Bluegrass great Tony Rice died on Christmas Day (Dec. 25). The lauded singer, songwriter and guitarist was 69 years old.
According to a statement from the International Bluegrass Music Association, released on Saturday (Dec. 26), Rice was at home in Reidsville, N.C., when he died. A cause of death was not given, though a Facebook post from Ricky Skaggs on behalf of Rice’s family reports that his death occurred “sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee.”
“Not only was Tony a brilliant guitar player but he was also one of the most stylistic lead vocalist (sic) in bluegrass music history …,” reflects Skaggs, who was part of the New South with Rice in the mid-1970s and later recorded a duets album with Rice. “Rest In Peace dear brother. Thank you for your great talent and the music that will continue to inspire more and more generations to come.”
Born David Anthony Rice on June 8, 1951, in Danville, Va., Tony Rice grew up in Los Angeles, Calif. His father, Herb Rice, introduced all four of his sons to LA’s bluegrass and country scene, with Clarence White of the Kentucky Colonels, specifically, becoming a major influence in Rice’s career.
After moving to Louisville, Ky., Rice joined the Bluegrass Alliance, and then J.D. Crowe’s New South in the early ’70s. He’d later move back to California after meeting mandolin player David Grisman to join his David Grisman Quintet, an instrumental band whose 1977-released debut is widely considered to be one of the premier acoustic string band albums.
Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, Rice was a co-founding member of the Bluegrass Album Band with, among others, Doyle Lawson. His other projects included the Tony Rice Unit (Alison Krauss played with that group for about a year); recordings with his three brothers; four albums with Bela Fleck; work with Jerry Garcia and Norman Blake; and three albums as Rice, Hillman & Pedersen with his brother Larry Rice, Herb Pedersen and ex-Flying Burrito Brothers and Byrds member Chris Hillman, along with a number of solo projects.
Rice is a Grammy Awards winner (Best Country Instrumental Performance with the New South) and a 10-time International Bluegrass Music Association Awards winner. He was named Instrumental Performer of the Year — Guitar by the latter organization six times.
Rice had been suffering from muscle-tension dysphonia, a vocal cord condition that made singing live impossible, since 1994. In 2014, he was diagnosed with lateral epicondylitis (more commonly known as “tennis elbow”), which made playing guitar painful. Though neither disease is fatal, they both made performing impossible for Rice, whose last public performance was for his Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame induction in 2013.
Rice is survived by his wife Pam and their daughter India, as well as his brothers Wyatt and Ronnie (his third brother, Larry Rice, died in 2006). Funeral details are not available at this time.