Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story - Book Review

There's no reason to believe a person needs to be articulate in more than one mode of expression. This particularly applies to musicians, who can express their inner selves so completely through their music that words often seem superfluous. In assessing Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story, the long awaited and recently released biography by Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright, it's important to realize that this elusive and extremely important pioneer of modern guitar style and practitioner of wonderfully expressive singing (until he decided he really didn't like to sing) has told his story for forty years or so through his music, and we shouldn't expect him to achieve clarity or transparency with his words about his life's experience or verbal analysis of who he is. That's for others to do, and this book seeks, and often achieves, to peel the layers off Rice by seemingly allowing his friends and admirers to provide a range of alternative viewpoints to what Rice says about himself.

 Tony Rice

Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright have exquisite credentials for compiling this biography of Tony Rice. Stafford is an historian by training and a noted bluegrass guitarist and song writer, an original member of the storied band Blue Highway. Wright is the former editor of the much lamented defunct bluegrass magazine Bluegrass Now. It's little wonder the book took ten years to complete. One can only imagine the negotiations that must have gone on between Rice, who goes to extreme lengths to create and maintain an image of himself, and the authors merely to agree on a workable format. Then there must have been lengthy discussions about the degree of authorial voice Stafford and Wright should exert. Working with Rice over a period of years to get him to commit his musings on himself and his memories to tape could never have been easy. And the hundred and some interviews with people who have known and worked with Tony Rice since his childhood, many of whom are still active performers in music, had to be recorded, transcribed, reconciled, ordered, and compiled. Wright assures me that the many inconsistencies have been intentionally retained. Meanwhile, a complete discography, a complex time line, and an extended bibliography were all compiled. All this constitutes a huge and thoughtful enterprise.

 Tony Rice with Mountain Heart at IBMA Fan Fest - 2008

The structure of Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story consists of seven chapters, each composed of three components. “In His Own Words: Tony's Story” consists of a series of reminiscences, memories, recollections, occasional score settling, and story telling. These extended sections must have been reconstructed from hours of taped interviews, but they mostly exhibit a high degree of coherence and a distinctive Rice voice that rings true to me, although I've never talked with Tony and had few chances to observe him close up. Perhaps the most illuminating components of each chapter are the “Family, Friends & Fans” sections. These consist of usually brief commentaries on various events and periods in Tony's life culled from what must have been hours of interviews. There's some overlap in these sections, because many of Rice's closest musical friends are also his most ardent fans. Included in each chapter is an ongoing road trip which Caroline Wright took with Rice over a period of several years. In these, she rides along in his car or truck, seeking to capture vignettes of Rice's road life, his charm, his commitment, and his energy from the front seat of one of his series of well-loved vehicles. None of these elements works as a stand-alone commentary on Tony Rice; together they may provide the perceptive reader willing to put the pieces together and read between the lines with the essence of this most elusive of characters.

Carl Jackson & Tony Rice at IBMA Fan Fest - 2009

David Anthony Rice was born on June 8, 1951 to Herb and Louise (Poindexter) Rice in Danville, VA. His father was, according to Tony, a highly skilled and much sought after welder and enthusiastic amateur musician. Throughout Tony's childhood, Herb's welding jobs, his restless spirit, and probably his alcoholism and violent temper, led him to move his family to California, Florida, Texas, and North Carolina, leaving Tony to work out his own approach to attending and learning in school, which he left as soon as possible. Without resorting to too much psycho-babble, Tony Rice is the son of a chronic alcoholic who was, at times, sufficiently violent to drive his wife and children from the house. Throughout his childhood his father forced the family into frequent moves, so that there was very little permanence in his life. Such people are often characterized by becoming emotionally very self-contained, eager to exert control over their lives and the lives of others around them, and prone to alcohol and substance abuse themselves. All these elements are evident in the course of Tony Rice's life.

Tony Rice at Musicians Against Childhood Cancer - 2009

Rice is, at best, an unreliable narrator. Despite apparently not showing up for gigs, recording dates, or meeting other obligations, he blithely asserts that no one is ever angry at him or continues to hold a grudge for various slights. He is, without argument, the finest and most influential guitar player ever in bluegrass music and has had a further influence among flat pickers in other genres. Nevertheless, his self descriptions neglect to even suggest the thousands of hours spent with a guitar in his hand learning his trade. Evidence of his influence lies in the obescience other players give to him, crediting him, along with Clarence White and Doc Watson, with re-making the sound of bluegrass guitar, in inventing the solo guitar in bluegrass while being the most creative and innovative of rhythm guitarists ever. He is also viewed as one of the finest bluegrass singers ever, although he says he never liked to sing, essentially refusing to sing quite some time before he damaged his vocal chords to the extent that he essentially lost his voice, a problem which others say could be repaired and relearned if he sought to undergo the retraining necessary.

Rice's personal habits apparently grow from an obsession with seeking control in his life, elegance in his person, and precision in his routines. They could grow from the chaos of his childhood and youth. The quality of his musicianship speak of enormous discipline, while his several marriages and numerous suggested affairs and bouts with alcohol and substance abuse (he admits to consuming copious amounts of beer and “reefer” but to only one use of cocaine, which he tried and didn't like) speak of a lack of discipline and commitment. He has no children, but has been able to shower affection and compassion on animals, particularly a number of standard bred poodles who have lived with him and his third wife, Pam. Pictures taken during the seventies and eighties show Rice as always well groomed and elegantly attired standing in vivid contrast to his hippie friends Sam Bush and David Grisman, with whom he collaborated for many years. He credits J.D. Crowe and Grisman, along with Clarence White as being the major musical influences in his life, but he long ago became the leader to an entire generation of Tony Rice style guitar players, and the reverence for his innovations puts the lie to claims of many “traditionalists” that they adhere to Bill Monroe's influence.

Tony Rice at MACC - 2009

The disconnects between what Rice says about himself and what people who have been a part his personal and musical life is really where the opportunities for insight into this remarkable man arise. His mother, his wives and managers, fellow musicians, his brothers, and others who've helped his progress and seen him through his roughest times speak with love, respect, occasional exasperation, and, often, extreme carefulness about him. Many are still active musicians and they appear eager not to antagonize him in print as well as truly devoted to both his person and his music. No one seems to want to offend this often prickly man who has had some difficult relationships with lots of people. It's here where careful and close reading of the comments in context with Rice's own claims about the same periods and incidents yield lots of information, perhaps more than Rice or his admirers wish.

Tony Rice has not sung in years. He claims to have written his last song in 1985. He says he's happy to perform his work and to express himself through his music, continuing to work on improved interpretations of his well-loved catalog. He stopped drinking in 2001 and has had a long and happy marriage to his third wife, Pam. The book's final description of Tony Rice pictures him sitting motionless for long hours over a microscope repairing his beloved Accutron watches. He is characterized as a man at peace with himself, finding an inner stillness. He is still  inside, also the title of one of his songs. He can, however be seen in this very informative book as being “Still (remaining) Inside,” that is self-contained, and generally hidden from all – his fans, his friends and family, but, perhaps most important, from himself.

Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story is published by Word of Mouth Press, where it can be purchased for $24.95 with a 1 - 2 week availability. It can also be bought from County Sales or here.

Tony Rice Signing at Merlefest