Tony Rice’s ‘Church Street Blues’ – a true lost classic

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At the beginning of each semester, I usually have a mental list of albums I want to review, and I don’t usually stray from that. Once again, however, I got an unexpected surprise with an older album that I somehow missed.

Occasionally when I’m driving, I’ll listen to Spotify’s radio feature, where you pick one artist and it plays music by them, as well as similar artists. Last week I was in a bluegrass mood, so I picked Tony Rice, one of the most influential artists in the genre’s history.

The first song came from Rice’s 1983 album “Church Street Blues.” Though, admittedly, I don’t remember which song it was at that moment, I was blown away by the simplicity. Rice, who normally collaborates with some of bluegrass’s best players, was by himself. There was no band to be found.

While I was just glad to hear one song like this, I was shocked to find that the entire album followed that theme. It was just the man and his guitar, with the exception of a few tunes, like “Jerusalem Ridge,” where Rice’s brother, Wyatt, plays rhythm guitar.

Though bluegrass is seen as a very basic, stripped-down genre by many people, a solo acoustic record, despite it being as basic and stripped-down as it gets, doesn’t get quite the same attention or credit as a traditional bluegrass arrangement with a full band.

While this album allows Rice the opportunity to show some of his folk influences, such as his version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” I think it still very much fits in bluegrass. Regardless of the genre, it’s one of the best and most refreshing albums I’ve ever heard.

Rice has been noticeably absent from music recently, as he continues to recover from vocal and arm problems that have kept him off the stage.

While accepting a lifetime achievement award at the 2015 Charlie Poole Music Festival in Eden, North Carolina, Rice told Greensboro’s “News & Record” that he hoped to get back to work soon, but said, “I am not going to go back out into the public eye until I can be the musician that I was, where I left off or better.”

Whether that day comes or not, Tony Rice has already left a mark on bluegrass that’s unlikely to be rivaled in the future.