J.D. Crowe passes – none finer on the five string banjo
Another giant passes in the world of three finger banjo. J.D. Crowe died in the early hours of this morning in hospice care at home. He was 84 years of age.
The Crowe family has not commented on his cause of death, but we know that J.D. had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) this past two years.
His place in the pantheon of banjo players is certain. Among those who followed the example of Earl Scruggs, Crowe was perhaps the first to rise as a disciple of the new style who not only made it his own, but did so with a precision and power that set him apart from the herd. Along with Sonny Osborne, who died following a stroke earlier this year at 83, a young J.D. Crowe drew attention in his first major professional job, playing banjo with Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys.
Crowe and Osborne became fast friends as young men, who consistently celebrated each other’s playing and career accomplishments, and remained close until Sonny’s passing in October. Both came into the world of bluegrass as teenagers, working with top professional acts, Sonny starting with Bill Monroe and J.D. with Jimmy Martin. The two also started their own bands as journeyman musicians, each establishing a legacy as banjo players and bandleaders that is not likely to be matched.
Born James Dee Crowe in 1937 in Lexington, KY, he had the opportunity as a boy to see and hear Flatt & Scruggs on a regular basis. He related to me once that his earliest memories of seeing them involved him climbing over chairs and running around at a concert to which his father had taken him. But soon the young J.D. was watching and listening to the music, and a lifetime fascination with the banjo was brewing. His father once asked Earl if he could teach the budding banjoist, though Scruggs deferred saying he wasn’t a teacher.
Martin actually first offered Crowe a job in 1954, when he was 17 years old, but he stayed behind in Kentucky to finish school. He joined Jimmy two years later at 19, and stayed until 1960, recording many classic tracks with Martin, and singing the lower harmony part with Paul Williams singing tenor to Jimmy’s lead. Several banjo tunes cut during this period ended up being included on Big and Country Instrumentals, released in 1967, which cemented Crowe’s place as a leading practitioner of the still new style.
By ’61 he had formed his own band, The Kentucky Mountain Boys, who performed regionally near his home. Prominent members included future Hall of Famer Doyle Lawson, as well as Larry Rice. They recorded a pair of now legendary albums, Bluegrass Holiday and The Model Church, for Lexington’s Lemco Records, before changing the band name to J.D. Crowe & The New South in 1971. They released two more albums before igniting an inferno in bluegrass music with the 1975 project, know widely as 0044 for its Rounder Records catalog number, though officially titled The New South.
This record featured an edition of the band that changed the sound of the music forever. With Tony Rice on guitar and lead vocal, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and tenor vocal, Crowe on banjo and baritone vocal, Bobby Sloane on bass, and Jerry Douglas on reso-guitar, 0044 announced to the world that a new generation of bluegrass music had arrived, with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners sound. From the first few measure of Old Home Place, any listener knew right away that here was something new.
Crowe and Co. had been honing this sound for months in advance of the album, playing six nights a week in Lexington at The Red Slipper Lounge at a Holiday Inn hotel. What was recorded in January of ’75 was the result of those many long shows before largely sold out crowds where this new approach was born. The combination of Rice’s Clarence White-inspired rhythm guitar with Crowe’s driving and dynamic banjo defined a novel sound that remains with us today. The interaction between those two instruments the way these two played them gave bluegrass a new level of sophistication, which Crowe and Rice revisited some years later as The Bluegrass Album Band.
Over the next 40 years, Crowe rivaled the Father of Bluegrass himself with the number of stellar artists he brought to prominence as members of The New South. Not long after the departure of Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs, Crowe brought in Keith Whitley on guitar, and Gene Johnson on mandolin, both of whom saw huge success in country music in a few years’ time. Other noted grassers who worked for J.D. would include Don Rigsby, Phil Leadbetter, Rickey Wasson, Richard Bennett, and Ron Stewart.
Crowe kept this band active and touring until 2019 when his COPD required him to retire from touring. But you would still see him at festivals and shows around Kentucky, and he recorded yet another album with Rickey Wasson which is set for release quite soon.
Everyone in bluegrass music was fond of J.D. Crowe, and not only for his remarkable banjo playing and long service as a recording artist and bandleader. His affable, humble, and fun-loving personality made him everyone’s friend, and any attempts to shower him with praise for his music were always met with deferrals and a bit of embarrassment.
But to be plain, and risk heresy, no one every played bluegrass banjo more passionately, more inventively, or more interestingly than he did. Two generations of pickers have studied his playing, and even those who are taking the three finger style in new directions, like Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Noam Pikelny, will readily acknowledge Crowe as a major influence and an unmistakable stylist in his own right. If Earl Scruggs was a machine, J.D. Crowe was a carnival ride. His playing was fun, lighthearted, and even frivolous at times, all coming from his own distinct personality.
I can recall the delight he took in catching Ron Stewart’s attention with a surprising lick while Stewart was on fiddle with The New South. If Ron turned his head, Crowe would chuckle and giggle like a small child. Two master musicians having fun on stage.
He was never comfortable in his position as an icon in the music. I have heard him answer questions about vastly different licks and phrases the same way… “I just tried to do what fit the song,” and meaning something else in each instance.
It might be best described by saying that people loved J.D. Crowe… they truly loved him, and many more than his family and close friends feel his loss today.
R.I.P., J.D. Crowe.