Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story
Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright
Hardcover; 315 pages
Word of Mouth Press, Inc
It's a life already mythologized by devoteeshow a country boy discovers a god-given talent for guitar and a natural ear, and grows up to dominate the field of acoustic guitar music. Tony Rice ascended to the pantheon of guitar god early in his career by developing a fluid, fast-paced and precise style while opening up traditional bluegrass music by incorporating jazz, newgrass and a chamber ensemble-like hybrid. But as Tim Stafford and Carolina Wright show in their interesting biography, Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story, Rice's career is a more hard-earned affair than simple myth suggests. Rice's first-person narrative demonstrates nothing was assured in his rise to fame.
The book is a patchwork of biographical narrative, dispatches from the road and anecdotal stories from fellow musicians, family and friends, plus discussions on technique and Rice's instruments. The format generally works well in providing an account of a diverse career, although the list of quotations occasionally dissipates the story instead of adding depth to it. Most fascinating are the sections where Rice tells his own story in straight-forward, earthy detail, and the on-the-road sections told by Wright as she accompanies the guitarist from show to show. Wright has a talent for focusing on the small moments of a day that bring depth to the storyline.
Like fellow guitarist Lenny Breau, Rice developed a deep love of bluegrass and country music through the music of his upbringing. And although his style has always maintained a strong connection to those genres, he spent much of his career working to develop beyond the strict confines they impose. Tellingly, Rice formed an early admiration for Clarence White's advanced picking style, eventually befriending White and, years after his untimely death, buying White's famous Martin D-28. After long stints in the Bluegrass Alliance and J.D. Crowe's New South, Rice made the musical leap to the David Grisman Quintetthe California acoustic group on the cutting edge of new American acoustic music. These years served as a sort of musical university for Rice as Grisman and others exposed Rice to the music pianist Oscar Peterson, saxophonist John Coltrane, trumpeter Miles Davis, guitarist Wes Montgomery, pianist Bill Evans, and others.
Working with Grisman and fellow guitarist John Carlini, Rice mastered theory and chord construction, and came to see his role in the quintet as that which is normally served by the keyboard in jazzan insight that had long lasting effects on the music. This and other changes in format opened up the field of American acoustic music and have become ubiquitous. In retrospect, the assimilation of jazz and bluegrass is not all that far a stretch, as both genres place heavy emphasis on rhythmic push and improvisation, and since the blues plays a founding role in each, their base structures share common elements. At the time, however, it was groundbreaking.
Rice left to form his own band, the Tony Rice Unit, and release a series of influential albums, as well backing other contributors to the new sound. Interestingly, Rice never abandoned the traditional side of his career, forming the Bluegrass Album Band with old boss J.D. Crowe, which focused on the songs of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and other traditional bluegrass players. It's this ability to keep a foot firmly planted in each side of the music that makes Rice such a standout musician. He gives equal effort to whatever he is playing and the results are always dazzling. Additionally, Rice never succumbed to the allure of going electric. His steadfast interest in acoustic music is admirable and awe-inspiring. He stayed true to his roots even as he was breaking boundaries.
Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright have provided a valuable service by assembling the many strands of Rice's life and career into this highly readable work. Part biography, part reference, Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story is an encyclopedia of all things Tony Rice. In the end, though, it is the story of the hard work, musical courage and creative insight of a master musician.