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The Tony Rice Guide To Gordon Lightfoot's Greatest Songs

Growing up in the 1970s, I understood Gordon Lightfoot as a two-hit wonder. “Sundown” had a tasty groove and a mysterious storyline, while “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was a maritime epic that sounded like nothing else on FM rock radio. It was probably the first folk ballad I ever knew about, and I loved its tragic, cinematic sweep. Then, even during my roots music awakening in college, when my friends and I were absorbing and learning songs by Neil Young, Bob Dylan and James Taylor, Lightfoot never really came up. He was still just the Edmund Fitzgerald guy.

But as I’ve reflected on the passing of Gordon Lightfoot last week at age 84, I’ve been so grateful that I did eventually become aware of his mastery and legacy - an epiphany that came, unexpectedly, through bluegrass. Tony Rice hit my radar my junior year of college, and I was an instant goner for his guitar and his singing, as with so many other fans. And it seems that Rice felt about Lightfoot much the same way I felt about Rice. I began hearing songs on Tony’s albums that really stood out for their poetry and feeling, and those liner notes (remember them?) kept telling me that this one - “I’m Not Sayin’” - and that one - “Cold On The Shoulder” - had been written by, of all people, the Edmund Fitzgerald guy.

“Once I found out that Lightfoot’s tunes were very adaptable to a bluegrass or string band genre, then I was off and running,” Rice says in the liner notes to the 1996 compilation album Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. “There’s a wealth of material Lightfoot has out there that’s highly poetic.” Rice’s baritone suited the material well, and he’d eventually record 17 songs by the Canadian bard. Some have said that even among the scores of important artists who’ve covered Lightfoot songs over the decades, Tony Rice was his greatest and most consistent interpreter. And indeed, most of the tunes I describe here are for me the best versions ever recorded. Often more relaxed and timelessly arranged than Lightfoot’s originals, they can form a perfect fusion of material and feeling.

I’ve made a Spotify playlist of eight immaculate cuts from Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot in an order that makes sense to me. But I can’t recommend the whole album enough. I hope these selections lead you deeper into the work of the Canadian icon as they did for me.

“I’m Not Sayin’” was the first example I heard of Tony covering Gordon after I got hold of the legendary and influential duo acoustic guitar album Blake & Rice of 1987. Amid a collection of tunes that are either traditional or written by the old-time picker Norman Blake, Lightfoot’s song of proud non-commitment rolls like it was conceived for bluegrass. The original, with more chordal color and 12-string guitar, is on his 1966 solo debut Lightfoot!, an album that also included the career hits “Ribbon Of Darkness” and “Early Morning Rain.”

“Ten Degrees (Getting Colder)” marks the first time Tony sang a Lightfoot song on record and the first time most fans heard him, the historic self-titled album by J.D. Crowe and the New South, known to fans by its Rounder Records catalog number 0044. Tony was about 24 years old and coming into his own, already a mind-boggling talent vocally and on the six-string. He also lent Lightfoot’s “You Are What I Am” to the classic album. Paradoxically, this song about a freezing, hitchhiking troubadour is on Gordon’s 1971 album Summer Side of Life, which was recorded at Woodland Studios in East Nashville.

“Go My Way,” a lesser-known song from Summer Side of Life, becomes a sweet example of Rice’s folk/jazz hybrid sound, propelled by the bass of Mark Schatz and the rhythm guitar of brother Wyatt Rice. Tony’s vocal on this courtship song is graceful and seductive, while his solo crackles with life. It was covered just a few times afterward by other bluegrass oriented bands, because Tony discovered its possibilities.

“Early Morning Rain” helped Lightfoot break out as a renowned artist, becoming one of his most beloved and widely covered songs. By the time Tony took it on for his 1986 album Me And My Guitar, it had been cut by Ian & Sylvia, Judy Collins, Elvis, and Bob Dylan. So nothing far-reaching about the choice, but Tony’s version is poignant and played with expert precision that harkens to Tony’s hobby of repairing watches.

“Shadows” looks to be another ace A&R find by superfan Tony Rice. Lightfoot’s 1982 album title cut isn’t his strongest, with a synthesizer playing the instrumental motif and a vocal that feels bumpy. Rice, seemingly the first of only a few artists to cover the song, pours it out like warm honey over a brilliant acoustic arrangement. Thus inspired, Alison Krauss would record a gorgeous version of her own with Tony playing guitar.

“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a masterpiece of storytelling inspired by an account of the tragedy in Newsweek, proved ideal for Tony’s all solo Church Street Blues of 1983. Every time I hear of the old cook saying ‘fellas it’s been good to know ya’ I get chills.

“Cold On The Shoulder” became an album title for both artists, Lightfoot’s in 1975 and Rice’s in 1984, with a fine grassy snap supported by Sam Bush’s mandolin. Rice’s guitar intro is sometimes taught to developing guitarists as an example of his concise musicianship, while the song’s refrains call for more time, trust and faith while the winds of mortality nip at us.

“Song For A Winter’s Night” has been covered widely, especially by Canadian stars such as Sarah McLachlan and Blue Rodeo. Written during a summertime thunderstorm in Cleveland as it happens, the song appeared on Lightfoot’s second album The Way I Feel in 1967. It’s a gentle snowfall of romance and longing, and Rice’s version from Me And My Guitar is timelessly lovely.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org