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July/August 2002


The Intro
Editorial By Art Dudley


  Is Tony Rice the "best" guitarist in bluegrass music?

Before you scold me for looking at the world that way — stuffing artists into neat little pigeonholes and ranking musicians the way most people rank baseball players — bear in mind that I don't do it half as much as I used to. And since kids can be forgiven for thinking like that, I have let myself off the hook for all those nights I drove around town with my pals, arguing over whose guitar heroes were the "best," like some adolescent McLaughlin Group in plaid flannel shirts. (John McLaughlin: "Who's heavier, Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page?" Jack Germond: "I think it's Jimmy Page." John McLaughlin: "Wrong again. Pat Buchanan, who's heavier...?").

But the title of this month's music feature is a deliberate, and hopefully thought-provoking, reference to the fact that a great many fans, fellow musicians, and critics all consider Tony Rice to be the best in his field.

Fans, like teenagers, can be forgiven. In fact it's nice to think that there are any people at all left in this age of music-as-product who can be moved to such praise  by a contemporary performer. Let those fellow musicians off the hook, too, if only because they're so stingy with compliments that they tend to ring true. That leaves critics, an insecure lot who call people the "best" mostly because limiting ourselves to merely saying "my favorite" doesn't have quite enough intellectual swagger about it (or else we do it to underscore how politically correct we are, as with the Rolling Stone contributor who recently tossed off the observation that Lucinda Williams is the "best" songwriter of her time — which is, of course, laughable).



Know what? For all that, I still think Tony Rice is the best.

If you haven't done it already, please= make it a point to get at least two of Tony's albums on Rounder Records: Manzanita, which is among his very first, and Unit of Measure, his most recent. Audio enthusiasts will be cheered to know that these, like most of Tony's albums, are brilliantly well recorded. More important, both are a testament to the notion that there's more to being a great instrumentalist than just Van Halen-esque fretboard gymnastics: The accomplishments of a musician like Tony Rice have more to do with taste than mere speed, and the exquisite depth of tone he pulls from both his "antique" Martin and signature model Santa Cruz guitars will have you reaching for comparisons with the great tenor players of the 1950s.

Listening to those two discs in particular, I'm also reminded of a certain overarching quality in Tony's career: As his musical vision has evolved, he has succeeded in maintaining a strong sense of tradition in both his technique and his repertoire. Yes, you can hear Glenn Gould in his "Blackberry Blossom," Coltrane in his "Sally Goodin" (especially lately!) and even a hint of Miles in Tony's own "Manzanita." But it's still unmistakably bluegrass — and unmistakably Tony Rice, notwithstanding a slew of imitators.

Whether or not you think he's the best is of passing concern; the important thing is that Tony Rice is one of a very few people making albums these days who deserves the label recording artist. And with bluegrass festival season upon us, don't pass up the chance to hear him live—like the Grey Fox festival in the lyrically named Ancramdale, New York, which is where I plan to spend the 20th of July. You can find the other dates on Tony's tour itinerary by visiting www.tonyrice.com.




Like it or not, you're going to get one cable review per issue out of me, staring today. There's no other way to keep up with these things, and the other reviewers on staff have hinted at a mass exodus if I ever again link the words "cable" and "roundtable" in the same sentence.

Nor am I inclined to do another survey, mini or otherwise, and I'll tell you why: Unquestionably, zipcord speaker cables and cheap giveaway interconnects are musically and sonically horrid, and the time or money you invest in specialty cables can be time or money well-spent. I've heard good cables transform an otherwise junky-monkey collection of high-tech toys into a real musical instrument of a system. But I've also heard a lot of specialty audio cables that really don't sound hugely different from one another. Boring products = boring reviews, and I'm not interested in writing those.

Also: While I'm not insensitive to matters of system interaction, I think the whole "in my system" thing borders on being overdone. I've lived with a great many different components and cables over the years and I've found that most of those cables.' qualities are consistent from one set-up to the next.

In offering one relatively brief review per issue I hope to strike the right balance. I also hope that, notwithstanding my observations above, you won't think that a review in these pages is, or is meant to be, any kind of substitute for your own listening experiences. There was a thread about this on the internet recently, where somebody made a big deal about really liking something I hated or really hating something I liked — I'm darned if I can remember which — with the implication that we at Listener should remind you of our subjectivity and general fallibility every time we express an opinion. (I think every review is also supposed to include a disclaimer to the effect that print magazines are dying — which isn't true, of course, but I'm nonetheless happy to oblige if it makes some guys feel better about themselves.) No offense or anything, but the person who needs to read those words in every product review has no business playing with toys that require 120 volts AC. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.


—Art Dudley















































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