Several months ago, Rebel Records re-released Tony Rice’s early masterpiece California Autumn on CD. That welcome venture has now been followed by a vinyl reissue, and a welcome addition to our bluegrass shelves (and turntables) it is.
Originally released in 1975, this influential recording has been carefully remastered from the original analogue tape; the result is a brilliant high-fidelity experience free of surface noise and other distractions. What comes through most plainly is the instrumental genius and vocal dexterity of one of mid-period bluegrass’ most revered icons.
Almost evenly split between vocal and instrumental numbers, this album serves as a reminder—if one is needed—of Tony Rice’s early prowess. Backed by members of the Seldom Scene—producer John Starling (rhythm and vocals), Tom Gray (bass), Mike Auldridge (Dobro), and Ben Eldridge (banjo)—the album is very much of its time and, with almost fifty years of progression and experimentation influencing hindsight, quite quaint and appealing, not unlike the recordings made contemporaneously by the Seldom Scene…had they been fronted by Clarence White, or—as here—a rapidly developing Tony Rice.
Also featured are others well-associated with Rice including Ricky Skaggs (fiddle, mandolin, viola) appearing throughout and J. D. Crowe (banjo) makes a single appearance on “Good Woman’s Love.” Sibling Larry Rice handles the vast majority of the mandolin with Jerry Douglas (Dobro) appearing twice.
The songs, from the pensive title track (“Why she went away I’ll never know, she didn’t know she took the summer with her; I’ll pass this way some other day, and I’ll leave behind lonesome memories of her”) through to the closing “Beaumont Rag” offer a cross-section of the highly familiar (“Red Haired Boy,” “Billy in the Lowground,” and Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken”) to newer songs from Rice (the jaunty “Bullet Man”) and brother Larry (the absolutely classic “Mr. Poverty.)
Rice co-biographer and Blue Highway frontman Tim Stafford’s liner notes provides a historical (and personal) context to the recording. Stafford reminds us that this recording marked the first meeting and initial recording session of Rice and Skaggs, as well as the first Rice recording with Douglas.
Recorded highlights include the moving title track—the vocal performance of which, once experience, cannot be forgotten—and “Mr. Poverty,” as well as a vital and pure ‘grass rip through “You Don’t Know My Mind,” the moving “Alone and Forsaken,” and the sublimely presented “Scarborough Fair.” For me “Georgia On My Mind” is too busy, but what the heck do I know? It foreshadows the many directions Rice would take his playing in the years to come. Rice’s vocals are beautiful, “pitch-perfect and soulful” as Stafford writes, and he would know!
The packaging of both the reissued CD and the record is stellar, a significant upgrade. The cover art itself is stunning, well-suited for display. Both editions contain the same photos of Rice, some apparently previously unseen, as well as all the credits and notes. The vinyl itself is substantial, evidence that Rebel didn’t shirk when sending this one off the pressing plant.
Unlike more popular forms of music, bluegrass reissues and upgrades are seldom encountered. Rebel Records has given California Autumn the caring attention it deserves.