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.