Feb 25, 2011

Tony Rice

Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story is a most curious approach to auto-/biography. It interleaves Mr. Rice's own recap of his life with an equal measure of quotations about him from family, friends and fans.

One of my favorite quotes is up front. "Tony Rice doesn't seem to have fans; they're more like disciples." Which describes me perfectly.

There's also introductory summaries of periods of his life and a reporter's level view of traveling with Mr. Rice on the road. The result is a four dimensional portrait, a very long ways from the overly polished arms length biography. The rawness is refreshing.

For the serious artist, there are simple lessons about the work required to achieve this level of mastery. There's an anecdote about Mr. Rice eating breakfast. He would sit down with his guitar and a plate of eggs and bacon, take a bite of egg, play the guitar, then take another bite of egg. Breakfast takes an hour to eat. Friends always remember him answering the door with a guitar around his neck. Mr. Rice himself talks about the path to being a great musician (and believe me, he is a great musician) is by first being a great listener. This is a bluegrass guitarist who lapped up Miles Davis and John Coltrane and integrated them into his own music. The literary analogy is writers must first be great readers.

The Golden Years (1979 - 1988) were when Mr. Rice recorded his most accessible (and for me most enjoyable) music, using the twin threats of his guitar and his voice. The two compilations that best illustrate this period are: Tony Rice Plays and Sings Bluegrass and Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The Gordon Lightfoot material really shows what is unique about Tony Rice. He transforms Gordon Lightfoot's saccharine material into music that is deep and striking and so beautiful that it stands with the best in its ability to speak directly to the soul. I don't know if Mr. Rice ever covered Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" but I can find no evidence that he did. I think there's a reason. Mr. Rice's good taste. (It takes Johnny Cash's last breaths to put the correct edge on that tune).

Mr. Rice eventually lost his voice and said that he never liked to sing anyway. There is always a slight disconnect between him and his audience. He hates being worshipped but loves being respected. It is what stands between him and excessive popularity and was foreshadowed by his skipping out on all promotional events. I'm a bit torn about this. On the one hand you have to respect him for having no truck with the kind of star worship (the shadow side of projection) that makes famous people famous. On the other hand his talent deserves a wider audience.

There is also some poignant material about the aging artist who has long since reached his peak and now must face a failing body and a wandering sensibility. Novelists have been known to do their best work in this period (e.g. Thomas Mann), but the examples are few and far between.

If I have complaints about the book, they are trivial. The typography is schizophrenic. While Mr. Rice has spoken openly about his boozy reefer habits, there is a torrent of rumors about his cocaine use, which he dismisses.

But it is really satisfying to read so much about a musician who has brought great music into my daily life.