Posts Tagged ‘Tony Rice’

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Josh Williams: An Homage

29 January 2013

We pestered Josh Williams plenty at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival and as you can see from our previous posts, he put up with us with grace and humor. While we appreciate Williams’ candor and detail in responding to our many questions, seems like we ought to take a break from the talk and let the man do what he does best…

“Blue Railroad Train” is a vintage country blues from the Delmore Brothers, but as Williams points out in his introduction, he learned the tune as it was popularized by Williams’ mentor Tony Rice in the 1970’s. When Williams says that he is offering his rendition as an homage to Rice, he seems to be referring primarily to the instrumental licks, but he can also channel the sound of Rice’s younger voice to great effect— a fact not lost on Rice himself.

Back when he recorded “Blue Railroad Train” for his classic album Manzanita, Rice could both play and sing with abandon. Over the ensuing decade, however, illness largely robbed him of his voice, forcing him to team up with other singers. For the past several years, Williams has been a fixture in The Tony Rice Unit, where he has played mandolin and handled lead vocal duties.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else being a more fitting vocal surrogate for Rice than Williams. While he certainly has a voice that’s all his own, Williams shares Rice’s affinity for soulful country vocals. It’s an oversimplification to put it this way, but you could say that the key to Rice’s sound was that his guitar was playing jazz and his voice was singing country. That description fits Williams’ style as well.

Only a genuine hot shot would announce that he’s going to play a song the way Tony Rice does— inviting inevitable comparisons between his performance and that of the maestro. Should you feel compelled to measure Williams’ version against Rice’s, there’s a video clip on YouTube of a live performance from Rice with a stellar edition of The Unit.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Josh Williams: Flatpicking Country

8 January 2013

At last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival Josh Williams took some time to talk with us about his musical background. His observations were frank and detailed:

Climbing the Fretboard

Folks with only a passing awareness of bluegrass are always surprised to learn that its history as a distinct musical genre is so brief. As a kid growing up in North Carolina, I had the same impression: like the Loblolly pines and the red clay, bluegrass was just part of the landscape, so it was easy to assume that it had always been thus.

The same went for flatpicking on steel string guitars. I recall spending a week in the mountains of Tennessee when I was in my teens. I had learned a few chords on the guitar, but there was a boy sharing a cabin with me who could pick bluegrass runs like greased lightening. I was aware of Flatt & Scruggs and Doc Watson, but this was the first time I had observed flatpicking up close. Once again, I assumed that this tight, fast technique had always been part of bluegrass in particular and traditional string music in general. Unbeknownst to me, as I tried in vain to emulate that Tennessee stud’s deft licks, I was at that very moment missing the Flatpicking Express that was just then leaving the station.

In his interview, Williams provides a succinct history of modern flatpicking. His earliest idols, Flatt & Scruggs, weren’t flatpickers per se: both used thumb and forefinger to pick and strum the guitar as performers like Charlie Monroe and A.P. Carter had done before them. It was their contemporary, the blind phenomenon Arthel “Doc” Watson, who forever changed the landscape of bluegrass guitar. Watson mastered everything from African-American country blues to honky tonk swing, and he brought all those styles together in a fluid technique that often featured brisk runs neatly articulated with a flat pick.

At the same time that Watson was wowing audiences at bluegrass festivals and college hootenannies, a young man was growing up in sunny California who would take Watson’s flatpicking technique and run with it. Clarence White played with a variety of musical acts, but in bluegrass circles, White is probably best remembered for his tenure in the Kentucky Colonels (another musical influence cited by Williams). White’s life was cut tragically short, so it was left to another West Coast-raised picker, Tony Rice, to carry on White’s legacy. It might seem a tad reductive to trace contemporary flatpicking technique back to the confluence of just three figures— Watson’s Appalachian roots infusing the jazzy Californian inflections of White and Rice— but as you can hear from Williams own account, those are indeed the key influences that shaped the technique of his generation of pickers.

Catching Up With the Past

In mentioning guitarist Tony Rice, Williams also brings up J.D. Crowe, the banjo player and bandleader with whom Rice collaborated for many years. Williams has often cited J.D. Crowe’s catholic tastes in material as a model. Back in the 1970’s Crowe’s penchant for borrowing tunes from the pop and country charts was seen by some as a threat to the traditional bluegrass sound. That response seems more than a little ironic today, since now it’s the groups that draw on what is often called “traditional country”— the music of George Jones, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens— that have formed a conservative bulwark in the bluegrass repertoire.

While Williams makes it clear that he appreciates a broad palette of music (Michael Jackson! Metallica!), that old country sound holds a special place in his heart. While he will probably always be best know for his flatpicking pyrotechnics, he can also match the heroes of heartache when it comes to putting across a country ballad. You get a little taste of Williams’ vocal abilities in the video clip as the band warms up backstage with a rendition of a song popularized by Gene Watson, “Speak Softly (You’re Talking to My Heart.)” For a full dose of pathos and romance, check out Williams singing another tune associated with Watson, “The Great Divide,” which we captured in a performance a couple of years back. You can review that post here.

While some of Williams’ heroes have retired or passed on, Gene Watson is still very much with us. In fact, he just celebrated fifty years as a performer. Though still carrying the country music banner, for years, Watson has performed as part of various bluegrass showcases, revues and festivals. It’s therefore not surprising that he has been touring with bluegrass stalwart Rhonda Vincent lately. What is a bit unanticipated is the recent announcement that Josh Williams had climbed aboard the Vincent/Watson bandwagon. Near the end of the year, Williams announced that he was rejoining Vincent’s band, The Rage, an outfit he toured with from 2004 to 2007. Williams’ return to The Rage line-up can therefore be seen as a homecoming on a couple of fronts, reconnecting him not just with a former bandleader but also with one of the standard bearers of the traditional country music Williams holds so dear.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Classic Tony Rice at Merlefest

7 May 2010

Now that he’s back from his southern jaunt, yer pal Curly is wrangling pixels as fast as he can so as to share some of the music and sights he collected in the course of his travels.  As with any musical set, it never hurts to kick off with a crowd-pleaser, so here goes:

It’s always tempting— and usually ill-advised— to read into the expressions and body language of musicians.  In this case, you can’t help feeling that everybody in the band is a little checked out, no one more so than the great Josh Williams.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of catching Williams leading his own eponymous outfit, then you’ll understand my noting a distinct lack of verve in this performance.  Many explanations for this come to mind:  1) It was really hot; 2) He was rubbing his nose a lot, so perhaps he’s allergic to Merlefest; 3) How many times has he played “Wayfaring Stranger” anyway?  But perhaps the most intriguing possibility is that he was playing the mandolin rather than his principal instrument, the guitar.  Maybe that thousand-mile-stare is really Williams concentrating?  Nah— this is a guy who could play a ball of twine without breaking a sweat. I vote for allergies.

Whatever the case, I can attest that this is one of those instances when— at least purely in musical terms— a piece works better just as audio than as video.  Close your eyes and listen. Nice, no? Still, there are insights to be gained from watching the picture.  I enjoy the way Tony Rice conducts the band with just the barest nod of his head, cuing solos and marking when to start the last chord.  It’s such a minimal gesture, and so seemingly nonchalant, yet at the same time so precise.  Sort of sums up Rice’s style.

Lots more to come, so don’t wander too far…

Yer Pal— Curly

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