Bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice, who was recognized as one of the all-time greats of the genre, has died. He was 69 and passed suddenly on December 25, his former label Rounder Records noted.
As a solo performer, collaborator, and leader of the Tony Rice Unit, Rice was known for his inimitable skill as a flatpicker, an intricate, fast-paced, melodic style of guitar playing. Rice’s distinctive style, heavily influenced by jazz, was an influence on scores of artists in the bluegrass world and beyond, including the likes of Jason Isbell and Steve Martin. His signature guitar, a Martin D-28, had belonged to the Byrds’ Clarence White.
After growing up in California with a father who played guitar, Rice relocated to Kentucky as an adult, where he got his break playing five nights a week with J.D. Crowe and the New South. Rice issued his first album under his own name, Guitar, in 1973, and later released albums like 1978’s Acoustics and 1980’s Mar West with the Tony Rice Unit. Rice cofounded and released several records with the Bluegrass Album Band, in addition to regularly performing with guitarist Norman Blake and mandolin player David Grisman. In 1993, he worked with Grisman and Jerry Garcia on The Pizza Tapes, a loose collection of folk songs released in 2000.
Rice maintained a flourishing career in the 1970s and ’80s, with albums like 1979’s Manzanita and 1983’s Church Street Blues enduring as landmark works in bluegrass. In 1994, Rice began suffering from dysphonia, which prevented him from singing for most of the rest of his life. In 2013, Rice was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame, an appearance that included his final public guitar performance. His last album was 2011’s Hartford Rice and Clements with banjo player John Hartford and fiddler Vassar Clements, a project recorded in 1988.