The Tony Rice Unit

About The Tony Rice Unit

Tony Rice was one of bluegrass' most inventive flatpicking guitar players. Although he displayed a mastery of the genre's traditions, Rice set the standard for more contemporary styles. A former member of the Bluegrass Alliance, the David Grisman Quintet, J.D. Crowe's New South, and the Bluegrass Album Band, Rice also displayed his eclectic approach on solo recordings, collaborative albums with flatpicking guitar ace Norman Blake, and sessions recorded with his brothers Larry, Ron, and Wyatt, as the Rice Brothers. In 1996, Rice recorded a tradition-rooted album, Out of the Woodwork, with Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen, and his brother Larry.
Raised in Southern California, Rice inherited his musical skill from his father, who played with several West Coast bluegrass bands and was heavily inspired by California-based bluegrass groups including the Dillards and the Kentucky Colonels, which featured influential guitar picker Clarence White. Moving temporarily to Kentucky in 1970, Rice became a charter member of the Bluegrass Alliance, one of the earliest contemporary bluegrass groups. As a member of J.D. Crowe's New South in the early '70s, along with Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas, he continued to promote a new approach to the music of the hill country. After meeting imaginative mandolin player David Grisman during a jam session in 1975, Rice returned to California and helped form the David Grisman Quintet. During the five years that he played with the group, Rice helped to lay the foundation for the "newgrass" style that Grisman dubbed "Dawg Music." Leaving the Grisman Quintet, Rice formed a bluegrass supergroup, the Bluegrass Album Band, with J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson, and Todd Phillips. Although only a part-time venture, the group produced five memorable albums.
Rice's albums as a soloist and with his band, the Tony Rice Unit, ranged from the jazz-tinged Mar West, which included bluegrass-style treatments of tunes by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, to singer/songwriter-oriented albums, including Cold on the Shoulder, Native American, and Me & My Guitar, featuring his virtuosic guitar picking and soulful vocalizing of songs by Ian Tyson, Phil Ochs, and Gordon Lightfoot. Rice released an album-length collection of Lightfoot's songs, Sings Gordon Lightfoot, in 1996. Rice continued to interpret the traditional bluegrass repertoire as well, releasing an album of old chestnuts, Plays and Sings Bluegrass, the same year. In 1997, with his brother Larry Rice, Chris Hillman, and banjoist Herb Pedersen, he founded Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen, and the superstar quartet released three albums between 1997 and 2001. Rice's singing voice had essentially been silenced due to dysphonia since the early '90s, but he remained a top instrumentalist, collaborating with Peter Rowan on a pair of albums for Rounder Records, 2004's You Were There for Me and 2007's Quartet. The encouragingly titled Tony Rice Sings and Plays Bill Monroe appeared in 2011. Rice was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2013, and the ceremony proved to be one of his final public performances; he had developed a severe case of lateral epicondylitis (also known as Tennis Elbow), which made it too painful for him to play guitar. Rice died at his home in Reidsville, North Carolina on December 26, 2020. He was 69 years old. ~ Craig Harris & Steve Leggett