California Rice (the Rice Brothers - Bluegrass musicians)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

When the Rice Family followed a dream and planted their sons in fertile California soil

 

California Rice

When the Rice Family followed a dream
and planted their sons in fertile California soil

 

Southern California was the ideal spot for a Rice crop to flourish - Herb and Louise Rice's "crop" of four musical sons, that is. Oh, it's not like their bluegrass futures wouldn't have thrived if their parents had stayed back in Virginia. After all, a lot of bluegrass legends hailed from that state. But for the Rice boys' styles, especially young Tony's conglomeration of bits and pieces of wide-ranging musical genres, California had the most nourishing soil.

Granted, bluegrass musicians had always drawn on a variety of musical styles for their inspiration - like Irish ballads, African-American blues and back-country Gospel. But Bach's partitas and Heifetz' sonatas?  Well, that might have been a bit much for the conservative 1960's Virginia bluegrass-festival crowd to wrap their minds around.Their father, Herb, and their mother, Louise, had followed the lure of California in 1954. "That was our dream," Louise recalled years later. She said that shortly after they arrived, Herb and her brother organized a bluegrass band called the Golden State Boys. "They played hootenannies and coffee houses," she reflected, "It was just music, all the time." 

As their family grew, their four sons, Larry, Tony, Ron and Wyatt began to experiment with the instruments lying around the house. It soon became obvious that they had all acquired their parents' musical ability. Not only had all six of Louise's brothers been musically minded, but Herb's sisters had sung with their father on a Danville radio show. It seems the Rice boys didn't stand a chance of not inheriting their parents' musical talent

It wasn't long before Larry, the oldest brother, made use of that talent. He organized a little bluegrass band consisting of himself, Tony, Ron and a neighborhood friend named Andy Evans. Wyatt, the youngest brother, wasn't included because he wasn't old enough to join the group. Christening themselves "The Haphazards," they soon progressed to the point of playing the same venues as The Golden State Boys. As the boys picked and sang, and their parents beamed, the stage was being set for the introduction of the Rice brothers to the bluegrass community.

While they played the southern California circuit, they began to develop musical heroes. They were especially drawn to the more inventive groups like The Dillards and the Kentucky Colonels. The dexterity and crystal-clear guitar work of the Colonels' Clarence White, showed young Tony that the guitar could indeed be a powerful lead instrument in bluegrass music.One by one, the Rice boys began to make their marks on the bluegrass community. In the mid-sixties, Larry joined a Southern California band called Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party, where he honed his vocals and fiery mandolin style. He then signed on with J. D. Crowe's Kentucky Mountain Boys in 1969.

In 1970, It was Tony's turn to join the bluegrass fraternity. He met a group called the Bluegrass Alliance at a jam session. They were so impressed with his talents they offered him a job on the spot. Never one to dally, Tony joined the group and packed up to drive to Louisville with them that same day. His next musical step, like Larry's, was with J. D. Crowe. Larry, would leave Crowe in 1974, to be replaced by a young Ricky Skaggs. The next year, Larry would join the Dickey Betts Band.

J. D. Crowe's mid-seventies combination of Tony singing lead and playing guitar; Jerry Douglas on Dobro; Ricky Skaggs supplying harmony, fiddle and mandolin; Bobby Slone slapping bass and Crowe on banjo and vocals, is widely considered to be the quintessential contemporary-bluegrass line-up. Tony was right where he wanted to be - surrounded by bluegrass musicians who didn't mind giving the traditional style a little modem twist.

But never one to stagnate, Tony eventually felt his creative juices flowing In a new direction. He had always felt a strong pull toward music that ranged outside the bluegrass field. In 1975, he ran across a like-minded soul at a jam session. California-based, David Grisman, had been flavoring bluegrass with such far-reaching genres as jazz and classical music. Following his instincts, Tony returned to the fertile California soil to help Grisman form a quintet that would soon send bluegrass music into uncharted waters. For the next five years, Tony delved into music theory to help Grisman expand the boundaries of traditional three-chord bluegrass.

In 1979, Tony left the quintet and branched out on his own. Year-by-year, he carved out an inimitable niche as a master, not only of traditional flat-picking guitar music, but of a freewheeling eclectic style he would label "Spacegrass." His fellow musicians and an international following would recognize his genius by sending his albums up the charts and showering him with awards. During the 1990's, he would nail down the IBMA "Instrumental Performer of the Year - Guitar," five times. His group, The Tony Rice Unit, would be named "Instrumental Group of the Year" twice. In addition, the super-group he helped form, the Bluegrass Album Band, would garner awards and turn out five now-classic albums.

Meanwhile, his brothers were making their own marks on the bluegrass landscape. Larry had developed a more traditional style than Tony and forged a renowned performing and recording career. Ronnie played bass for several albums and worked on compilation CD's for Time-Life. And Wyatt's outstanding band, Santa Cruz, gained international recognition.Fate, unfortunately, also inflicted sad losses. It took Larry from illness and Tony's singing voice from overuse. Fortunately, twice in the mid-90's, all four brothers teamed up to preserve their sound and spirit on albums. As we savor the musical flavors of "Grapes on the Vine," "Teardrops in My Eyes" and the haunting "This Old House," one thing becomes crystal clear. Southern California can indeed grow a fine Rice crop.


Submitted: October 08, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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