Tony Rice, the master bluegrass picker who drew fans worldwide for the chance to hear the quick, fluid sounds he conjured from his storied Martin D-28 guitar, has died at age 69.
Rice died Friday at his home in Reidsville, North Carolina, according to International Bluegrass Music Association spokesperson Casey Campbell, who did not immediately provide additional details. Rice lived in Reidsville with his wife, Pamela Hodges Rice.
Ricky Skaggs, one of the many musicians who revered Rice and performed and recorded with him, called him “the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years.”
“Sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee, our dear friend and guitar hero Tony Rice passed from this life and made his swift journey to his heavenly home," Skaggs wrote on Facebook this weekend.
“Many if not all of the Bluegrass guitar players of today would say that they cut their teeth on Tony Rice’s music. He loved hearing the next generation players play his licks. I think that’s where he got most of his joy as a player.”
Others paying tribute included Jason Isbell, Bela Fleck and actor-comedian Steve Martin, a longtime banjo player who tweeted, “Aw, Tony Rice. A name I’ve known my whole life. A great musician.”
Tall and lean, and with an understated live presence that contrasted with the dynamism of his guitar, Rice had health problems over the past quarter-century. A muscle disorder around his vocal cords left him unable to sing onstage, and tennis elbow limited his playing. His last live guitar performance was in 2013, when he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
“I am not going to go back out into the public eye until I can be the musician that I was, where I left off or better,” Rice told the Greensboro News & Record in 2015. “I have been blessed with a very devout audience all these years, and I am certainly not going to let anybody down.”
Rice released dozens of albums, including several as a member of the David Grisman Quintet; “Skaggs & Rice” with Ricky Skaggs; “Manzanita” as leader of “The Tony Rice Unit”; and such solo efforts as “Tony Rice” and “Me & My Guitar.”
He played with everyone from Jerry Garcia to Dolly Parton and received honors including a Grammy in 1993 for best country instrumental performance and citations from the International Bluegrass Music Association as guitarist of the year.
Born David Anthony Rice in Danville, Virginia, Rice grew up in Los Angeles and soon — along with siblings Larry, Wyatt and Ronnie— absorbed his musician-father's love for bluegrass. By age 20, Tony Rice was a member of banjo star J.D. Crowe's band New South and by his mid-20s a co-founder of the Grismen quintet.
A key early influence was guitarist Clarence White, a country and bluegrass star who crossed over into rock in the late 1960s as a member of the Byrds. White was just 29 when he was struck by a car in 1973, and among the possessions he left behind was a D-28 guitar that he had let Rice play when he was just 9.
The D-28, made in 1935, had a life to rival any of its owners. White once shot it with a pellet gun and another time ran over it with his van. After White's death, Rice learned that the D-28 had been sold to a friend of White's in Kentucky and purchased it for $550, in cash, although he needed to buy a new set of strings.
In the mid-1990s, he nearly lost the guitar during a tropical storm in Florida. He was also known to keep rattlesnake rattles in it, an old musical tradition.
“It’s a beautiful instrument," he told Fretboard Journal in 2016. "I never pick it up but that I don’t think that. It’s got to be the Holy Grail.”
This story was first published on December 27, 2020. It was updated on Dec. 28, 2020 to correct that Tony Rice kept rattlesnake rattles in one of his prized guitars, not rattlesnakes.