Dr. Banjo » Notes From The Road » Picking with Tony Rice at RockyGrass

Picking with Tony Rice at RockyGrass

Notes From The Road: This is my “Pete’s-eye view” feature on this site, with reports on interesting people and events I encounter in my travels.

RockyGrass 2003

Tony Rice and Pete Wernick; photo by Joan Wernick

I’ve known Tony for about 20 years, and have enjoyed picking and talking with him many times over the years. His enormous talent is widely known, but his shyness and voice problems leave many people wondering what he’s like. This July, Joan and I had a chance to be with him in a different setting than usual. We were asked by the Rocky Grass festival if we’d like to do a set with Tony as collaborator. That was an easy “yes”, of course! All the times Tony and I been on stage together, we were part of a jam situation where standard songs were common ground for everyone. But the Pete & Joan repertoire doesn’t include many “standards”, and even those songs we do our own way.

We knew there’d be little time for preparation (just one rehearsal, on-site before the set) so we thought of which songs in our repertoire would work well — that is, giving Tony lots of chances to shine, and to not tangle him up with tricky arrangements and odd chord changes. Playing an hour’s worth of music with an hour of rehearsal would mean not throwing too many new things at even such a master musician.

We hadn’t talked about dress code for the set, but I decided to wear something like what Tony might wear. He almost always performs in a suit and tie, but a midday set would call for a scaled down version. So I wore a white shirt and tie. Sure enough, that’s what he was wearing, so we looked “right”. These times always bring to mind Charles Sawtelle’s catchy dictum: “You look sharp, you are sharp.”

Tony is a gentleman, a very nice person. Since Joan hadn’t played with him before, she understandably had some nervous anticipation. Almost immediately she felt at ease, and it was smooth sailing from the start.

The rehearsal went fine, with us all finding a comfort level in playing together. When playing in keys where different guitar capoing positions would work, Joan and Tony would decide who’d do what. Regarding faster numbers, Tony mentioned that some tendinitis in his right arm was making it hard for him to solo at high speeds. (Fortunately, an operation in November is expected to fix the problem.) So we agreed that a fast number or two would be played without guitar solos.

After about an hour of rehearsal we headed for the stage. We sat side by side, me in the middle, and it was a very enjoyable set. Since we hadn’t had time to rehearse everything, some of the songs were “ready to go” with just a quick chat about the key and chord progression. With songs Tony didn’t know, he’d wait till he got the feel of the song before stepping forward very much, and then he’d be ready to contribute.

As a duo, Joan and I have rarely performed on stage with others, and adding Tony into our sound created extra dimensions in the music. On “Rise Again”, he subtly contributed a variety of interesting and beautiful “spagegrass” sounds, which enhanced the song in a way we’d never imagined. Hearing his finely rendered solos on our familiar material was a treat. We did one of Tony’s favorites, “Salt Creek”, and though I’ve heard him play it a lot, it was something else again to be playing it with him in such a setting.

We got very nice compliments after the set, including positive mentions of “the new guitar player.” Watch out, it could happen again!

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