J.D. Crowe – The New South will rise again
Crowe still remembers how thrilled he was to play with Martin, then one of the top three acts in the bluegrass business (along with Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs). “You always dream of doing something like this,” he says, “but never think it’ll happen.”
He admits, though, that he was nervous at first about the uncertainties of a career as a musician. “I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do with my life.” But a short time on the road with Martin, and a little taste of success, convinced him that, “You know, this isn’t such a bad way to make a living.” You can hear Crowe’s flawless Scruggs-style banjo and resonant baritone vocals on such classic Martin recordings as “You Don’t Know My Mind” and “Hold Whatcha Got”.
He remained with Martin for six years, traveling around the country and in 1958 joining the Louisiana Hayride, then the South’s second most popular radio showcase after the Grand Ole Opry. The Hayride, broadcast out of Shreveport’s KWKH, had helped launch the careers of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn, George Jones and Elvis Presley, a regular on the show from 1954 to 1956. Crowe fondly recalls appearing on the Hayride alongside such performers as Johnny Horton (who in 1959 had the giant pop and country hit “Battle Of New Orleans”), ill-fated country-rockabilly star Bob Luman, and “Country” Johnny Mathis (not to be confused with the pop crooner), as well as “lots of fine local talent.”
Crowe grew weary of the road and returned home in 1962. He spent most of the ’60s playing part-time around Lexington, forming the Kentucky Mountain Boys with singer-guitarist Harley “Red” Allen and mandolin player Doyle Lawson. They recorded three albums for the Lemco label before splitting up in the early ’70s when Lawson left to join the Country Gentlemen. Around this time, Crowe also began experimenting with a new electric bluegrass sound that drew heavily on country-rock. A cavalcade of young musicians started coming down to Lexington to play with him. Among them were two fast pickin’ brothers from North Carolina, Larry and Tony Rice.
His new band, renamed J.D. Crowe & the New South, played an explosive, freewheelin’ brand of bluegrass on both acoustic and electric instruments. In 1975, the group’s self-titled debut on the Rounder label caused a stir, and a sensation, in the bluegrass world. The album mixed an expansive menu of bluegrass, country and rock songs with stunning musicianship to create a unique and contemporary sound within a traditional bluegrass context.
With its stellar lineup of Crowe and young guns Tony Rice (guitar and lead vocals), Bobby Slone (bass), Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Ricky Skaggs (fiddle, mandolin and vocals), the album became one of the most influential bluegrass recordings ever. Along with the Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene and New Grass Revival, Crowe & the New South helped pave the way for the progressive bluegrass and “newgrass” movements of the next two decades. In an interview with Kentucky Living magazine, Skaggs said the first New South album “had a lot of influence on kids that grew up during that time because, for a whole new generation, that was their Flatt & Scruggs and Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, like the real ones were for me and my generation.”
Although most of the original band soon departed (Skaggs and Douglas to form the short-lived Boone Creek, Rice to join David Grisman’s group), the New South endured and prospered despite frequent personnel changes. The most important new member, Keith Whitley, joined in 1979 as guitarist and lead singer, and helped move the group toward a more hard-country sound. Whitley went on to a brief career as a country recording artist with RCA before his tragic alcohol-related death in 1989 at the age of 33.
Crowe says he immediately recognized the talent in this new generation of musicians. “I first heard Ricky and Keith when they were with Ralph [Stanley]. They were still in high school then. I remember thinking, ‘They’re gonna be a couple of pretty good pickers.'” And his young proteges are quick to return the compliment. Skaggs has called Crowe “one of the best banjo players around for that real hard-driving bluegrass stuff,” while Tony Rice has been quoted as saying that he “learned general musicianship from J.D. Crowe more so than any one person.”
In 1980, Crowe joined with some old friends including Doyle Lawson, Tony Rice, Bobby Hicks and Todd Phillips to make a more traditional recording, called simply The Bluegrass Album. That effort proved so popular that six more albums, with varying lineups, followed. Crowe, though, doesn’t foresee any more projects with what became known as the Bluegrass Album Band. “We done what we set out to do,” he says. “Well, we really didn’t set out to do anything. We just wanted to pay tribute to the people we learned from. Without trying to sound like them. We just tried to sound as good as we could ourselves.” In 1988, Crowe again dropped off the road and returned to Lexington.
For now, Crowe intends to keep playing and keep moving bluegrass forward. After a quiet holiday season at home with his wife Sheryl and children David, a college student at Eastern Kentucky, and Stacey, a high school student, he’ll be heading back out on the road. He’s already planning the next New South album and is working on a project that revisits some of Whitley’s ’80s recordings.
Although he doesn’t foresee any huge changes coming on in bluegrass, he feels some change is necessary even for traditional music. “You can’t stay in one spot,” he says. A modest, soft-spoken man, Crowe is uncomfortable discussing his place in bluegrass history. “I guess when you look back and trace the history a bit, we did some important things,” he says.
He’s equally modest about his hopes for the future: “staying healthy, enjoying doing what I do, making some more good CDs.” And don’t worry about Crowe retiring again anytime soon. He already has some West Coast dates lined up for the year 2000.
Joel Roberts lives in the country music mecca of Brooklyn, New York.