Tony Rice, Bluegrass' Influential Flatpicking Guitarist, Dead at 69

Screengrab via YouTube

Tony Rice, a Grammy award-winning bluegrass legend and one of the most influential flatpicking guitarists from any genre, died over the holiday weekend. He was 69 years old.

Rice's former label home, Rounder, broke the news on Saturday.

Per a Facebook post from Ricky Skaggs, Rice passed away at his Reidsville, North Carolina home "sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee."

Sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee, our dear friend and guitar hero Tony Rice passed from this...

Posted by Ricky Skaggs on Saturday, December 26, 2020

Rice was born on June 8, 1951 in Danville, Virginia and raised in Los Angeles, California. Rice and his brothers Ronnie, Larry and Wyatt first learned of bluegrass from their father, Herb, and had their love of the genre reinforced by such West Coast tastemakers as the Kentucky Colonels, featuring Roland and Clarence White, and bluegrass picker turned Byrds member Chris Hillman.

In 1970, Rice relocated to Louisville, Kentucky to play with The Bluegrass Alliance. Rice's next gig, with banjo player J.D. Crowe's The New South, teamed him with such game-changing peers as Skaggs and Jerry Douglas.

Rice went on to expand his bluegrass, folk and jazz horizons with the David Grisman Quintet, the Bluegrass Album Band, the Tony Rice Unit and other roots music ensembles.

A list of other collaborators over the years reads like a who's who of bluegrass, folk and country music: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan, Alison Krauss, Alison Brown, Todd Phillips, Doyle Lawson, Sam Bush and Jerry Garcia.

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Rice's legacy goes beyond an array of impressive friends and hinges on his mastery of his Martin D-28 guitar. The Tony Rice Unit's Manzanita (1979) and Mar West (1980) and solo album Church Street Blues (1983) work as entry points for those curious about why artists ranging from Jason Isbell to Travis Tritt hold Rice in such high esteem as a guitar player.

Rice's baritone voice stopped being part of his live performances after a 1994 diagnosis of muscle tension dysphonia. A decade later, a lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) diagnosis made guitar playing too painful, leaving Rice's 2013 induction into the International Bluegrass Music Association's (IBMA) Hall of Fame as his final public performance.

No word yet on the cause of Rice's death.

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Tony Rice, Bluegrass' Influential Flatpicking Guitarist, Dead at 69