If you ask a roomful of bluegrass banjo players who their favorite 5 banjo players are, I’ll bet two names will be on most every list- Earl Scruggs and JD Crowe. I have talked a bit about Earl Scruggs already so let me focus today on JD Crowe.
James Dee Crowe was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1937. It is said that as a young boy he saw a Flatt and Scruggs concert and was immediately hooked on the banjo and would then go to see the group any time he could. Like many people, he watched Earl play and then went home to try and figure out how he too could play like that. Apparently he did figure it out because he was soon playing in various bands for dances and radio shows.
I have mentioned Flatt and Scruggs in this story briefly, so now I will mention another name that should be familiar- Bill Monroe. In this type of music it seems most all important musical happenings can be traced to Bill Monroe in one way or another and the JD Crowe story can be too. In 1949, Bill Monroe hired a “spirited” young singer named Jimmy Martin to be the lead singer in the Bluegrass Boys. Jimmy stayed in the band for a few years and then left to form his own group, The Sunny Mountain Boys. Jimmy would go on to be a very influential musician and helped shape the music by using his band as a providing a sort of proving ground for other musicians. While driving through Lexington Kentucky, some time in 1956, Jimmy heard JD Crow playing banjo on the radio and was so impressed he drove right to the radio station and hired JD to be his permanent banjo player!
I have heard that life on the road with Jimmy Martin was hard and so after a six year stint in the band, JD left to play in other bands and to eventually form his own band in the early 1970s, the New South. Sometimes musicians talk about who they would want in their “dream band”. I think it very possible that more times than not, for acoustic musicians at least, Tony Rice (guitar), Ricky Scaggs (mandolin) and Jerry Douglas (dobro) appear in these fantasy bands and folks that’s most of the original New South right there. Rounding out the group was Bobby Sloan on fiddle and Steve Bryant on bass. The band was an instant success and probably helped change the sound and look of bluegrass music forever.
Not being afraid to incorporate “other” music into their shows, JD Crowe and the New South did country, rock, blues and bluegrass and they did it well. Their style and sound were somewhat unique and it apparently appealed to fans of newgrass as well as fans of traditional bluegrass. The band recorded their first album in 1975 (self titled) and it was a huge and immediate success (this album is one of the featured album picks below). As will happen, band members came and went but JD Crowe remained the center of the sound and continued to play solid and interesting music throughout the years.
In 1980, JD formed another superstar band that toured a little but was mostly formed to record a series of rock-solid bluegrass albums. The band was called The Bluegrass Album band and consisted of Tony Rice on guitar, Bobby Hicks on fiddle, Doyle Lawson on mandolin, and Todd Phillips on bass. The band recorded six albums.
My first memory of seeing JD Crowe and the New South was at a festival at the Ed Allen’s Campground in Chicahominy, Virginia. JD and the band came out on stage with long-ish hair (but neatly combed and styled) and those shiny polyester shirts we all wore in the 1970s. The thing that stuck with me the most though was that JD’s blue jeans were ironed with a nice crisp crease going down each leg. While he played he would kind of turn a little away from the banjo in a way unlike any others I had seen. That man had style and was playing some of the most solid banjo I’d heard all day- almost traditional and almost newgrass at the same time.
JD only slowed down his touring and playing in the last year or two due to a fall and injury. The last time I saw him play live was somewhere around two years ago. I have a funny story about that and it shows one of the reasons he has been so well loved all these years, not only is he a wonderful musician and bandleader, he is also quite personable and funny! After the show I just mentioned, I went to the lobby with my son so we could get his autograph. We saw him standing there talking to a few people and they were all laughing. We joined the group and saw that people were asking him questions and he was answering them as candidly as possible while signing autographs and people were loving it. When it came our turn, JD looked up as if I were supposed to ask a question, I felt a little uncertainty creep in because I didn’t actually have a question but it seemed like it was expected, so I asked JD how much he practiced these days. I meant it as a serious question and expected to hear that he plays several hours a day and that I should too. I expected him to look at my son and tell him that he should practice a lot too, but that’s not the answer I got. When I asked the question JD stopped and looked at me and said that he didn’t practice at all and if he didn’t have it by now he wasn’t ever going to get it! Everyone in the crowd burst into laughter including JD! He signed our CD and my son’s program and then it was someone elses turn and we left with an autograph and a fun memory of one of the true greats.
To read more about JD Crowe:
|Main Collection – Level 4||ML418.C76 G63 2011||AVAILABLE|
By now I bet you have a hankering to hear some music, so without further ado:
|Recordings-CDs – Level 4||M1630.18.C759 N4 1986||AVAILABLE|
A few album highlights of JD Crowe and the New South are:
Old Home Place: This is THE classic version of this great song. The harmonies in the chorus, the banjo lead, the vocal phrasings, all of those add together to make this the version I and many others will always hear in our heads when we see this song title.
I’m Walkin’: It’s fun and light and I (almost) always love it when an old rock-and-roll song is played as bluegrass.
Nashville Blues: Others have done this song for sure but the sound of JD’s banjo in this one makes it the one I always think about. It’s a great song to listen to and a fun one to play too.
A few album highlights of My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame are:
My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame: I have always loved this song and it’s undefinable genre- is it country? country rock? bluegrass? Who knows what the genre is, but nobody is going to argue about the excellent singing and musicianship in the song.
My Window Faces the South: a fun, fast and bouncy song that always gets stuck in my head!
Railroad Lady: I have tried to figure out what exactly it is about this song that I like so much and I have never been able to answer that, so I just enjoy it and don’t try to analyze why.
|Recordings-CDs – Level 4||M1630.18.C769 M9 2002||AVAILABLE|