The Tony Rice Unit's last album of new material, Backwaters, was released in 1982. In fact, most of the lineup of the band, with fiddle player Rickie Simpkins, guitarist Wyatt Rice, mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau, and bassist Ronnie Simpkins, formed in the mid-'80s, a few years after Backwaters was released. They had never recorded together. Unit of Measure is perhaps more traditional than previous Tony Rice Unit albums, with Bill Monroe's "Gold Rush" played as straight bluegrass. The eight-minute live version of "Sally Goodin" is a flatpicking, fiddle sawing bluegrass jam, and "Beaumont Rag" continues in this vein. Standouts on Unit of Measure include the now jazzgrass standard "Swing 42" and a new version of Rice's "Manzanita (1st Variation)." Both instrumentals capture the band at its spontaneous best, bringing a joy to the music that made the original Tony Rice Unit so exciting. Rickie Simpkins' fiddle work is outstanding throughout this album, immediately accessible with its romantic air and warm tone. As good as these musicians are though, the material leaves something to be desired. "Shenandoah," "An Olde Irish Aire (Danny Boy)," and worst of all, "House of the Rising Sun," sound like a typical set list for an all-night jam with friends, not material for a fresh recording. The listener's attention, at some point, will probably drift away. Oddly, much of this material was recorded way back in 1996, with only "Danny Boy" recorded in 1999. There is also the mysterious absence of tunes written by Rice (with the exception of "Manzanita" that had been written in the '70s). All of these factors give the impression that the band, as good as it is, is only going through the motions. One can only hope that Unit of Measure is just the starting point for the second life of the Tony Rice Unit.
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AllMusic Review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.