Rice working around some of the most beautifully sequenced chords he’d ever explored before a lone fiddle chimes in to duet a coda that rings out into those hills the song is dedicated to. It’s a kindred energy to Garcia’s chunky ringing pedal steel chords that close out David Crosby’s “Laughing.” 

In hindsight its particularly haunting knowing that these brief solo excursions would comprise the artist’s final works. Medical ailments began to affect Rice’s ability to deliver on a level that he found acceptable. Stoically, he remained absent from the stage until it was guaranteed that his listeners would be hearing a guitar player that was as good (or better) than the one they last heard during his 2013 induction to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Rice took his pride to his grave when he passed away on Christmas Day 2020. The final act of a legacy that demanded an uncompromised devotion to pushing an art beyond its limitations. 

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.


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Published by Record Crates United

Keith Hadad, the creator and manager of RCU, has been a contributing writer to Elmore Magazine and Thewaster.com and maintains a regular column, “Keith Hadad’s Choice,” in Blicker magazine. His writing has also appeared in the Smithsonian Folkways' Guest Blog and the Optical Sounds Fanzine. Also, please check out the blog's super-active Instagram account, @recordcratesunited for daily blurb-styled music reviews.

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