Barry Waldrep & Friends Celebrate Tony Rice
(Delta Grass Productions)
When the world lost the bluegrass genius of Tony Rice on Christmas Day, 2020, a vast chasm in folk, country and bluegrass circles was created. As heartfelt remembrances poured in – from a widely varied audience of fans – Rice, himself, might have been surprised by the groundswell of love and respect.
To truly celebrate Tony Rice is to first understand his sizeable contribution. A guitarist’s guitarist, Rice turned more heads than most with his masterful flatpicking prowess. As a singer, his distinctive baritone played second fiddle only to his inspirational guitar-playing. His many years backing a Who’s Who in folk, bluegrass and country circles lent him an ability to sing with heartfelt sincerity and a profound warmth. Together with his head-turning, flatpicking skills, Rice crossed lines and broke more than a few rules, growing the very definition of bluegrass by blending new to old – ultimately helping to birth what would become newgrass. Everything he did was injected with an enthusiasm for discovery and reinvention.
The only marketing challenge facing this exceptional release is that Barry Waldrep is far from a household name. Not that it matters – he clearly has some phenomenal musical friends. Waldrep is, in fact, a well-respected musician from country, bluegrass/jam band, Southern rock circles who’s carved out a career of his own – playing with a wide swath of country, rock and bluegrass artists and releasing 7 records. He’s accompanied Zac Brown, Joey + Rory, John Berry among others, well-known for his guitar, mandolin and banjo talents. You may know him from having helmed a series of bluegrass tribute albums for CMH Records –focused on a vast array of artists (Clapton to REM; Phish to the Allmans; Neil Diamond to the Black Crowes) and top-notch players were usually involved. As a card-carrying Tony Rice fan, who better to bring this project together with his sea of contacts – all eager to join together in the spirit of creating beautiful music to pay loving tribute to their late friend?
With 21 cuts, there are countless highlights. Originally released on his ’77 debut, Rodney Crowell is a master class in re-rendering his own “Song for the Life” (which appeared on Rice’s Cold on the Shoulder release from ’84) with drop-dead harmony support from Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill, plus Waldrep’s expert mandolin contribution and Tammy Rogers’ tear-stirring fiddle.
The time-honored gifts of Darrell Scott are readily apparent in his version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “10 Degrees and Getting Colder,” covered by J.D. Crowe in ’73 with Tony guesting. Scott’s rich vocal teams with Andrea Zonn’s mournful fiddle strains while Waldrep’s acoustic guitar and banjo and John Cowan’s harmonies lift this song well beyond the rafters. One of the best vocal performances is found on “Blue Railroad Train,” thanks to Shenandoah’s Marty Raybon. Originally included on The Tony Rice Unit’s Manzanita in ’79, Waldrep’s acoustic guitar and mandolin join the swing of Andrea Zonn’s fiddle, with lush harmony vocals from Kelli Johnson.
The traditional “Wayfaring Stranger,” made popular by Burl Ives and Johnny Cash among others, was recorded by Rice on ‘84’s Cold On My Shoulder. It gets a serious update with Warren Haynes expert vocal and resonator slide guitar, supported by Waldrep’s acoustic guitar and mandolin, with the all-powerful Tammy Rogers on fiddle and viola, plus polished harmony vocals from John Cowan.
You just can’t do better than the smooth-as-butter vocals of Vince Gill as he takes over Lester Flatt’s buoyant “I’ll Stay Around,” taken from Rice’s ’93 Tony Rice Sings and Plays Bluegrass. Gill adds masterful mandolin while Tammy Rogers’ effervescent fiddle and Scott Vestal ‘s standout banjo bracket Waldrep’s hearty acoustic guitar for a remarkable recreation. Tony Rice recorded Gordon Lightfoot’s early ’67 track, ”Song for a Winter’s Night” some 19 years later on his own Me and My Guitar release. The great Radney Foster is featured on lead vocal and acoustic guitar, together with Waldrep on guitar and mandolin while Kim Richey adds harmonic bliss.
The instrumental “EMD” – originally recorded with the David Grisman Quintet in ’77 – accelerates like a runaway train, driven by Tammy Rogers’ scorching fiddle, Barry Waldrep’s mercurial mandolin, John Jorgenson’s guitar and John Cowan’s bass. Another exceptional highlight is Jim Lauderdale’s take on Norman Blake’s “Church Street Blues,” the title track from Rice’s ’83 release. Despite the pressure of taking on one of Rice’s most popular covers, leave it to Lauderdale to knock it out of the park, assisted by Waldrep and Dillon Hodges on guitars.
“This Old House” features an incredible lead vocal by John Berry on the Stuart Hamblen chestnut covered by the Rice Brothers. Waldrep adds vibrant banjo, mandolin and guitar as Zonn steps up on fiddle and Kelli Johnson and Berry layer in sumptuous harmonies. Some great finger-picking and lead vocals from Patrick Simmons (of Doobies fame) transform Merle Travis’ “9 Pound Hammer” – recorded with David Grisman in ’88 and earlier on Rice’s Guitar release from ’73. Waldrep adds banjo, mandolin and guitar as now-Doobie, John Cowan, adds vocals. In a list of too many highlights, Ian Tyson’s “Summer Wages” – first recorded by Rice on Native American in ’88 – becomes a somewhat mournful yet highly intimate instrumental in the hands of Tammy Rogers’ ever-fiery fiddle, Waldrep’s acoustic guitar and mandolin and Spooner Oldham’s subtle piano work – balanced out in delicious proportions.
Amidst so many great contributions here, there are some duds, including John Jorgenson’s reedy vocals on the Lightfoot track, “(It’s) Cold On The Shoulder,” recorded by Rice on his album of the same name from ’84. Likewise, John Cowan’s take on “Me and my Guitar” (a James Taylor track from Walking Man, included on Rice’s album of the same name) seems an odd fit, vocally and otherwise. And, as much as Jimmy Hall sports a phenomenally soulful rock voice, there’s something awkward in matching it (and harmonica) to Mickey Newbury’s “Why You Been Gone So Long”, recorded by Rice on ‘88’s Native American.
Yet – all in all – this is a true celebration of a cherished icon who merged multiple genres and, in so doing, gained the respect of communities far beyond his own deep-rooted country and bluegrass roots. Rice was a stylistic groundbreaker with his eclectic choice of covers and songs bent on pushing expected boundaries, enhancing the very definition of good music and its transformational power. You can feel the degree of his significant inspiration here.