America‘s music is built on the sound of the train, and in few places is that more evident than in the guitar playing of Tony Rice.
He is not a “steam locomotive, rolling down the track.” His right hand is a powerful turbo-charged engine, driving one of the greatest guitar sounds that has ever existed. It’s the sound of the train modified for the modern era. It’s played on tracks called frets in pure explosive glory and nobody rides the rails like Tony’s left hand.
I first caught the train in 1977 at the Bluebird Café in Santa Barbara.
At the time, Tony was a well-known fixture in the East Coast bluegrass scene. He had been with a couple of truly great bands. He was a member of The Bluegrass Alliance, a band which also featured mandolinist Sam Bush. Tony then played with J.D. Crowe and the New South, a group comprised of Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, J.D. Crowe, and Bobby Sloan.
The East Coast bluegrass scene is a huge universe unto itself. All of these pickers and Tony were major rising stars.
In the mid-1970s, he quit his bluegrass locale and moved to the West Coast to play with David Grisman and his newly formed quintet.
I can’t fully describe the first-time impact of hearing Tony and David play in the Quintet, but it was life changing.
My band, the Cache Valley Drifters, had opened lots of shows at the Bluebird Café. We had that capability and took full advantage of it. We tried to open every weekend show Robbie produced and tried to snare other concerts in larger venues throughout Santa Barbara. It was a strategy that worked well, and many stories grew out of those shows.
But for mind-blowing, emotional impact, the day we ran into Tony Rice playing with the David Grisman Quintet was the one that took them all.
Grisman had played at the Bluebird a couple of times before in a former incarnation. His older band was called The Great American Music Band. He had two different guitarists performing in that group each time. The first time he came through town he was playing with David Nichtern, the composer of “Midnight At The Oasis.” That band was pretty notable as Taj Mahal was the bass player. The second time, he brought a very fine guitarist and world-class musician, John Carlini. Both bands were wonderful and animated with amazing, talented people. David was successfully breaking new ground in acoustic music.
The third time he came to town to perform at the Bluebird, he brought the Quintet.
The first notable thing about them is that there was no vocalist, a departure from his other outfits. Also, two mandolin players; Grisman brought a twin. The third big surprise was Tony Rice.
Even though he was a big star on the East Coast, nobody knew who he was at the Bluebird. He was a guitar player that David brought to play the gig and that was about it.
We weren’t ready for him.
For some reason we weren’t there for David’s sound check. We showed up at ours and they had already done theirs but the first thing we noticed about their setup was…no vocal mic. After our check there was an hour or so before the show so we hung around for a bit. Eventually we did our set. It was a good set and we knew we had done the job right. Everything was cool and it was time to cruise, but the mystery persisted regarding no vocalist. Finally, after the break, the Quintet took the stage.
There’s no vocal mic, and it’s a bit awkward because after the introduction, David wanted to talk about the first song. He had to sort of figure out how to do that through his instrument mic by speaking from a bent position.
We’re standing behind the bar chuckling a little bit…no vocal mic…but we’re hoping for the best.
Well…he finally gets the mic squared away and starts to introduce the song and it turns out it’s the theme song to a movie that he just wrote the music for. The name of the song is “EMD.” At this point everybody in the audience is kind of chuckling and scratching their heads a little bit.
Upon reflection, it was actually a typical situation for an acoustic band in that era; our style of music hadn’t been around long and none of us really had an opportunity to develop a stage show to go along with the music yet. We were all too busy trying to create something new in real time.
Did I mention a train earlier?
“EMD” started out with the sound of the fastest train you’ll ever hear. A four-measure rhythm figure, of sixteenth beats somewhere between 140 and 150 beats per minute, vamping on an em chord, increasing steadily in volume, driven by twin mandolins.
During the four measures the rest of the ensemble played a small melodic part. After hook was set, the thing took off like a rocket.
I heard the sound of twin mandolins blasting into the upper atmosphere riding an ultra-hot melody followed by Darol Anger ripping an incredible bluesy violin solo.
As amazing as that was, the world wasn’t ready for what happened next — it was two choruses of Tony Rice soloing in which he traveled up and down the fretboard bending, sliding, ripping in every area of the neck, on every string.
Hundreds of notes, perfectly placed, impeccably played. Nobody had ever heard that before. Nobody had ever played that before.
It was as if a dark day had broken open into the most gorgeous, sun-filled, bright moment of your life.
And it hit everybody that way. You didn’t have to be a guitar player to see that he was changing the way guitar was gonna sound forever.
The show was amazing; every song, except “Fish Scales,” was an original composition. To this day, their first album, which is what they performed that night, is one of the finest recordings of acoustic music ever made.
I feel like we got to see it born.
Tony’s sound has illuminated my musical life ever since. I believe anybody who has seen or heard Tony Rice play, feels the same. He is that great.
We will miss you, Tony Rice. We will always have your music, your ideas, and your genius to reflect upon. You showed us how beautiful music can be, particularly when it’s played on the guitar.
P.S. Needless to say, there was no need for a vocal mic. It turns out the name of the movie was Eat My Dust, Ron Howard’s first feature.