J.D. Crowe-Banjo’s Master of Drive

In his long career, J.D. Crowe played some of the hottest, drivingest, bluesiest bluegrass banjo ever recorded. He is rightly spoken of by banjo pickers and fans with reverence. And he was one of the bandleaders who took bluegrass in new directions during the 1970s, recording songs from country, folk, and rockabilly sources. Today, J.D. Crowe is best known for three things: first, as THE Jimmy Martin banjo player who set the pattern for all the banjoists who followed him in that band; second, as the leader and banjo player of the New South, which, among other things, recorded one of the most famous bluegrass albums, “J.D. Crowe & The New South,” now usually referred to simply by its label number as Rounder 0044; and third, as the banjo player and baritone singer in the Bluegrass Album Band, composed of top bluegrass pickers and singers (including New South alums) who put a modern stamp on the classic bluegrass repertoire in a series of albums recorded during the 1980s. Any one of these accomplishments would have been enough for a legendary career.

James Dee Crowe was born in Lexington Kentucky in 1937. He became interested in the banjo when he first saw Flatt & Scruggs in the early 50s. Flatt & Scruggs were then based in Lexington and performed a live show on radio every week. Young J.D. saw them frequently, seeing Earl Scruggs up close, and was able to meet the band. (Before he took up the banjo he played electric guitar, and he never lost his love for the rock and blues of that period.)

He learned fast. Jimmy Martin, who was coming off a stint as guitarist/lead singer with the Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, heard teenage J.D. on the radio and offered him a job with Martin’s band, the Sunny Mountain Boys. Crowe first played with Martin during breaks from school. In 1956, at 19, Crowe joined Martin’s band full time. Both he and Martin have acknowledged that Martin taught J.D. a great deal about how to play the banjo in the Sunny Mountain Boys. Martin had a sound that he liked, characterized by super-precise timing and Jimmy’s powerful rhythm guitar playing. He worked with Crowe to instill in his young banjo player the timing, rhythm, and back up that fit his style, and told J.D. to “keep it solid” and “don’t leave any holes.” Jimmy wanted the banjo always to be rolling in the background, whatever else was happening. And he liked a hard driving, bluesy style. J.D. successfully absorbed all of Martin’s teachings, so much so that Jimmy told all his subsequent banjo players to play it like J.D. did. (As an aside, in this respect Jimmy Martin is an interesting contrast to Bill Monroe. Although Monroe too was very demanding and had a sound that he wanted, he valued the contributions that his sidemen could make to his sound, the most obvious case being the melodic banjo style that Bill Keith brought to the band in 1963. Monroe’s recorded sound changed over the years, and, for example, his 50s recordings are noticeably different from his 70s recordings. But Jimmy Martin maintained a remarkably consistent recorded sound during this same period, and part of the reason was his insistence that banjo players had to play the Crowe breaks on the songs that J.D. had recorded with him.)

Bear Tracks starts at 5:41

In the early 60s, Crowe left the Sunny Mountain Boys and for a time was a “weekend warrior.” In 1963, Crowe formed the Kentucky Mountain Boys. In 1968, this band recorded “Bluegrass Holiday,” named in honor of the band’s regular gig at the Holiday Inn in Lexington. This album set a precedent followed by future Crowe bands-a powerhouse line-up, this one including Red Allen and Doyle Lawson. Allen, having played and recorded with the Osborne Brothers and having recorded several highly regarded albums under his own name, was at the height of his career then and was comparable in stature to Crowe. Lawson was then an up and coming instrumentalist (primarily on mandolin) and vocalist, who has since enjoyed a long career as one of the preeminent bluegrass band leaders. “Bluegrass Holiday” crackles with energy from all of the band members; it’s one of my “desert island” recordings. And it shows that as a band leader, J.D. Crowe was happy to share the spotlight with his talented sidemen.

In the early 70s, Crowe renamed his band the New South, perhaps suggesting the new directions he planned for his sound. With the new band, Crowe recorded two albums titled, “J.D. Crowe & The New South.” The first was not released for many years. The second was Rounder 0044. By then (1975), the band included Tony Rice on guitar and lead vocals, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and tenor vocals, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Bobby Slone, a band veteran, on bass, in addition to Crowe on banjo and baritone vocals. This band ranks with Monroe’s mid-40s group as one of the greatest aggregations of bluegrass talent ever recorded. Rice (24), Skaggs (21), and Douglas (19) were then already veterans of top tier bands, with even more brilliant careers to come. The Dillards’ fine song “Old Home Place” owes its status as a bluegrass warhorse to Crowe’s recording. And the band’s recording of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” showed that J.D.’s love for 50s rhythm and blues was still strong.

This supergroup didn’t remain together very long, and in the years that followed, the New South became, like the Bluegrass Boys and many other long-lived bands, an incubator of young and talented bluegrass musicians. In the early 80s, the New South took a modern country approach which some fans objected to; in retrospect the sound seems fairly conventional. Keith Whitley, one of the “New Traditionalists” of country music during the 80s, sings lead on the band’s performance of “I Never Go Around Mirrors.” A more recent edition of the band recorded “Back To The Barrooms,” another country classic.

But the 80s also brought J.D. Crowe recognition for a more traditional sounding but new body of work. Starting in 1980, he, with Tony Rice, Doyle Lawson, Jerry Douglas, fiddler and Monroe alum Bobby Hicks, and bassist Todd Phillips, recorded a series of albums simply titled “The Bluegrass Album” (with volume numbers assigned to each recording after the original; Douglas joined the group for volume 3 et seq.). These now iconic recordings began as a way to showcase the new generation’s take on classics of the bluegrass repertoire, many of which were long out of print and perhaps unfamiliar to their younger fans.

The first album started the series off with a bang. Side one, track one, was Flatt & Scruggs mid-fifties classic “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” The first notes on the record are J.D.’s kickoff, which is Earl-like in its power and clarity, a definitive take on that solo. Again, it’s likely that more people know this jam session standard from “The Bluegrass Album” than from Lester and Earl’s great recording. Volume 2 contained more classics, including “Take Me In The Lifeboat,” and Volume 3 contained “Wall Around Your Heart,” a little known Reno and Smiley gem. One of my favorites from the series is Volume 4’s cover of Jim Croce’s “Age,” not a bluegrass classic until this recording made it one.

J.D. Crowe is now retired from active performing, his status as one of the music’s all-time greats secure, as the recordings mentioned above amply demonstrate.

Andy Bing

Andy Bing has been playing bluegrass music for 40 years in the Hudson Valley region of New York. He plays mostly mandolin and dobro, as well as some banjo and guitar. He studied dobro in the Washington DC area with Seldom Scene dobro innovator Mike Auldridge, who remains his main inspiration on that instrument. On the mandolin Andy is a huge fan of Bill Monroe. In his other life Andy is a retired lawyer who worked in Albany for over 30 years.

2 Responses

  • Here’s a clarification-J.D. Crowe continues to make great banjo music. A few years ago he and Ricky Wasson issued “Hats Off To Haggard,” containing bluegrass arrangements of songs that Merle Haggard wrote and/or popularized. J.D.’s banjo playing remains as driving as ever. Hats off to J.D. Crowe!

  • Sadly J.D. Crowe has passed away. Along with Sonny Osborne and Bill Emerson, who also died this year, he was one of the second generation of bluegrass banjo players and band leaders who set the very high standard for all the musicians who came after them. All three worked with the founders, Crowe and Emerson with Jimmy Martin and Osborne with Bill Monroe. Something of that original fire and drive shows in all the music they later made, no matter how far away from the tradition some of their music may have seemed at the time. The founding generation is gone and now we are losing many of those who learned directly from the founders. If bluegrass is to retain anything of the founders’ vitality, drive, and honesty, it’s up to us. RIP J.D., Bill, and Sonny.

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