JD Crowe passes – no better on the five-string banjo
Another giant passes into the world of the three-finger banjo. JD Crowe died in the early hours of this morning in hospice home care. He was 84 years old.
The Crowe family has not commented on the cause of his death, but we do know that JD suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for the past two years.
Its place in the pantheon of banjo players is certain. Of those who followed Earl Scruggs’ lead, Crowe may have been the first to rise as a follower of the New Style who not only made it his own, but did so with precision and a power that set him apart from the flock. With Sonny Osborne, who died of a stroke earlier this year at age 83, a young JD Crowe gained attention in his first big professional job, playing the banjo with Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys.
Crowe and Osborne became quick friends as young men, who constantly celebrated their play and career achievements, and remained close until Sonny’s death in October. Both entered the bluegrass world as a teenager, working with top professional artists, Sonny starting with Bill Monroe and JD with Jimmy Martin. The two also started their own groups as fellow musicians, each establishing a legacy as banjo players and conductors that is unlikely to be matched.
Born James Dee Crowe in 1937 in Lexington, KY, he had the opportunity as a child to see and hear Flatt & Scruggs regularly. He told me once that his first memories of seeing them showed him climbing onto chairs and running around at a concert his father had taken him to. But soon young JD was watching and listening to the music, and a lifelong fascination with the banjo was brewing. His father once asked Earl if he could teach the aspiring banjoist, although Scruggs differed by saying he was not a teacher.
In fact, Martin first offered Crowe a job in 1954 when he was 17, but stayed in Kentucky to complete his education. He joined Jimmy two years later at age 19 and stayed until 1960, recording many classical pieces with Martin and singing the lower harmony part with Paul Williams singing the tenor at the head of Jimmy. 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 group, The Kentucky Mountain Boys, which performed in the area near his home. Prominent members included future Hall of Fame member Doyle Lawson, as well as Larry Rice. They recorded a pair of now legendary albums, Bluegrass Holidays and The model church, for Lemco Records of Lexington, before changing the band’s name to JD Crowe & The New South in 1971. They released two more albums before setting off hell in bluegrass music with the 1975 project, widely known as of 0044 for its Rounder Records catalog number, although officially titled The New South.
This record featured an edition of the band that changed the sound of music forever. With Tony Rice on guitar and vocals, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and tenor vocals, Crowe on banjo and baritone vocals, Bobby Sloane on bass, and Jerry Douglas on reso guitar, 0044 has announced to the world that a new bluegrass music generation had arrived, with aggressive sound and no prisoners. From the first bars of Old house, any listener knew immediately that there was something new there.
Crowe and Co. had perfected this sound for months before the album, playing six nights a week in Lexington at the Red Slipper Lounge at a Holiday Inn hotel. What was recorded in January 1975 was the result of those many long shows in front of largely sold-out crowds where this new approach was born. The combination of Rice’s Clarence White-inspired rhythm guitar with Crowe’s dynamic and upbeat banjo defined a new sound that remains with us today. The interplay between these two instruments and the way they played them gave bluegrass a new level of sophistication, which Crowe and Rice revisited a few years later as The Bluegrass Album Band.
Over the next 40 years, Crowe competed with the Father of Bluegrass himself for the number of stellar performers he highlighted as members of The New South. Shortly after Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs left, Crowe brought in Keith Whitley on guitar and Gene Johnson on mandolin, both of whom enjoyed enormous success in country music within a few years. Don Rigsby, Phil Leadbetter, Rickey Wasson, Richard Bennett and Ron Stewart are other notable grasses that have worked for JD.
Crowe kept this group active and on tour until 2019, when his COPD forced them to step back from touring. But you would still see him at festivals and shows around Kentucky, and he recorded another album with Rickey Wasson which is due out very soon.
Everyone in bluegrass music loved JD Crowe, and not just for his remarkable banjo playing and long years of service as a recording artist and conductor. His affable, humble and fun-loving personality made him the friend of everyone, and all attempts to shower him with praise for his music have always resulted in postponements and a bit of embarrassment.
But to be clear and risk the heresy, no one has ever played the bluegrass banjo with more passion, inventiveness, or in a more interesting way than he. Two generations of pickers have studied his game, and even those who take the three-fingered style in new directions, like Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka and Noam Pikelny, will readily recognize Crowe as a major influence and undeniable stylist in his own right. . If Earl Scruggs was a machine, JD Crowe was a merry-go-round. His playing was fun, light, and even frivolous at times, all coming from his own distinct personality.
I remember the pleasure he took in catching Ron Stewart’s attention with a surprising lick while Stewart was playing with The New South. If Ron turned his head, Crowe would chuckle and chuckle like a small child. Two master musicians having fun on stage.
He has never been comfortable in his position as an icon in music. I heard him respond the same way to questions about very different licks and phrases… “I just tried to do what matched the song”, and meaning something different each time.
It could be best described by saying that people loved JD Crowe… they really loved him, and much more than his family and close friends feel his loss today.
RIP, JD Crowe.