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By Katherine Cole
15 December 2008
While his name might not be familiar to mainstream music fans, in the acoustic music world, Tony Rice is revered. No matter if he's playing traditional bluegrass or something more progressive, critics agree that few other pickers have had a bigger impact on the acoustic guitar than the Southern California native. Night Flyer is a new collection that shows off the wide range of non-bluegrass material that Tony Rice recorded over the past three decades.
Tony Rice is such a wonderful guitar player that it is easy to forget how smoothly he sings.
Actually, "sang" is the correct tense to use when speaking of Tony Rice's singing, because while Tony is alive and well, and playing his guitar on stages all over the country, a rare medical condition means he is he's no longer singing songs like Bob Dylan's "Sweetheart Like You."
Tony Rice says Bob Dylan's "Sweetheart Like You" leaves a lot open to personal interpretation, and recording it was quite a challenge. Originally recorded for Tony's 1986 release, "Me And My Guitar," the song can also be found on the new CD, Night Flyer.
This disk is sub-titled "The Singer-Songwriter Collection," a choice that might confound some of Tony's newest fans, the ones who have only come to his music in the last decade. That is because although the 57-year-old is still a master of the guitar, Tony no longer sings onstage, or in the studio, because of "muscle tension dysphonia," a condition that affects the muscles of the voice box. This exact cause of this very rare affliction is unknown. It could be as simple as a person starting to use their vocal cords and throat box differently, so they can keep talking when they've got laryngitis or a cold … but when the illness clears up, they can't go back to their old way of speaking because the muscles won't behave the same way as they did before.
In interviews, Tony Rice insists he doesn't miss singing all that much because his first love was the picking, not the singing.
But when he was singing, fans knew to expect the unexpected on a new Tony Rice CD. Despite his fame as a bluegrass guitarist, Rice often turned to blues and folk for material. And not just any old tunesmith would do. In addition to Bob Dylan and James Taylor, the singer-songwriters represented on Night Flyer include Gordon Lightfoot, Phil Ochs, and Ian Tyson.
But, there is more to enjoy on Night Flyer than just good songwriting. The musicians on the collection are among the acoustic elite of the past 30 years. They include Tony's guitar playing brother Wyatt Rice, Sam Bush and the late Larry Rice on mandolin, bass players Todd Phillips and Mark Schatz, and the late Vassar Clements on fiddle. Mary Chapin Carpenter is onboard too, singing harmony on one of her own compositions. It's the story of "John Wilkes Booth," the man who shot Abraham Lincoln. As Tony Rice says in his notes to this song, very few of us today "realize that John Wilkes Booth was, by most theatrical standards, the greatest actor of his day." Tony, himself a history buff, commissioned Chapin to write that song for him, and it's one that she's never recorded herself.
Night Flyer: The Singer Songwriter Collection features 17 vocals, and it's offered as a counterpart to another Tony Rice compilation, called The Bluegrass Guitar Collection. The songs on Night Flyer include three previously-unreleased songs. The album opens with one of those, the rather bitter "Never Meant to Be." It's also one of the rare originals in his repertoire, written after the breakup of a long marriage.
It's now been more than a decade since Tony Rice has sung on-stage, which makes this new collection a bittersweet release; wonderful to hear, but a reminder of a voice that's been silenced. Tony Rice is still playing his guitar and performing at festivals and concert halls across the U.S., however. Upcoming tour dates can be found on his website,