Tony Rice

Freeborn ManGuitar
California AutumnCalifornia Autumn
Four On SixAcoustics
Streets Of LondonChurch Street Blues
My Favorite ThingsBackwaters
Whoa Baby, Every Day
I Wake Up With The Blues
Mar West
Four Strong WindsMe And My Guitar
Girl From The North CountryTony Rice Plays And Sings Bluegrass
Nine Pound HammerGuitar


Tony Rice playlist


Contributor: David Lewis

“Every once in a while, there are seminal figures. They don’t come along even every five years. You might, by a fluke, get two of them in 20 years. Tony’s one of those guys.” Béla Fleck

Described on stage by the late great John Hartford as “the coolest man up here”, Tony Rice reformed the acoustic guitar and how it was played in bluegrass. Part of that generation who revered bluegrass – but also revered jazz, blues, rock and pop – Rice is a virtuoso guitarist, but he plays with an elegance that gives him a unique sound. Equally happy in a bluegrass quartet, or pushing the boundaries of acoustic music, he has had a sterling career, filled with honours and accolades.

He was born in Virginia, but grew up in Los Angeles. He learned the basics of bluegrass from the Kentucky Colonels, and other LA based players like Ry Cooder, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen.

Tony moved back south, where he joined the Bluegrass Alliance – this band eventually morphed into the New Grass Revival, though not with Tony. He’d met J D Crowe and went and worked for J D in the New South for a few years. This honed his chops and the experience and musicality of J D rubbed off, I’d venture to suggest. Finding J D’s experimentalism (electric guitars and drums) not to his taste, he moved back to San Francisco where he joined the David Grisman Quintet (watch this space for David Grisman). On that band’s demise, Tony formed the Tony Rice Unit, which continued the vision he has for progressive acoustic music.

Tony was a prolific session musician, a prodigious tourer and popular guest on others’ records. As so often with these articles, it needs to be understood that these ten just scratch the surface: any ten tracks from his catalogue could be substituted with no drop in quality or representativeness. Most of the tracks are Tony Rice Unit (though I’ve put in a couple of bluegrass albums, if only to remind you all of J D Crowe) and some solo tracks.

So to the selection:

One of the great debates in music geekdom is what are the great song openings? Hot For Teacher by Van Halen? Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry? Ring Of Fire, Johnny Cash? There are hundreds. But I’m putting in a vote for Freeborn Man which gives a ripping opening to the Guitar album, Tony’s first solo album in 1973. The call and response of Tony’s voice and guitar is a great introduction to this list, and to the album. Also it’s a great introduction to Tony’s guitar and vocal style. Written by Keith Allison and Mark Lindsay, it’s a much-covered song. Apart from Allison’s original version (which has the lyric ‘Born a Northerner’ and is set to a rock shuffle), Glen Campbell, Jerry Reed, and Junior Brown, among others, have covered it. Tony’s bluegrass take, though, is my favourite. A superb band which includes Tony’s brother Larry on mandolin, Bobby Slone on bass, and J D Crowe on banjo is on fire.

If I pick a lot of openers and title tracks, it’s not because he uses all his good stuff like that, but I fully recommend the albums in their entirety. California Autumn, both the opener and the title track of the 1975 album, is a sublimely beautiful song. Ricky Skaggs adds an ethereal violin and dobro fills are brilliantly played by Jerry Douglas. This sounds a lot like a James Taylor song, but the guitar playing is slightly better, I think.

Tony’s first album after leaving the David Grisman Quintet (amicably) didn’t feature singing – it was an instrumental album. Acoustics (1978) is considered one of the classic albums that changed acoustic music. Wes Montgomery’s Four On Six sees the unit stretch out on a classic jazz piece. Not a note out of place – confidently played with knowledge, feel and sensitivity.

Manzanita is a superb instrumental – Sam Bush on mandolin, (he, like J D Crowe and Jerry Douglas, will feature a fair bit in this Toppermost). Its sinuous melody is wonderfully simple, yet complex. Barry Humphries once said the difference between jazz guitar and rock guitar is that jazz guitarists make it look easy but it’s hard – rock guitarists make it look hard, but it’s easy. I’m guessing he abstained on an opinion on progressive acoustic music. The album Manzanita (1979) is a jazz based album. Guitar tends towards bluegrass.

Church Street Blues (1983) is one of Tony’s most versatile albums. A perhaps surprising cover of Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London gets the Tony Rice treatment – it sounds like Tony wrote it. No higher praise can be given to a cover. And that guitar sounds fingerpicked – it’s nearly all flat picked.

The next one is an uncharacteristic choice on the face of it. But the Backwaters album’s My Favorite Things – yes, that one – has long been considered a classic. Coltrane had used its changes and melody and made it a jazz standard. Tony Rice uses touch, tone and taste to remind us how lovely the song actually is.

The Tony Rice Unit album Mar West gives us the gorgeous Whoa Baby, Every Day I Wake up With the Blues, which stretches the definition of blues in a good way. Sounding like a David Grisman composition, probably because both Tony and bassist Todd Phillips had been in the David Grisman Quintet, the Unit (also with Sam Bush and Richard Greene) highlights all instrumentalists’ strengths, but never to the detriment of the song.

The Me And My Guitar album from 1986 features songs by James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan, plus some originals and other covers. The yearning melancholy of Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds suits Tony’s voice and his uncluttered yet skilled guitar arrangement. He plays a slow version, and the colour of his voice brings out the futility of the lyrics’ hopes. “I could send you down the fare”: in Tony’s version, at least for me, he knows he’s not going to send the fare, that the relationship is dead and no hoping will fix it. But you never know. Bill Wolf’s piano accompaniment is perfect. The whole track is just sublime.

Tony came out of bluegrass, though its limitations were never going to restrain him. Nonetheless, his deep love of bluegrass has inspired several albums. Tony Rice Plays And Sings Bluegrass from 1993 features bluegrass songs, or songs rearranged in a bluegrass style. Bob Dylan’s beautiful Girl From The North Country sees Tony joined by Jimmy Gadreaux on tenor vocals. Gadreaux also plays the mandolin on this track. (I also put Sam Bush’s version in my Toppermost on Sam. The two versions are almost completely different songs. While Sam appears on Tony Rice Plays And Sings Bluegrass, he doesn’t appear on this song.)

My last choice, and I wish I had another 10 tracks, is Nine Pound Hammer. Merle Travis recorded this in 1947 (although it dates back to the Twenties). Tony’s version on Guitar is fun, playful and, as always, superb. Merle Travis was an innovative guitarist (Travis’ picking is a style of playing still popular among country and folk pickers). Tony’s version barrels along like the steam hammer that defeated John Henry. It’s marvellous. His innovative guitar takes the song into new directions.


Illness has slowed Tony – he hasn’t played in public since 2013 at the time of writing. He doesn’t want to disappoint his fans. Arthritis has slowed those incredible fingers and muscle tension dysphonia has silenced the singing voice. So while we may not get anything from him for a while, we do have an extensive catalogue as a small condolence.

Tony Rice is as electric as Hendrix, as innovative as Eddie Van Halen, as versatile as Tommy Emmanuel. More modern acoustic players are in Tony’s debt; Punch Brothers’ Chris Eldridge and Union Station’s Dan Tyminski are direct descendants, although that can be said for nearly any current flatpicker. Tony has the touch of Wes Montgomery, the taste of Chet Atkins and skill of Doc Watson. No-one, though, and I mean no-one, is as elegant in their playing. If there is such thing as the “greatest acoustic guitar player”, Tony Rice has as strong a claim as anyone. In any case, he is one of the world’s best musicians.



This post was written in May 2019. We were sad to hear that Tony passed away on Christmas Day 2020 at the far too young age of 69…

Tony Rice (1951-2020)


Tony Rice Official Website (archived)

“Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story” Tim Stafford & Caroline Wright (2010)

Tony Rice Discography

International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame: Tony Rice (2013)

Tony Rice biography (Apple Music)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

TopperPost #788


  1. Andrew Shields
    May 13, 2019

    Knew Tony through the album he made with Peter Rowan, but this great piece filled in the rest of the story. What a superb musician he is…

  2. John Chamberlain
    May 14, 2019

    How can I have missed this man ? Thank you for bringing him to my attention. Some purchases are now in hand !

  3. John Chamberlain
    May 17, 2019

    But, it doesn’t stop here ! Now I have discovered David Grisman.
    Subsequently, I have found him partnered with Jerry Garcia.
    A super live rendition of So What.
    Health warning! Toppermost is dangerous for the wallet.

  4. David Lewis
    May 18, 2019

    You may enjoy my upcoming article on the Dawg.
    Thank you John you’ve started a great journey.

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