Tony Rice – Cold on the Shoulder
Growing up in Illinois, I didn’t have teenage anxiety. My parents encouraged my brother and I to express our thoughts and I remember a lot of laughter. My brother’s band would come at lunchtime and we would always play music, and we were goofy. We weren’t into drugs or alcohol so for everything I did I was fully aware [laughs]. I was a dreamer, however, and I was fascinated by things from when my grandparents were children. It was the allure of bluegrass. I always went back in time and thought about the old days and what they were like. You listen to the songs that cross the landscape and the landscape is part of your reverie.
When I was about 13, I lost my mind for Cold on the Shoulder, an album by Tony Rice. I had it on tape but other than the tiny photo of him I had nothing. So I imagine what he looked like: the most heroic, toughest, kindest person. He would do Gordon Lightfoot songs, or Jimmie Rodgers’ Mule Skinner Blues, and change them totally. I loved Likes of Me, being a wanderer, but the stories and poetry in all of those songs were amazing. At that time, I wanted to make music but I didn’t know if it was possible, so I dreamed of playing the violin in Tony’s band. I got to see him play around 1986 or 87 and there are pictures of me staring with my mouth open in shock.
When MTV was playing pop videos, I could suddenly see what everyone I had heard on the radio looked like. I’ve always loved bluegrass and rock hand in hand, and I’ve watched a lot of rock videos. I really liked Rock of Ages by Def Leppard [featuring an owl, mild bondage and the band dressed as monks] and was trying to figure out what it meant. In Foolin ‘, singer Joe Elliott is strapped to a pyramid, wearing tight white pants [laughs]. Van Halen’s Jump and Cameo’s You Make Me Work were also favorites, followed by Whitney Houston. MTV has influenced the way I dress. I was not a fashion person, although I wore leggings for a while and liked dark brown eyeshadows. I pricked my hair with Aqua Net mousse and hairspray. In the winter, when I walked to school, my hair was frozen.
The color purple
It was a huge movie when I was 15 or 16. I thought it was the most amazing movie of all time. I had gone to Indiana to stay with some friends of mine and watched it there on VHS – so 80s! Whoopi Goldberg’s character was the same age as me, but I don’t know if I was related to the movie. It’s hard to say what attracted me but it was so beautiful to watch, she is a heroine and the story and the music are amazing. It’s moving, dark, and so sad and intense that I can’t watch it now, but the final scene where she finds all she’s lost is just amazing. While it’s about race and injustice, and they all win in the end, it’s basically about wanting something. Desire is the central theme of bluegrass songs: longing for home, lost love, land, family… and the girl next door is the most beautiful girl in the world. It’s a beautiful aspiration for the simpler things, and why these songs will continue to work 100 years from now.
My family have been all over the northeast to attend bluegrass festivals and they were always awesome. You saw people that you couldn’t see anywhere else, but the same faces went from festival to festival. When I was 13, I won the Walnut Valley Violin Championship. They had four or five different stages, bluegrass groups, merchants selling stuff, a fair and food trucks. You could buy a turkey thigh and we would pull our sleeves over the turkey thighs to make it look like we were eating our hands. We thought it was funny. Later in my mid teens I started playing with the first range of Union Station. We weren’t well known, so while there might be thousands of people at the festival, they would be at a different stage than we were playing. It was so muddy that our banjo player – who was always very well dressed – said, “I’m not going to ruin my clothes. So he went on stage in American flag shorts. I was still sleeping on the floor of the van, and by the time I woke up my face was stuck to the rubber.
The Cox family
When I was 14, I heard a recording of this Louisiana singing family. The singing was so great that I became obsessed with them, but couldn’t find anything about who they were. In the summer I was 17, we played a festival in Texas and they were playing. Crazy how rude it was – I was such a nerd! – but I got up at 7 am and went knocking on some motorhomes asking people, “Do you know the Cox family or where can I find them?” The sun was not even up. I finally found someone who knew them and took it over and we hung out all day. It was so funny because someone had sent Suzanne, the youngest girl, my record, so they listened to my stuff while I listened to theirs. We’ve been friends ever since and I’ve recorded a bunch of their songs. They’re part of bluegrass royalty now; an amazing family.
The happy van
I spent much of my teenage years in vans. I drove my parents’ little brown Honda station wagon with [bluegrass star] Ricky Skaggs started up, and when I was 16 or 17 I had a Dodge 77 pickup that had tiles inside and no air conditioning. Mike Harman from Union Station had a van that we called “the happy van”. We sold T-shirts; my mom made a big cut out of [bluegrass great] Bill Monroe, he looked like he was wearing our T-shirt and we hung it on the side of the van. When I was 15 I got my driver’s license and Mike said, “You drive!” So my first experience driving anywhere outside of the parking lot was the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He said to me: “Do you see all this on the dashboard? None of this should move when you are driving. I wasn’t thrilled, but when you’re young you don’t think about what might happen.
I once performed a show with Tony Rice in Baltimore, Maryland. It was 2 am and he said, “You’re driving! So I drove Tony’s famous Lincoln Continental with my license. Now when you think of things I wish a 15 year old would do it sounds crazy, but I loved the conversation. He talked about music all the time; played Leon Redbone and explained why he loved her. So there I was, spending this special moment with my all-time musical hero, keeping my eyes on the dials and trying not to run over the car and kill us.
Amazing Grace by Andrea Bocelli & Alison Krauss, from Bocelli’s Believe album, is now available on Decca