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Tony Rice, influential bluegrass guitarist, dies at 69

Entertainment Weekly logo Entertainment Weekly 12/27/2020 Rosy Cordero
Tony Rice holding a guitar: Jason Merritt/FilmMagic © Provided by Entertainment Weekly Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

Legendary bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice died at his home in North Carolina on Dec. 25. He was 69.

Former collaborator and longtime friend Ricky Skaggs released a statement on behalf of Rice's widow Pam and their daughter India, who are asking for privacy "to process during this difficult time." 

"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. It’s still quite a shock to the whole family," Skaggs wrote.

"Tony Rice was the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years. 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."

Tony Rice holding a guitar: Legendary bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice died at his home in North Carolina on Dec. 25. He was 69. © Jason Merritt/FilmMagic Legendary bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice died at his home in North Carolina on Dec. 25. He was 69.

Steve Martin, who's a longtime fan of bluegrass music, remembered Rice in response to Béla Fleck's tribute on Saturday.

"Aw, Tony Rice. A name I’ve known my whole life. A great musician," Martin tweeted.

Rice was born in Virginia but grew up in Los Angeles alongside his brother Larry Rice, both of whom were introduced to the genre by their father Herb Rice, a mandolin player and founding member of the Golden State Boys. Larry, who died of cancer in 2006, followed in his father's footsteps to play mandolin while Rice embraced the guitar.

After many family moves around the south, the Rice brothers performed with the Kentucky Mountain Boys in the early 70s. Larry, who died of cancer in 2006, departed the group a few years later leaving an opening that was filled by Skaggs under the new name of J.D. Crowe & The New South. Rice returned to California to team up with the David Grisman Quintet while also banking on himself by expanding his knowledge of chord theory and music outside of bluegrass including jazz and folk.

In the years following, Rice bounced around groups, flying solo, and collaborating on multiple albums with talent including Skaggs, Fleck, and famously with Grisman and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia on The Pizza Tapes in 1993. Rice was honored with a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 1983.

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In 1994, Rice was diagnosed with muscle tension dysphonia, after issues with his voice arose. Although he was not able to sing live any longer, he continued playing guitar until 2014 when he was diagnosed with lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow. When Rice was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Awards Hall of Fame in 2013, he played live guitar for the last time before retiring from public life.

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