For its first concert of the year, the Bluegrass ensemble will have a musical tribute to influential acoustic guitar player Tony Rice, who passed away in 2020. The concert will be held on May 1 at 7:00 pm in Sharon Martin Hall in the Eisner Center, where in-person seating is available for Denison students, faculty and staff. The concert will also be live streamed and available to the public. Get tickets and watch the live stream.
Coordinator of Bluegrass and American Roots music Adam Schlenker said that Rice’s arranging style was incredibly unique in the 1970’s and developed a softer, woodier sound than the formulas created by other bluegrass artists.
“He is undoubtedly one of, if not the most, studied and copied acoustic guitar players of all time,” Schlenker said. “His approach to flatpicking bluegrass guitar incorporated old time, bluegrass, jazz, swing and blues in a way that had never been seen or heard before. His playing was light years ahead of his peers and continues to be the gold standard.”
Schlenker said that the decision to perform a tribute to Rice was also a personal one—he said that hearing Rice as a young guitar player shaped much of his love for bluegrass music. “I have always been drawn to and have studied a number of playing styles and genres over the years, never just focusing on one genre. I could hear this diversity in Tony’s playing and it gave me a license to explore and combine all these influences to create my own approach to playing,” he said.
“It’s really awesome to be able to draw from such a rich heritage of music and really make it our own,” Daniel Seely ‘23, a member of the Bluegrass ensemble, said. “It has been incredible carrying on the legacy of bluegrass music.”
Seely emphasized the amount of work and passion required to evoke emotion from sometimes repetitive chord progressions. “Bluegrass music plays a really unique role in the music world because it takes simple melodies and builds it into an incredible piece of music,” he said. “There is a lot of freedom in bluegrass.”
Similarly, guitar player Gene Otto ‘22 noted the new techniques he honed in on during this semester’s playing. “I learned a lot of new classic Tony Rice bluegrass songs that forced me to improve at new techniques such as cross-picking and my alternate-picking,” he said.
The ensemble followed COVID protocol and practiced with social-distancing and mask-wearing measures in place, which can obstruct the natural flow of non-verbal communication among musicians. Schlenker said that because the students could not read lips or hear as well, it was more difficult to hear the nuances of each instrument or keep harmonies tight, but this forced the musicians to become better listeners and pay attention to each other.
“The challenges we have faced have been taxing but they have also helped us grow and have reminded us of the value of making art,” Schlenker said.
Though the concert will not take place in its usual location in Swasey Chapel, the students are excited to show off their talents during a time when live music is few and far between. Ansley Maynard ‘23 plays the guitar in the ensemble and has enjoyed this creative outlet. “I am over the moon excited for the concert! We have so much cool material to show and it has been so long since we performed live. It is going to be so much fun.”