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NPR Music

Tony Rice, A Giant Of The Acoustic Guitar, Dead At 69

Tony Rice performing in 2000.
Tony Rice performing in 2000.

Tony Rice could seemingly do it all: sing, compose, play spot-on rhythm. But it was his guitar solos that just astounded audiences and fellow musicians alike. He was idolized by bluegrass and acoustic music fans in large part because he was determined never to let them down.

Rice died on Christmas morning at the age of 69. His death was first announced by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

David Anthony Rice was born in Danville, Va., on June 8, 1951. His father was a welder and the family moved to Los Angeles, where the youngster got into bluegrass. His first big influence was guitarist Clarence White and the Kentucky Colonels.

At the age of 19, Rice moved back East to play professionally, eventually joining banjo player J.D. Crowe's band, the New South. In 1975, they released the landmark album, J.D. Crowe and the New South. Its progressive sounds marked a dramatic shift in bluegrass and the album became so iconic among fans that it was known simply by its record label catalogue number: Rounder 0044.

It was during this period that Rice first heard the music of mandolinist David Grisman, who was pushing boundaries even further. So Rice moved back to California to join Grisman's Quintet in San Francisco. This is when the guitarist truly stepped out as a leading voice in new acoustic music. The musicians studied improvisation and chord theory with jazz guitarist John Carlini and Rice grew exponentially. (In 1995, the two released one of the most beautiful guitar duo albums ever recorded, River Suite for Two Guitars.)

He eventually left Grisman to form the Tony Rice Unit, which played everything from jazz to bluegrass.

Rice also recorded duet albums with Grisman, multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs and fellow guitarist Norman Blake. He collaborated with banjo player Bela Fleck and co-led the Bluegrass Album Band.

But the road took a toll on Rice. He had to stop singing in the mid-1990s because of a condition called muscle tension dysphonia, which constricted the muscles around his voice box. And by 2013, Rice's fierce guitar playing led to lateral epicondylitis (commonly called tennis elbow) and he played his beloved Martin D-28 (which once belonged to Clarence White) for the last time in public at his induction to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

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