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Bluegrass music / Reflections

Memories of Tony Rice and my exploration of bluegrass music

On St Stephen’s day, we were notified of the sad news that bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice had passed away. It was strange – I felt so sad, although I’ve never known him, met him, or even had any particular connection to his playing style. Still, it’s like I sort of knew him, because his singing and his guitar playing has accompanied me for over 20 years. 

The passing of Tony Rice was, in a way, the end of an era. It’s expressed by many that he was the most influential bluegrass guitar player of all time, and he will probably continue to inspire people for many years to come.

The guitar as a melody instrument

In the early days of bluegrass, the guitar didn’t have the role as a lead instrument. It was mainly used as a rhythm instrument, and later it played some fills and bass runs, by people like Lester Flatt and Maybelle Carter – the powerful melody playing of Maybelle (using the thumb!) can be heard on very early recordings. At this time the term bluegrass wasn’t used – it was oldtime music, oldtime country music or mountain music. What we know today as bluegrass music was developed from the 1940s by Bill Monroe and his band, and it quickly became very popular. 

But also after bluegrass had gained popularity and there were several bluegrass band touring in the 1950s, the guitar was still quite much a background instrument and it was only in the 1960s that guitarists started to develop lead playing styles. One of the first was Doc Watson, singing a vast repertoire of old mountain songs that he accompanied on guitar or banjo, but he also used his guitar and flatpick to play fiddle tunes. He did all the cool stuff that fiddlers do – but on the guitar. After him came Clarence White and others – and the guitar had been given a new role.

Myself and bluegrass music

I started discovering bluegrass music in 1995, when I was looking for acoustic, or near acoustic, country music and came across an album with the Cox family. This was a new starting point in my musical journey – the power and passion, down-to-earth feel, but also complexity and artistry in this music almost overwhelmed me, and from the first note on that CD, I knew that I had sort of come home. Even now, when I listen to Cox family songs on YouTube, it brings tears to my eyes. The harmony singing, perfectly aligned instrumentation and powerful or haunting solos still strike me, and hearing songs like the one I’ve linked to above brings back such lovely memories from when I first started exploring bluegrass music.

This was before the internet, and I spent a lot of time in libraries to find more bluegrass records. After the Cox family, the next name I came across was Alison Krauss (who collaborated with the Cox family) – and then Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice. I also went to record shops and although I barely had any money, I bought bluegrass CDs because that was the only way to get my hands on more bluegrass. I remember the joy when I found a small shop that had a vast collection of CDs from Rounder Records, perhaps still the main recording company for bluegrass artists.

Perhaps the most important and inspirational album of all, particularly after I started playing the mandolin, was a project Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs did together, simply named “Skaggs & Rice”, a completely acoustic album, with only the two of them singing harmony and playing the mandolin and the guitar, a collection of some classic oldtime songs. The music on this album is so simple in terms of arrangement, but yet so beautiful, and perhaps the simplicity of it is why it touches me so deeply. This album remains one of my favourites of all time. You can get a taste of it here: 

I have so many good memories connected to all those old (ish) bluegrass recordings, by Tony Rice and others. Many were the times that I sat at bus stops in Göteborg, Sweden, listening to songs like “Bitter green”, “Cold on the shoulder”, “Old home place”, “Greenlight on the southern” (which is written by Norman Blake as far as I know), Alison Krauss’ fiddle playing and the beautiful music of the Cox family – all these tunes and songs still follow and inspire me!

Tony Rice – an influencer

Tony Rice started appearing on stages in the 1970s with a powerful flatpicking style and a fantastic voice. I found his music on several collection CDs and later I’ve found his own CDs, either solo or with bands like J.D Crowe & The New South or The Bluegrass Album Band. Tony Rice has done a variety of different styles within bluegrass and folk, also to the limit of jazz, but he was who introduced me to the more hard driving, hardcore bluegrass. His playing style was very aggressive and innovative, with overkill solos including elements of both jazz and blues, and he has inspired guitar players the world over. 

The more jazzy parts of his playing are the reason why I haven’t been particularly fond of his style, I prefer more “folky”, simplistic, chord and melody based solo playing and I like to improvise around the melody. My inspiration for guitar playing comes primarily from Norman Blake, Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson, but I would be lying if I said that Tony Rice hasn’t inspired me – with all that music he’s blessed us with over the years! 

Gränna bluegrass festival

Back in the 90’s I was mostly interested in playing the mandolin and didn’t take much notice of the overall guitar style of Tony Rice, but now when I study bluegrass guitar and Tony’s picking style is being highlighted after his death, I begin to find more interest in his playing. Although his jazzy elements still aren’t my cup of tea, I look at other details. When you learn to play an instrument, I think it’s a good thing to get inspiration from several different sources, pick and choose what you like from those sources, to eventually develop your own style. This is particularly true in bluegrass, that is so much based on improvisation. Now I find myself trying bluesy licks on the higher strings or up the neck (not much success yet with the later, though!), to spice up my solos, and I love it.

The summer of 2020 was when I took up the guitar and started learning to play it “for real”, and I have high hopes for what this year can bring when it comes to music skills! These are bad times indeed but I’m so glad about how we’ve managed to use the bad times to do something good, inspiring and enjoyable in this house.

Click here to learn more about bluegrass music
Read more about Tony Rice.
A recent livestream where people talk about Tony Rice and his guitar style
A tribute to Tony Rice, written by Chris Eldridge

15 Comments

  • Patrick Weseman
    30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

    Sad news about Tony Rice. I remember seeing him with Peter Rowan at Hardly Strickly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco in 2004 and 2005.

    I am a big fan of bluegrass as that and jazz are the only two original types of American music. Everything else is an offshoot.

    A very nice tribute to him.

    Reply
    • Susanne
      30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

      Hello Patrick, nice to meet you! It must have been great to see Tony Rice performing IRL. I’ve been indulging in some concerts on YouTube recently but of course it’s not the same thing.

      Reply
  • Natalie
    30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

    Thank you, Susanne, for sharing your story and Tony Rice’s music clip. He left a great musical legacy. #WeekendCoffeeShare

    Reply
    • Susanne
      30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

      He certainly did, and he will live on through his music for many years.

      Reply
  • Gary Wilson
    30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

    Hi Susanne,
    This was such a fun read. I am not a musician but my oldest son is. We joke about he has the family guitar gene which has been passed down through my wife’s side of the family. We have friends who perform blue grass but I’m not as driven by music as I once was, still this post had me digging around in my own history looking for artists to be reminded of and for the mandolin, I have only Seals and Crofts with their 1960s songs like Diamond Girl. It was their work that put the mandolin in my mind as a fun art form and I’ve loved hearing it in music ever since.
    Our son – he can (and does) play almost anything with a fret bar but his love is his various electric guitars. Oddly enough, the two albums he’s cut are straight up acoustic only and he’s never explained why although I suspect it has to do with the degree of mixing needed for the electric as opposed to the acoustic. His name is Connor Wilson if you’d like to sample his music. We, biased parents that we are, think his music is wonderful. He should be listed pretty much wherever you buy CDs or MP3s.
    I’m one of the old timers on the coffee share weekends I create and share stories. I’d like to be a published author some day but that market is horrible to break into and I prefer writing to taking on the whole challenge publishing has become.
    If you’d like a laugh or two, that is the goal of my DOT (Dime of Time) story collection.
    So, welcome to our weekend event. I hope you spread out a virtual blanket, crack open something fun to drink and enjoy the fellowship of this group. They’re good folks.

    Reply
  • Trent
    30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

    My mom’s family came from the heart of bluegrass country (Kentucky) and so I grew up listening (I half remember going to small festivals with my grandfather when I was like 5). It isn’t “my” music, but there is a great appeal to it. Did you ever see the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? In that movie, set in the 1930s, they call it “Old Timey Music”, as in “Do you know any of those old timey songs?” I don’t really know Tony Rice very well, but I’m sorry we lost him, and he wasn’t that old. Funny, listening to a video of him right now, the thing that stands out is his very jazzy-style chords and sound, which in some ways is my cup of tea 😉 But whatever inspires you. Have fun with your guitar and keep playing!

    Reply
    • Susanne
      30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

      Oh, I’ve seen “Oh brother” (several times) and I absolutely love it!! The concert they released with the music and musicians from the film was fantastic too.

      Reply
  • Kathleen
    30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

    I love bluegrass though I’m not quite familiar with the history and all the artists.. But what I’ve heard, I’ve loved.. One day I want to make the trip to KY for the Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival.. Thank you for sharing this!

    Reply
    • Susanne
      30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

      Hi Kathleen, a bluegrass festival in Kentucky will certainly be a great experience! Thanks for visiting!

      Reply
  • Laurie @ Meditations in Motion
    30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

    I love bluegrass music. Allison Krauss is one of my favorites. I didn’t know that Tony Rice had died. So sad! Good luck with the guitar this year. I hope some bluegrass festivals can happen sometime in the not-too-distant future!

    Reply
    • Susanne
      30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

      Alison Krauss is brilliant. She was one of the first I listened to and I have most of her early albums. She must have been like 17 years old back then! Yes, I really hope things can go so that festivals can happen again.

      Reply
  • Kadie
    30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

    I love hearing about different kinds of music. I’ve heard some bluegrass music and really like it but don’t know of any particular artists that really stand out to me. I’ve been listening to a wider variety of music lately when doing school work or lettering. Learning guitar is something I’ve always wanted to do. In high school my auit gave me her old guitar and some books on learning how to play, but I never caught on. Good luck this year with your music skills!

    Reply
    • Susanne
      30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

      Thanks Kadie!! Oh I hope you pick up that guitar and start learning to play it! I promise to help and support you all I can! The guitar is a fabulous instrument.

      Reply
  • Anne
    30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

    Susanne, this is a wonderful tribute. I did not know of Tony Rice but will try to learn a bit more about him based on what you shared. I wouldn’t say that I love bluegrass, specifically, but I do love folk music, and particularly Nordic, Scottish, and Irish folk, as well as some groups from Canada. One that I’ve loved listening to recently is Coig, which is a group from (I believe) Nova Scotia. Allison Krauss is a goddess; the purity of her tone and pitch are amazing. The only other singer I know who comes close is Sara Bareilles. (If you want an astonishing example of a cappella singing, find Sara Bareilles’ performance of “Once Upon Another Time” in the Ben Folds Declassified series on YouTube. (Sorry for wandering off-topic there! Your post got me thinking about musicians / musical genres that I didn’t even know existed earlier in my life that I now listen to regularly…)

    On a more general note – I love the life that you have brought to your blog by integrating your love of music with, well, everything else in your life!

    Reply
    • Susanne
      30th November -0001 at 12:00 am

      Thank you Anne! I’m delighted that I decided to bring music into this blog, all of a sudden I love my blog again and feel inspired to write.
      Do check up Tony Rice on YouTube, there’s a wealth of information, tributes and old gig videos there. Nova Scotia is also an interesting music region, with lots of good musicians, like for example Nathalie MacMaster, a brilliant fiddler. I’m not a big fan of a cappella singing but it depends on the genre, it can be fantastic in traditional music and sometimes in bluegrass with good harmony singing. A friend of mine sings Irish songs a cappella beautifully.

      Reply

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