Virginia-born, California-raised and Kentucky-seasoned, guitarist Tony Rice is bluegrass royalty. He's a Clarence White-inspired flatpicker whose fingerprints are dotted across every innovation of the form in the past 40 years.
His work in the 1970s with Sam Bush and the Bluegrass Alliance changed the role of bluegrass guitar from percussion to front-and-center solo instrument. In the early 1980s Rice teamed up with East Coast mandolinist David Grisman and created "Dawg" music, a form that coerced jazz into bluegrass and anticipated jam band music by 25 years.
Later, Rice's collaboration with banjo ninja Bela Fleck, 1999's The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, sent the music into a full-out freefall, redirecting unplugged music toward an astral place called "new acoustic." All of these styles and more will be heard Friday night at the venerable Stoughton Opera House.
Throughout his innovative professional life, Rice has fought through stormy personal relationships and years of substance abuse. He's also survived a debate over a prickly question related to his style. Is he an artistic genius or a gifted savant on auto-pilot? As a country music performer I know in Madison asks of Rice, "Once you can play as fast as humanly possible, where do you go next?"
This is a legitimate question. Too many notes in a song can, to paraphrase Bill Monroe, take the flavor out of the gum. Rice picks gazillions of notes because he can. But also, and this is key, because he hears them.
In the 1970s, members of the original Bluegrass Alliance, as well as members of J.D. Crowe's band, the New South, lived in a house in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville dubbed the Bluegrass Hotel. This was my neighborhood, and when I was a kid, a lax carding policy brought me to the Bardstown Road bar where the groups performed regularly. Little did I know the significance of the great music we were witnessing.
It was a thrill. Rice had, and still has, a sweaty, steely-eyed perseverance in his playing. He's a force that will continue to push the music long after he's gone. The music clearly got up inside him as a boy in California and never let go. Those shows in the 1970s blew my teenage mind and, I guess, got the bluegrass music up inside me, too.