California Autumn (reissue)

Rebel Records REB-CD-1549

Amidst the torrent of grief and emotion felt by the bluegrass community after the sudden passing of Tony Rice last December, one would expect Tony’s surviving record labels, including Rebel and Rounder, to furiously dig through his masters and studio outtakes to release previously unheard material.

This re-release from Rebel of Tony’s first recording under his own name offers a fresh look into the young flatpicking guitar legend’s early career in bluegrass. Released as an LP in 1974 (and reissued on CD originally by Rebel in 1990), California Autumn includes many keys to the future musical path David Anthony Rice eventually followed. 

Traditional tunes like “Red Haired Boy,” “Beaumont Rag,” and “Billy In The Lowground” show the first glimpses of Rice’s more adventuresome future instrumentals like “Devlin” and “Swing 51.” His folkier side rises up here, too, as he breathes bluegrass style into the pop standard “Georgia On My Mind” and Simon & Garfunkle’s lovely “Scarborough Fair.” And there’s plenty of great bluegrass singing here with the title track, an early Rice original, “Good Woman’s Love,” and “You Don’t Know My Mind.”

As a reissue, one might have expected Rebel to search the archives from the sessions that produced this landmark CD for unreleased tracks or alternative takes. Sadly, nothing here is a new track that would delight and fascinate Rice’s legions of fans. But Rebel did recognize that the original tracks were compromised by the bluegrass recording stereotypes of that era, with the initial tracks sounding drowned in syrupy reverb and excess compression. 

On the remastered reissue, mastering engineer David Glasser at Airshow Mastering in Boulder, Colorado does his best to overcome limitations in the original tracks such as poor mic choice and placement. And he elegantly lifted the muddied veil of somewhat heavy-handed studio effects here, revealing musical detail lost in the original issues. Tony’s vocals sound more present and intimate here, and his exquisite flatpicking reaches out with new energy and vitality.

Tony’s death already has spawned the release of dozens of audio and video tapes of him performing live and in intimate jam sessions, offering a new cache of unauthorized but frequently thrilling recordings. With any luck, the good folks at Rounder Records are working on their own updated reissues with alternate takes and unreleased tracks, and it would be awesome for whomever owns the masters to his genre-setting Kaleidoscope records to give us more from those sessions, too.

In lieu of that, California Autumn stands as a restored classic, like the Mona Lisa unveiling after its meticulous cleaning and restoration. Kudos to Rebel for an outstanding release that brings one of Tony’s earliest recordings to life again with a fresh sound for 21st Century ears.

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