A mirage to most modern day music fans, the Red Slipper Lounge in Lexington, Kentucky has long been heralded for bluegrass music. Known for being the stomping ground for JD Crowe and The Kentucky Mountain Boys (and later The New South) for six nights per week from 1968 to 1975, the venue had a reputation for avid audiences that treated bluegrass artists more like rock stars.
The Red Slipper helped to spark the careers of second generation trailblazers like Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and the genre-bending flatpicking guitar wizard Tony Rice, among others. Located in the lobby of a local Holiday Inn, the Red Slipper Lounge featured mirrored walls, chandeliers and thick shag carpet, making it a fancy place for bluegrass. The residency first came about at the start of summer 1968 when hotel mogul Roy Winegardner approached JD Crowe about he and the Kentucky Mountain Boys playing regularly in the space.
After a successful two-week run of shows played by Crowe, Larry Rice, Bobby Slone and Doyle Lawson—performing Thursday-Saturday—Winegardner came to Crowe with a one-year contract proposal to perform at the lounge. At the time holding down a full-time job working at Wilson Industrial Supply alongside Lawson, Crowe consulted with his bandmate/workmate before making a decision.
“When Doyle and I got to talking I looked at him and said, ‘We might be young, but we can’t hold up working 8-5 every day and then playing all night after,’” joked Crowe. “We tried doing both for the next couple weeks before going all in on music, which marked the last time that either of us had day jobs.”
And with that, one of the most heralded runs of bluegrass concerts was launched. Within six months, the shows increased to five nights per week. Not long after the shows began, a young Tony Rice started making appearances in Kentucky. Oftentimes he’d stop in and visit with brother Larry for extended periods of time according to Lawson, a neighbor of Larry Rice’s at the time in Lexington. Even then, around 18 years old, Lawson noticed an impeccable curiosity about Tony and how he approached music.
“Even at that young age I never saw Tony without his guitar,” said Lawson. “It didn’t matter if he was sitting on the couch in front of the television or at the dinner table eating, he was always picking. You could tell that, while still a raw talent at the time, he was going to be quite the performer someday.”
In 1970 Rice’s career began taking off when he replaced fellow guitar virtuoso Dan Crary in the Bluegrass Alliance, the precursor to Newgrass Revival. Crowe first saw Rice perform with the Alliance in Louisville during a concert bill shared with his Kentucky Mountain Boys. A few months later, Rice caught his brother Larry playing with Crowe and company, performing live at the Red Slipper with uncle Frank Poindexter. He quickly became enamored with the band’s tight vocals and collective drive.
JD Crowe recalls, “Larry had been reminding me for a while that Tony was actively looking for bands in search of lead singers that could use him,” said Crowe. “Upon meeting Tony for the first time he immediately brought up the same to me, and after some back and forth, we were ready to go.”
Later that year, on Labor Day 1971, Rice joined The Kentucky Mountain Boys, splitting duties with them and the Bluegrass Alliance at the Camp Springs festival. Replacing outgoing guitar player Doyle Lawson, Rice joined the group—now he, Crowe, Slone and brother Larry, and kicked off a four-and-a-half year musical marriage headlined by the Red Slipper residency shows.
Playing most every night of the week it was imperative that the band keep its material fresh. On that note, Tony Rice was essential in expanding the group’s repertoire with music from artists outside the realm of bluegrass such as Gordon Lightfoot. Rice would later record and release an entire album of Lightfoot covers in 1996 titled Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot.
“A lot of times after we’d finish shows Tony would invite me back to his apartment to listen to new stuff,” said Crowe. “We’d play some, then we’d eat, then we’d sit down and start sifting through his record collection for new material to incorporate into our shows. We’d end up rehearsing it with the rest of the band a couple nights later in the green room of the Red Slipper before introducing it to the live show the following evening.”
In addition to the late night record digs, immediately upon joining the band Crowe took Rice under his wing, doing extensive training with him to get his drive and rhythm up to a standard he was comfortable with.
“After Tony was with me for about a year he started to really come around as a guitar player like I knew he would,” said Crowe. “At the same time he was so focused on guitar when he started with me that I had to really push him to sing more. I used to tell him that a guitar player that doesn’t sing is about half of what he’s worth. From my first encounter with Tony, his voice sounded unlike any I’d heard before, so I made sure he understood its uniqueness and to concentrate more on that as well.”
Playing four sets six nights a week provided plenty of time and opportunity for Rice and the others to hone their craft. The performances quickly became the talk of the town with other local artists, many of which weren’t even of the bluegrass persuasion, stopping in regularly to watch. Fans, most of which were University of Kentucky students, would often be lined up through the hotel lobby, down the sidewalk and into the parking lot hoping to get inside the Red Slipper. One at a time people would be let in as others left, but no more. Others not near the front of the queue could always be spotted sitting on the steps outside the lounge in hopes of catching just a few seconds of bluegrass bliss whenever its door swept open.
“We all got better as it went along,” said Crowe. “When you play that much you’re going to get better. If you’re not, then there’s something wrong. The experience of playing the Red Slipper Lounge made better musicians out of all of us.”
Soon the band changed its line-up again in 1974 with the departure of Larry Rice, who went on to tour with Dickey Betts the following year. Filling his spot was Ricky Skaggs, who had previously performed alongside Keith Whitley—a soon-to-be bandmate of Crowe’s in The New South—and later in Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys. Also coming aboard around the same time was Jerry Douglas.
Not long after securing the new lineup, the band headed to Maryland to record J.D. Crowe & The New South’s self-titled album that remains one of the most revered recording in modern day bluegrass. Better known by the number “0044,” the catalogue number assigned to it by Rounder Records, there’s no arguing that the album was heavily influenced by the band’s experimentation on display night in and night out at the Red Slipper.
“We certainly had plenty of material to record going into the 0044 sessions, but at the time most everything that made it to the album hadn’t been played yet at the Red Slipper,” said Crowe. “Even with that being the case, we had developed such a tight groove together from the shows that it didn’t take more than a couple rehearsal runs before we had the songs down. With that type of talent, it didn’t take too long to work up something. Once you knew the words, everything else came easy.”
January 1975 marked the end of the run at the Red Slipper. The Holiday Inn Hotel was coming under new management. The group to briefly took their residency to the nearby Lexington Sheraton prior to summer festival season and 0044’s release that August.
“You can only impress people for so long,” said Crowe. “The main reason we wound up staying so long was because we were all so busy learning and trying out new material. The Red Slipper Lounge was a great training ground for that because it’s a relatively relaxed atmosphere with not near as much pressure as some of the bigger festivals we’d play during our summer breaks.”
Just as quickly as they’d come together for 0044, they were gone. Following a festival tour that summer and a 10-day sprint of shows in Japan, the band broke up. Rice left to head west to help found the David Grisman Quintet, while Skaggs and Douglas split off to form Boone Creek. The group’s last song together was a cover of the Gram Parsons’ penned Flying Burrito Brothers’ hit “Sin City,” with Crowe remembering seeing tears streaming down Rice’s face throughout the performance.
“I’ve never enjoyed playing with anyone as much as I did with Tony,” said Crowe. “He knew how to praise, he knew how to sing and he sure knew how to pick. But the thing I loved most about his playing was his rhythm. He’s the best rhythm guitarist I’ve ever played with, and I’ve played with some good ones. There’s only one Tony Rice.”
A few years later, Crowe, Rice and Douglas would be reunited through the Bluegrass Album Band, a project Rice initially planned as a solo album. The band would record six total albums over the coming 16 years. Joining them in these recordings were Bobby Hicks, Vassar Clements, Todd Philips, Mark Schatz and Doyle Lawson, whom Rice had replaced in Crowe’s then Kentucky Mountain Boys nearly a decade prior.
“Tony was very inquisitive into how far he could stretch the boundaries of guitar with his playing,” said Lawson. “He was like a supercomputer in how he absorbed and compartmentalized the different facets of music, both in and out of the bluegrass realm.”
It cannot be overstated how influential Tony Rice has been to bluegrass music and guitar, and how much Lexington played a role in the artistic evolution of Tony Rice. Though his time with Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys/New South at the Red Slipper lasted only four years, the impression of that short period of time on Rice proved enough to last a lifetime, not just with the music created but also with the lasting friendships forged out of it.
“He used to call me every year on my birthday to sing to me, and when he couldn’t do that anymore he’d whistle the ‘Happy Birthday’ song to me over the phone,” remembered Crowe. “We’d always talk and catch up a bit after that, but over the years that time grew shorter, too. Then this past year when I didn’t receive a call, I feared that something bad was going on. I’m going to miss him dearly.”