Sierra Hull on Tony Rice: How Lucky We Have Been
From left, Ethan Jodziewicz, Sierra Hull, Tony Rice, and Justin Moses in North Carolina in 2015. (Photo by Jason Singleton)
I cried the day my dad came into the house and announced with great disappointment that his old Ford Ranger truck (complete with a cassette player) had officially eaten the tape — our only copy of Church Street Blues by Tony Rice. “How could this happen?!” My 8-year-old heart was broken.
The already legendary album released in 1983 for Sugar Hill Records had been out for over 16 years at that point, but it was new to us and was my current favorite. As I recall, my dad had purchased an unopened copy at a flea market somewhere a few months before and we just couldn’t get enough. From the truck stereo to the boom box in the house and back again — the memory of falling deeply in love with the music of Tony Rice is a fond one. His music moved beyond the stretches of imagination — so original, beautiful, strong, fearless, and free. His singing, playing, song choices, and arrangements captivated my young musical heart from the first note. He made me want to be more than a musician — he made me want to be an artist.
Maybe it is partly because my dad loved Tony’s music so much. Maybe it’s the fact that it moved me at such an early age that I feel such a deep connection. But in further reflection, I don’t believe truly great music can hold up on nostalgia alone. As one grows older, musical taste can change and even mature. Yet some music we can return to again and again while the love and respect for it grows only deeper and deeper with time. Such is the case with Tony Rice’s music and the music he has been a part of making through the years.
The first time I ever heard Tony sing “Shadows,” I cried like a baby. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. Since then, there has rarely been a time I’ve heard him do the song that it didn’t touch me with that same force. He was the special kind of artist that had a way to reach beyond the surface layer of notes and chords and instead touch the soul. His voice and guitar have been one of the most meaningful and constant musical soundtracks throughout my life and countless others’. How lucky we have been because of it.
I was around 12 years old when Alison Krauss invited both Tony and me to guest with her at the Grand Ole Opry. I had been lucky enough to play with Alison a couple times already (which was beyond amazing), but to now have an opportunity like this one — my mind was blown!
I still remember the nervousness and excitement of knowing I’d finally get to meet the man himself. After all, I had spent the last few years poring over albums like Cold on the Shoulder, Me and My Guitar, Skaggs and Rice, Manzanita, and The Bluegrass Album Band, all while learning all I could from my Tony Rice instructional guitar books and videos. In a way, I already felt like I knew him!
When we checked in at the Opry artist entrance, my family and I were told that we’d be sharing a dressing room with Tony. The first thing he did when I entered the room was hand me that legendary D-28 guitar. The same guitar from all the photos and videos. It played like a dream and I still remember the low action making it easy for my tiny hands to play. We jammed a couple tunes like “Gold Rush” and “Red Haired Boy” that I had learned from listening to him. I couldn’t believe it! I was sitting there with THE Tony Rice. I tried to be cool, but I definitely wore a smile from ear to ear all evening long.
A couple short years later, I had signed with Rounder Records and had begun planning my debut album. My producer, Ron Block, asked me to make a list of musicians I’d like to have play on the album and to choose one dream artist to guest on the album. The dream artist was easy: Tony Rice. I was so excited when he actually agreed, and his part on that album is something I’ll forever be so proud of.
Tony and I shared a booking agent, so I was lucky enough to get to open some shows for him in my late teens. He was always so kind to me and my band. There was a quiet, cool mystery about him. He would show up to the gig driving a black Mustang, wearing a leather jacket — always cool. I never wanted to bother him and always tried to be respectful of his space when backstage or in the green room, but one night after a show I did get up enough nerve to ask him to sign my guitar. Of course, he did so with grace.
Watching Tony perform in concert was a surreal experience as a fan. His stature — tall, skinny and stoic — the suit, the gold wrist chain and rings, the ponytail … he was a total original in all the ways. He is one of my all-time favorite voices and interpreters of songs, yet I never got to actually hear him sing in person before his vocal dysphonia set in. His innovative guitar playing alone was enough to change the history of acoustic music forever and deem him a hero to all that love the instrument, but he was so much more than just a guitar player to those who really chose to dig deeply into his music.
By 2015, it had been a few years since I had gotten to cross paths with Tony. I was opening a concert for my mandolin hero David Grisman in North Carolina when the promoter stepped into my dressing room just before the show and said, “Hey, Tony Rice is downstairs!” I thought he had to be joking, so I laughed and kinda brushed it off. “No, he really is!” he said.
I rushed downstairs only to find it really was Tony! By that point, he hadn’t toured in quite some time and was rarely seen out anywhere. It was about 15 minutes before I was supposed to play when I walked up and said hello. I remember being so excited at how open and chatty he was that night. “The thing I miss more than anything is being able to take that old D-28 and stand on a stage and play with a killer rhythm section,” he exclaimed, and continued on and on about all the things he loved and missed most about making music with his friends. We reminded him that we had all certainly missed seeing him play!
The main reason he had come that night was to surprise his old friend Grisman. It was an extra special moment seeing the look on “Dawg’s” face when he saw Tony there that night. I had to make my way to the stage when all I really wanted to do was stand there and hang out with my hero.
That was the last time I got to see Tony.
The news, in a text message as I was about to head home from my parents’ house, hit me like a punch in the gut. It felt somehow full circle that I would get this news in the exact place that I first heard Tony’s music so long ago. I saw the sadness in my dad’s eyes as I told him Tony had passed, an echo of the heartbreak I’d felt over that torn-up tape so long ago. I held my composure till I got in my car, and then I turned on Church Street Blues and I cried all the way home to Nashville. This time I cried in gratitude for the memories, inspiration, and magic that only a hero can set within our hearts.
Thank you, Tony. We are forever changed, and how lucky we have been.