Tony Rice – Church Street Blues

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There are musicians who change the face and structure of a genre forever. In the 1940s through the 1960s, artists like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Reno & Smiley, the Country Gentlemen, and the Osborne Brothers took the country music of their day, old-time fiddle tunes, blues, and swing and fused them all together. They created a new genre. Yes, bluegrass is the original American fusion. This spirit that respects tradition and combines it with innovation is the real spirit of bluegrass. I have recordings of Bill Monroe in the 1940s on the Grand Ole Opry. Earl Scruggs had just joined Bill’s band, and Earl’s banjo playing was so radically new and supercharged that people at the Ryman were cheering and screaming every time he played a solo as if it were the Titans winning the Superbowl. The following generations of musicians would all point to Earl Scruggs as the king.

Bluegrass lead guitar was fairly limited during those times. It was mostly given a rhythmic role in the early bluegrass bands, with the exception of a few players, like the Stanley Brothers’s guitarists—George Shuffler, Larry Sparks, and several others like Don Reno—the banjo player for Reno and Smiley, who would pick up a guitar and play lead now and then.

In the 1960s times were changing. We had the great Doc Watson on the scene in the east, who could actually play complex fiddle tunes note-for-note on the guitar, and Clarence White in the west introducing a more improvisational and syncopated approach to bluegrass lead guitar.

In the 1970s Tony Rice came along, building on those before him, especially Clarence White and Doc Watson, but in such a way that Tony soon became the Earl Scruggs of bluegrass guitar. Tony is not simply another guitar player, but a guitarist’s guitarist. The musical generations from the 1970s onward have nearly all been affected by his innovative approach grounded in tradition.

This YouTube clip is from an instructional video Tony recorded in his heyday. Some of his best records were made during this period: Manzanita, Church Street Blues, The Bluegrass Album, Cold on the Shoulder, and others. This song shows his mastery of guitar technique. It isn’t the sum total of Tony’s guitar explorations, which often reach into jazz, but is one of the more traditional-style tunes he’s done. Note several things—how easy it seems for him, the economy of motion in his right and left hands, the dynamics when he is playing the lead part, the guitar runs between vocal lines, how his rhythmic emphasis follows the vocal, the seamlessness of the arrangement, and how he puts the lyrics of this great Norman Blake song across to the listener. This is live, un-retouched, unadulterated awesomeness.

And a lesson from the same video on a fiddle tune called “Gold Rush.” Notice the guitar tone and the compact and economized right and left hand technique. By the way, that is Clarence White’s old Martin D28 guitar Tony owns and plays.

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he’s not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin’ on audiences around the world, he’s taking care of his donkey named “Trash” and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


12 Comments

  1. Stacy Grubb

    Lots of great info here, Ron. I’ve always had a draw toward Doc Watson and will keep my crush on him until the day I die. Jason is understanding.

    One thing I’ve always thought set Tony’s picking apart from many is how he can be the sole instrument playing and not give that feeling that the bottom just fell out when he plays the lead. I’m not a musician as you well know, but wish I better understood it all as I think that makes the listening all the more enjoyable.

  2. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Thanks for this, Ron! I’ve heard people talk about Tony rice for so long and I’ve never remembered to take the time to listen. Just the other night I saw Phil Keaggy play at the Local Show and I couldn’t stop watching his left hand and thinking, “It looks like a normal hand. I have a hand quite a bit like that one. How in the world does he make it look so easy?” (I’ve thought the same thing watching you play.)

    I know part of the answer is that it only looks easy. It’s the result of countless hours of practice. But the “talent” component, the fact that I know without a doubt that I could practice for months and never come close to that grace, is the part that leads me to praise. Sort of like seeing a Rembrandt. I think, “I could never, ever do that. Thank God somebody can.”

    Anyway, bluegrass is enjoyable enough as it is, but when someone teaches you what to watch and listen for the experience is doubly good.

  3. Brian Hull

    I was given a tape of Tony in 1990 while I was on active duty. Casual friend at the time discussing guitars and guitar players….. I was totally blown away…..it literally changed my musical life….. Thank you Ron and thank you Tony Rice…..

  4. Jeff Miller

    Pure gold. I’m so glad that my life overlapped with Tony’s productive years. Most of what is done today in bluegrass, etc. is a reflection and extension of his work. Thanks for this!!

  5. Matt Harlow

    So true! Tony Rice, set the bar so high in this genre that It would be a miracle if we see another guitarist in this century influence the music and influence flatpicking acoustic guitar the way he has!

  6. scottfromsuwanee

    ron, you’re so right. i started listening to tony when those bluegrass album band albums came out, and he is such a master. In fact, I’d venture to say that he wouldn’t think of doing a piece unless he could do it perfectly. what’s always gotten me was his rhythm playing. he perfectly complements the lead instrument or lead vocal in a way that dazzles the ear if you really listen astutely. And in his day he was simply as good a lead singer as you could find anywhere. I’ve exposed my college age son and his buddies to Tony Rice as well, and he just continues to make them shake their heads in disbelief.

  7. Wes Lassiter

    As a professional musician for 30 years, the effect that Tony has influenced my music words are not enough. I can never get enough of listening to him. There will never be another like him.

  8. Danny Harlow

    I will never forget how exciting it was when Tony first came on the scene. I actually got a speeding ticket once for doing 83 trying to get home from The Record Bar with my new copy of California Autumn.

  9. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    This is one of my favorite records. I never get tired of it. It’s a double good to have you share your insights. Love hearing one brilliant musician write about another.

  10. Billy Marsh

    Thanks for the post Ron. It was a great moment to see Tony Rice paid tribute in this context, where other artists like yourself and Andrew Peterson have also been significant musical influences upon me, especially where artistry exists within the realm of Christian identity and theology. I grew up in the Carolinas with my mother’s side of the family from the Great Smoky Mtns in Waynesville, NC. I was raised on all forms of bluegrass, but my Dad was always a major fan of Tony Rice, and thankfully, he passed that love on to me. Although I have worn out records, CDs, and now MP3’s of Tony’s music, I still can’t get enough. He’s one of the main reasons I first picked up the guitar when I was younger, and even today, when I crank his music up, it still feels like home.

    I have fav’s from his time with The Bluegrass Album band, David Grisman, and others like Peter Rowan, but definitely at the top of my list would be Manzita, Cold on the Shoulder, and then, I’m also a fan of some of the more singer/songwriters albums like Me and My Guitar and Native American.

  11. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I love all Tony’s recordings. My favorites of his solo recordings would be Tony Rice (1977), Manzanita Church St Blues (1983), Cold on the Shoulder (1984), Me and My Guitar (1986), and Native American (1992). Crossings (1994) has some really sweet guitar playing on it, and the Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot collection is great. I had the pleasure of doing liner notes for 58957: The Bluegrass Guitar Collection and Night Flyer: The Singer Songwriter Collection, so I conducted interviews with Tony.

    In addition to loving these recordings, his work with the David Grisman Quintet is beautiful. The 1977 record is one of my all-time favorites, so much energy and newness in it, horizons bursting with possibility. Also the Tony Rice Unit – especially Manzanita.

    And of course The Bluegrass Album, with J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Bobby Hicks, and Todd Phillips, was one of the most influential recordings in my musical life, along with the subsequent follow-up recordings.

    The Norman Blake/Tony Rice records are definitely worth getting, too.

    In short, they’re all worth getting.

  12. Tom Foster

    I was a UC Berkeley student from 1974 – 1976.And for a brief period of time, a mandolin student Of David ( Dawg ) Grisman’s .

    I was very lucky to see the birth of Dawg Music. I saw the 2nd concert in DGQ  history. Remember this was circa 1975, kids before the Internet, I phones, and You Tube. And yes dinosaurs roamed the earth!. We kept hearing rumors, about this guitarist who was the second coming of Clarence White. I first time I actually heard him play was at this 2nd DGQ concert.  Mind blowing, and mind changing. a moment I will never forget!

     

     

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