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Tony Rice, guitarist who brought a touch of jazz to bluegrass, dies at 69

Tony Rice performs with the Travelin’ McCourys in 2012 in North Bethesda, Md.
Tony Rice performs with the Travelin’ McCourys in 2012 in North Bethesda, Md. (Josh Sisk for The Washington Post)

Tony Rice, a virtuoso bluegrass guitarist and singer who collaborated with Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Garcia and Béla Fleck, and who, with mandolinist David Grisman, defined the synthesis of bluegrass, jazz and chamber music known as “dawg music,” died Dec. 25 at his home in Reidsville, N.C. He was 69.

His death was confirmed in a news release by Casey Campbell, a spokesman for the International Bluegrass Music Association, who did not give a cause of death.

As a singer, Mr. Rice broadened the repertoire of bluegrass through his interpretations of material from such singer-
songwriters as Gordon Lightfoot and James Taylor. As a guitarist, he redefined the genre’s harmonic palette by embracing ideas from jazz and classical music.

“An admirer of Coltrane and Jascha Heifetz, he played percussive, blues-inflected lines that found unexpected, and sometimes startling, trails through the chord changes,” Alec Wilkinson wrote in the New Yorker in 2013. “The way certain singers enunciate clearly, so that every word is heard, Rice played with a deep technical command, so that no note was ever lost.”

Wilkinson added, “If you play bluegrass guitar, you have to come to terms with Rice the way portrait photographers have to come to terms with [Richard] Avedon.”

A fellow bluegrass guitarist, Norman Blake, once observed with only slight exaggeration that most bluegrass guitarists play within the instrument’s first five frets. Mr. Rice defied that norm, preferring to play the full range of the instrument. He deliberately kept his guitar’s action set low, with the strings almost buzzing the neck, so he could play dazzling runs in the higher registers.

Mr. Rice first came to prominence in the New South, a 1970s band led by banjoist J.D. Crowe. The all-star group included Mr. Rice’s brother Larry (and later Skaggs) on mandolin and Jerry Douglas on dobro. Mr. Rice alternated with the others as lead singer.

He would go on to perform and record with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Garcia, with his siblings as the Rice Brothers and again with Crowe in the Bluegrass Album Band. But the recordings he made with mandolinist Grisman’s quintet and with his own Tony Rice Unit dazzled guitar fans the most.

Unlike most bluegrass groups, neither combo featured a banjo player. Both bands pushed the genre to its limits — and caused traditionalists some consternation — with their chamber-like ensemble parts and lengthy improvisations. The Unit covered jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery’s boppish composition “Four On Six” on their first album, “Acoustics” (1978). Many of Mr. Rice’s original tunes, such as the title cut of the 1979 album “Manzanita,’’ pulsed with urgent rhythms and lively shifts in tempo.

He was also a gifted interpreter of modern folk lyrics, with a particular fondness for the songs of Lightfoot — enough to fill an entire album devoted to the singer-songwriter’s works. In later decades, however, Mr. Rice struggled with muscle tension dysphonia, a disorder that contracts muscles around the vocal cords and can even halt speech. He said years of singing above his normal register had strained his voice.

“You heard his voice changing in the mid- to late ’80s,” recording engineer Bill Wolf recalled in a phone interview. “In the ’90s, he sang less and less and less. He had to concentrate to do it. He actually had to think about moving the muscles in his throat.”

Wolf believed that Mr. Rice, who almost never overdubbed in the studio and preferred to sing and play at the same time, gave up on vocalizing because the effort would take away from his guitar work. Eventually, he focused entirely on instrumental music.

The struggles with his voice were only the beginning of Mr. Rice’s physical difficulties. Progressive arthritis in his hands forced him to retire during the past decade.

“It started with tendinitis in the elbow and blossomed into a full-blown arthritis in his hands,” Wolf said. “Tony always played very hard to get the tone he wanted out of the instrument. He held the pick very hard. . . . The strength that he had to exert to get the tone ultimately made it too painful in both his left and right hands.”

David Anthony Rice was born June 8, 1951, in Danville, Va. His family moved to the Los Angeles area when he was in his teens. His father, Herb Rice, played mandolin and led a family bluegrass group, the Golden State Boys.

In 1970, Mr. Rice moved to Louisville, where he worked with mandolinist Sam Bush in the Bluegrass Alliance before joining Crowe and the New South.

Mr. Rice’s childhood hero was Clarence White, a guitar prodigy who worked in several California bluegrass groups and the folk-rock group the Byrds. White let him play his guitar once while he was still a fledgling, and Mr. Rice fell in love with its warm tones. He later purchased the instrument, a 1935 Martin D-28, after White’s death.

Mr. Rice used the instrument on many of his recordings, but it often needed extensive repairs from years of damage — it had been shot with a pellet gun and run over by White’s van — through the years. Santa Cruz Guitar Co., a California firm, later made a copy of the instrument for Mr. Rice and marketed it as the Tony Rice signature model.

An authorized biography, “Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story,” by Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright, was published in 2010. In 2013, Mr. Rice was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The International Bluegrass Music Association named him performer of the year six times. As a member of the New South, he shared a Grammy Award in 1983 for best country music instrumental for the group’s recording “Fireball.”

Mr. Rice’s oldest brother, mandolinist Larry Rice, died in 2006. Survivors include his wife, Pam Hodges Rice, and their daughter, India, both of Reidsville, and two brothers, guitarist Wyatt Rice of Bristol, Va., who teaches bluegrass music at East Tennessee State University, and upright bassist and recording engineer Ron Rice of Falls Church, Va.

Colleagues described Mr. Rice as reclusive in later years.

“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,” he told the Greensboro, N.C., 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. I am not going to risk going out there and performing in front of people again until I can entertain them in a way that takes away from them the rigors and the dust, the bumps in the road of everyday life.”

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