A review for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
One of the nicest byproducts of the growing market for home videos has been the increased opportunities for bluegrass fans to see some of their favorite performers in action. This pleasure is particularly heightened in the case of TONY RICE: THE VIDEO COLLECTION. Rice's voice has been silenced by a chronic physiological ailment over the past few years. His audience, while still marvelling at his prodigious skills on the guitar, continues to hope for the rehabilitation of one of the more distinctive voices in modern bluegrass.
In the meantime, this videocassette, a compilation drawn from three separate sets at the 1992 Merle Watson Memorial Festival in Wilkesboro, NC, should remind listeners of Rice's vocal and instrumental talents. The collection opens with an all-star jam with Rice surrounded by some of the hottest pickers in the business: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark O'Connor, Mark Schatz, and, on some of the tunes, Bela Fleck. After opening with the fiddle tune "Red-Haired Boy," Rice takes the lead vocal chores on "Blue Railroad Train" and "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight." There is only a faint trace of the huskiness that would grow to plague his voice in subsequent years. The first mini-set closes with Sam Bush singing "White House Blues."
Thereafter, the scene switches to another cast of bluegrass luminaries: Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, Pete Wernick, and Rickie Simpkins, as well as Douglas, O'Connor, and Del McCoury (who is limited to rhythm guitar here). Skaggs and Rice reprise some of their great duet harmonies on the Dillards' "The Old Home Place," followed by a long jam on Bill Monroe's instrumental "Bluegrass Breakdown."
In the third set, the video hits the home stretch with a nine song set from the Tony Rice Unit. Rice's quintet consists of mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau (now performing primarily with Chesapeake), brothers Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins on fiddle and bass, respectively, and Rice's own brother Wyatt on second guitar. After the loose jamming feel of the all-star aggregations, it's a pleasure to hear a tightly arranged group go at it for a while. The Unit covers some fine fiddle tunes, such as "Dusty Miller, "Salt Creek," and "Crazy Creek" (a feature for Wyatt Rice). The highlight of this segment may just be Tony Rice's gentle, expressive singing on some of the slower tunes, particularly his rich vocal on "He Rode All the Way to Texas."
The overall production values of this video, presumably shot for the multi-part PICKIN' FOR MERLE television series, are high. Audio and picture are both clear and crisp, and there are great close-ups for admiring flatpickers who want to check out Rice's right- and left-hand technique and his imaginative use of chord substitutions. The one drawback is that, despite the use of multiple cameras, the choice of shots seems to have been made live rather than through later editing. Consequently, the director cuts to some solos too late. Other solos, such as Wyatt Rice's break on "Salt Creek," are missed entirely while the camera focuses on Tony Rice wrestling with a recalcitrant mic holder. Still in all, TONY RICE: THE VIDEO COLLECTION is a great opportunity for bluegrass aficionados in general (and Rice-heads in particular) to indulge in the sights and sounds of the wonderful music at Merlefest. I'd be willing to wait in line for any more footage from the vaults that the powers-that-be would be willing to release.