He was a pioneer when it came to finding new stylistic voices for the banjo, a bandleader who gracefully balanced tradition with progressive instincts and a mentoring figure for an entire generation of Bluegrass artists.
But more than that. J.D. Crowe was our neighbor. The Grammy-winning banjoist and vanguard bluegrass innovator died early on Christmas Eve. He was 84.
Born in Lexington but a resident of Nicholasville over the past several decades. Crowe was a towering influence in the world of Bluegrass music. He learned from the greats, most notably from the three-finger banjo style of Earl Scruggs and a 1950s apprenticeship with Jimmy Martin. All of that was put into practice through his New South bands that helped introduce the world outside of Kentucky to a new generation of players. The short-lived 1975 inaugural New South lineup ignited the careers of three future all-star players: singer/multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, guitarist Tony Rice and dobro artist Jerry Douglas. A later ‘70s-era New South roster gave a boost to Sandy Hook singer Keith Whitley, who would later pilot his own immensely popular country music career until his death in 1989.
J.D. Crowe’s influence on other musicians
But Crowe’s reach went far beyond the artists who regularly played with the legendary musician. Performers like Alison Krauss and Bela Fleck have often and openly reflected on the influence of his music on their careers. Crowe also remained a fan through the years of the artists who directly inspired him.
“Oh, J.D. is one of the greatest,” Scruggs told me in a 2007 interview. “ I’ve known him since he was knee-high to a duck. He knows how the music should sound, so he gets in there and digs it out.”
Following an extended tenure with Martin in his Sunny Mountain Boys band that began in 1956, Crowe formed the Kentucky Mountain Boys with longtime friend Doyle Lawson. The band would become a fixture in such then-popular North Limestone haunts as Martin’s. Their repertoire would generously acknowledge the music Scruggs was making at the time with ally Lester Flatt, but a need for furthering his own instrumental voice would soon consume Crowe.
“Up there at Seventh and Limestone with J.D. I had more fun playing Bluegrass than at any other place or in any other situation,” Lawson told me in a 2009 interview.
“Later on, when we decided to take the music on the road, we realized we couldn’t go out on the circuit and play Flatt & Scruggs and (Bill) Monroe songs. They were still out there. J.D. knew you can’t beat a man at his own game, so we began working on our own styles.”
Crowe’s own Bluegrass vision was encapsulated on the 1975 album “J.D. Crowe and the South,” the only studio document of the band with Skaggs, Rice and Douglas, and then cemented their ensemble ingenuity through a performance residency at what was then the Holiday Inn North on Lexington’s Newtown Pike. The band blurred boundaries of folk, country and Bluegrass while taking on songs by such non-Bluegrass artists as Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson and Rodney Crowell. Compositions by Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons would also find a regular spot in the New South repertoire. A recording of the bluegrass/country instrumental “Fireball” would win Crowe a Grammy in 1983.
J.D. Crowe and retirement
Subsequent versions of the New South would keep the banjoist on the road for over a decade. But by 1988, worn by the demands of the road and frustrated by the artistic hurdles he was finding with his music, Crowe retired. The first time.
“I was just burned out,” Crowe told me in a 2012 interview. “The band wasn’t really what I thought it should have been, given the amount of talent that was there. There was the traveling and all the booking (Crowe booked the band’s concerts at the time). I was tired.”
By 1994, he returned to music and touring full time, releasing the critically acclaimed “Flashback” album. Crowe would remain a prominent voice in Bluegrass until he announced a more lasting retirement in 2012. There would be occasional tours and performances after that, but the extended touring tenure of the New South had come to an end.
Honors would continue to roll in, though — including induction into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky.
Crowe was openly flattered by the latter but not to the point where he expected anyone to address him as Dr. Crowe.
“I keep telling people it took me 60 years to get this. But, no, don’t call me Doctor. Don’t even call me Mister. I’m still J.D.”
This story was originally published December 24, 2021 1:25 PM.