Bluegrass Legend J.D. Crowe
by Derek Halsey
In 1956, a 15 year old J.D. Crowe came out of Lexington, Kentucky and joined the legendary Jimmy Martin’s band and went on to become one of the top pickers to ever play a banjo. To this day he is regarded as one of the true stylists of the instrument and still plays about 40 dates a year. By the early 1970s, J.D. had been on his own for quite a while when he formed a band called The New South. The alumni of that band became a treasure trove of future great artists. Keith Whitley came out of a configuration of that band, for instance. But it was the 1975 version of The New South that everyone regards as the best and the most groundbreaking. With Tony Rice on guitar, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Bobby Slone on bass and Jerry Douglas on Dobro, the group backed up J.D. on that now legendary album known as "Rounder 44". J.D. had an open mind about bluegrass music and as a result they tried different things like playing Gordon Lightfoot songs -- and even a Fats Dominosong -- in the modern bluegrass style. And the first song from that album, "The Old Home Place," became an instant classic.
Even though he is one of the best banjo players in the world, his concerts are a showcase of good music, good vocal harmonies and not just about his picking abilities. He cares about the overall sound of the music more than worrying about showing off on his banjo. Says Dobro great Jerry Douglas about JD, " I have never worked with anyone I respected more than J.D. Crowe. He's one of the nicest individuals you could ever meet, besides being one of the two greatest banjo players to ever draw a breath." J.D. does not mind Earl Scruggs being put ahead of him on the banjo totem pole. Says J.D. about Earl, "He's the reason why I'm playing this instrument." In this exclusive interview for GRITZ magazine, J.D. tells his story.
Your band The New South had a lineup in the early 1970s that became legendary. It seemed to come together when Larry and Tony Rice joined up. When did all that start to happen?
1971. Tony came in later, Larry came in first. Bobby Slone, my bass player, knew both of them when they were kids because Bobby lived out there in California. They had a little group out there and Bobby knew them and they knew Bobby. I was needing a mandolin player so he told me about Larry and I said to call him and see if he was interested in coming up and playing, you know. So, he did and he came in and he didn’t have much choice. He wasn’t doing nothing out there but starving to death. He barely got in and when he got here he didn’t have enough money to pay the tolls, he had to use the back roads. And Tony was playing with the Bluegrass Alliance.
Did you worry about their sound knowing they were coming out of California?
Well, Tony was actually born in Carolina, or Virginia, really. They moved to California when they were just kids. So, no, not after I heard them, no. Tony was very good. He needed to learn a lot but he was still good. He just didn’t have it all refined yet. Tony wasn’t even but 19 or 20 when he joined me.
So you had Tony Rice,. How did you bring in Ricky Skaggs?
We needed a tenor singer and I had seen Ricky and Keith Whitley when they first went to play with Ralph Stanley and I knew Ricky had worked with the Country Gentlemen for a while. But he had quit the Country Gentlemen and he was somewhere up in D.C.in the Virginia area working a regular job and I called him and he was interested in doing it. So, he came down and joined us and Jerry Douglas was about ready to quit the Gentlemen and he did that record with us, that old 44, but he was still with the Gentlemen when he did that. We just used him on the session and then he left and I hired him. And the rest, as they say, is history.
How did the legendary album known as Rounder 44, come together?
We were playing a festival and (Rounder) was there and, actually, they approached me about doing an instrumental album. Meanwhile, I had Ricky, Tony, Bobby and Jerry Douglas in the band at the time and I said, ‘Well, we could do an instrumental album, but I’d rather not. I’d rather do a regular album with songs," that type of album. So, that’s what we did.
But here you are with a band full of young fellers, right?
Oh yeah, yes sir. It didn’t matter, as long as they could pick. I knew that they had a lot of fresh ideas. They were hungry, they wanted to play, they were interested in playing, not just goofing around. That’s a good album. It changed, kind of, the way a lot of them thought about music, about bluegrass. That you don’t have to sound like everybody else. But a lot of younger folks think that we started that stuff, but we didn’t. They need to go back and research where we got ours from, which would be Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. That goes without saying. There is where it started. We knew we couldn’t sound like them exactly because they had already played it the best that it was going to be played. We had to do something that we could do. We’d try and get it in context with that, the feeling of the music, timing, the tones and everything.
Did anyone in your family play any instruments when you were growing up, J.D.?
I had an uncle that played guitar and sang. Never professional, just around the house. And he could pick a little two-finger style banjer. He could tune it, you know, that type of thing.
Would he play it in the old clawhammer style?
No, he just played it with his index finger and thumb. He knew a few chords and that kind of stuff.
Did you ever see any musicians playing live when you were a kid that got your attention?
Yeah, that’s how I started playing the banjer. Flatt and Scruggs. It was probably about 1949-1950, in Lexington, right here where I live. My parents took me. They always went to those shows. The Kentucky Mountain Barn Dance is what they called it back then. And they would bring in a main act, like an Opry act, every Saturday night plus the locals, you know. It was broadcast about a half hour locally. But, it was a happening every Saturday night and was that way for a few years. Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Pee Wee King, The Maddox Brothers and Rose, they were big artists back then.
What was it like to learn the banjo back then? Did you have a lot of help?
Well, now they have all this technology where you can slow stuff down and it doesn’t change key. They have machines that will do that. I wish I had something like that when I was learning. Hell, I didn’t have nothing. I had 78 records that you had to pick up the arm and set it back and forth on it to try and learn it. And then just watch, like I said, go see live shows, and that’s it. You didn’t have videos and tablature and all that stuff. I learned without any of that. But I was fortunate enough to be around good pickers that I learned a lot from, just watching.
Seeing Flatt and Scruggs play in person obviously must have turned your head. I heard you say once that you would practice the Scruggs style three-finger roll on your desk at school to get it down. Is that true?
Yeah, I’d sit around and do that. Like I said, I’d go to the shows every Saturday night and they were there. And they had a 15-minute radio program every Saturday morning and I would go down to the studio and watch them. They would practice for about two hours and then do the radio show and I’d be setting right there in the studio watching them close up. That’s how I got started.
I heard Dobro great Josh Graves also talk about working his fingers on the table to learn that Scruggs three-finger roll.
Well see, I first met Josh when he was with Esco Hankins. They were on that Barn Dance. They came from Knoxville and they came up and were hired for the show so they moved up here to Lexington, so Josh was playing with Esco. In fact, Esco became the host of the show. Josh can tell you about the time that Earl Scruggs was playing in Lexington and Josh was with Esco Hankins when Lester and Earl came there and Josh was trying to learn that roll of Earl’s and adapt it to the Dobro. So, Earl was trying to show him and I would be backstage there and I’d be watching. Josh and I were talking and he said, "I think he was trying to show both of us." But I was a little too young to comprehend what he was doing. I wish I had been a little farther advanced or I wish I would have had a video camera. But they didn’t have anything like that back then.
You are known for making a name for yourself when you played with Jimmy Martin in 1956, but whom did you play with before then?
Mac Wiseman. Back then, when I was a kid and learning, I worked with Esco Hankins. It was kind of a country band, though, but they had a couple of guys in there that played a little ‘grass. I was in school and what happened was that they had a talent contest on the radio and I went up and entered it and won it. Then Esco asked my parents if he could take me on some shows. So, I started doing that.
Were you nervous?
Of course. But I got over it. But Josh wasn’t with them then, he had left. Josh, I think, joined Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper after that.
So how did you get the attention of Jimmy Martin?
He heard me on the radio show. He was going through Lexington on the way to Ohio and he happened to be listening to the radio station and he heard me and he called the station. He was hunting for a banjer player. He came to my house later and talked to my Mom and Dad and I went out with him when I was out of school. I think I was probably 15. He was going to Ohio, up there in Middletown, at a radio station up there that had a live show about two hours a day. 12 to 2, I think. WPFB. The host was Smoky Ward. I stayed up there for a couple of months and did the show.
When you look at some of those Jimmy Martin albums on the Decca label from that period, with songs like "You Don’t Know My Mind", Chubby Wise and Benny Martin were on those albums with you. Am I right about that?
Yeah, that’s me on those. It was great. All of those guys were professionals that I had listened to while I was at home. I’d hear them on the radio and the Opry.
What did you learn from playing with Jimmy Martin?
The thing about him is he taught timing, what it meant, playing melody, playing with feeling, the whole bit like that, which he knew. I was with him five years. I joined him in ’56, and then stayed until ’61.
Where did you go after that?
I came back home. I played in clubs around here three or four times a week. I just got off the road. I got tired of it. I worked at a farm implement store.
So when did you decide to get your own band together, the Kentucky Mountain Boys?
I really didn’t. It just fell into place. We were playing five nights a week at the Holiday Inn. We were one of the first string bands to ever go into a place like that.
How did the great Doyle Lawson hook up with you and become part of your band?
He was living in Louisville, working at a service station down there, and I had a good friend of mine that used to come up from Louisville all the time and he kept telling me about this guy that was playing banjer with Jimmy Martin. I think he joined him right after I left but he didn’t stay too long, I think a couple of months, and it was Doyle. Of course, I hadn’t heard of him, I knew that he had played, but I didn’t know him and never heard him play. Finally my friend got Doyle to come up one night with him and that’s how I met Doyle. He got up and sat in and the rest is history.
I heard one time that you were on the Dick Cavett Show back in the late 1960s, early '70s. Is that true?
Yeah, we had a friend of ours from New York that was a promotions man and he knew people. He knew how to pull strings, and he got us on the Dick Cavett Show. It was great. It was exciting. The crowd was just unbelievable. They hadn’t heard anything like that. Even the orchestra, the band, got up and gave us a standing ovation. It was all new to them. I know we did the show there and then had to drive to Georgia and we barely made it, too. We pulled in about an hour before the show.
You knew Roger Miller a little bit back then, did you not?
Yeah, he was a wild man. He had just quit working at this hotel and Ray Price had just recorded a song of his that was a big hit and he was just on cloud nine. Roger and Paul Williams, who was working with Jimmy Martin at the time, were good friends. We were in Nashville doing a session and I guess that Paul had called him and invited him over to the hotel. But we had been up late and we were still half in bed and we heard a knock on the door and Paul got up and answered it and it was Roger. He ran into the room and jumped straight up on the bed with both feet. Him and Paul would play tricks on each other like that all the time. Roger was a different writer, but he wrote some good country stuff.
Not only did you record Rounder 44 back in the '70s, but you recorded some live albums during that time as well. One was recorded in Japan. Did they treat you good in Japan?
Oh yeah, I hated to come back to the States. The first show we did after we got back from Japan was what I call, "sucked." I mean, it was so dead compared with those people. You had thought we were Elvis. We were over there ten days.
Back then did you have any idea that Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice would go on to do what they have done with their careers?
Well, no. But I knew that they would be going on to play somewhere. I knew that Ricky wanted to do his own thing because he told me that. I said, "Well, that’s fine." He mentioned to me that he had started Boone Creek with him and Jerry. And then that didn’t last too long and he called me one day and was talking to me about what I thought about him joining with Emmylou Harris because he knew Emmylou back in D.C. before she ever made a big hit. So, she had already made a big splash for a few years and he was invited to join her band and he called me and asked me what I thought about it and I told him, "I think I would, if you want to learn about the business. That’s a good place to do it.."
When Tony Rice was in the band you guys were doing some Gordon Lightfoot songs. You seemed to have an open mind about that.
Oh yeah, we didn’t do things like everybody else. We tried to do things that were a little different. Songs that hadn’t been done, songs that we could adapt over to how we could do them. Tony had mentioned Gordon Lightfoot, and then I got to listening to him.
And a lot of Lightfoot songs seem easily transferable to bluegrass.
Some of them are, not all of them. I guess we were one of the first groups to start doing country rock material with bluegrass. In fact, I know we were.
John Hartford wrote the liner notes for the Rounder 44 album. When did you first meet John?
Oh gosh, I don’t really remember to tell you the truth. I know he came into the Holiday Inn a couple of times when we were playing there. He’d stop in when he was going through town. John used to listen to us when we were on the Louisiana Hayride with Jimmy Martin. We were down there about two years. He would sit, he said, and listen to us because you could pick the station up like it was WSM. Clear channel, 100,000 watts. It was live and it was broadcast every Saturday night.
There were a lot of famous musicians to come out of that Louisiana Hayride.
You got that right. Everybody that’s been on the Opry has been on the Hayride. It was kind of a stepping stone. Elvis and Hank Williams were all gone before we got down there in ’58. I met Johnny Horton. He had his big hits when we were down there, "Battle of New Orleans," "North To Alaska." We did a lot of package shows with him.
John said in those liner notes that your timing was as good as any heartbeat.
That comes from experience and listening. I learned that by listening. Paying attention. Without timing you have no music. We rehearsed them a lot on that, a lot of the guys. That and learning the phrasing together when you are doing a trio, singing.
Did you pick much with John in his later years?
We would jam a little bit. John would come out and he always wanted to play the fiddle. John was the kind of guy that he could be the headline act, but if we went on before he did he would come out and play fiddle with us. Yes sir. He loved it, buddy. He was a good fella. I really liked John.
For a long time you had that five nights a week steady gig at the Holiday Inn in Lexington and a lot of folks came in there to see you play and to jam with you. Plus, you got to sleep in your own bed at night after the gig.
That’s right. We used to get all kinds of pickers come in there. Every weekend there was always somebody there. A lot of country artist would stop in. Hank Williams, Jr., Faron Young, Stephen Stills, Maria Muldaur, Chris Hillman, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Don McClean, I mean just a bunch. Yeah, we got ‘em up to sing some. We used to have a ball down there. It was a hard gig but it was a good gig. We had a nice place to play.
When did you meet Bill Monroe?
I knew Bill, good Lord, since the late ‘50s.
What did Bill think about your playing?
I don’t know what he thought about anybody’s. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. If he liked you he would be talking to you and messing with you all the time. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t say anything. He was one of a kind, now.
You seem to throw a little bit of the blues into your playing.
Yep, well, because I have listened to all kinds of music. I used to listen to blues a lot. I listened to rock and roll, a lot of blues, still do.
What is it about bluegrass bands in that they change the personnel so often?
Well, no band stays together hardly. Nobody is going to stay together for more than four or five years, and that’s it. For a lot of reasons. Can’t get along, or they get fired for different reasons, or they will play with somebody else and then get tired of that, and then they will play there for a while and then go play somewhere else. You know, they think the grass looks greener sometimes and it doesn’t always work out.
You have your own bluegrass festival now that happens every fall. When and where is it?
It’s Labor Day weekend. Its in Wilmore, Kentucky about ten minutes from my house.
What would you tell someone who was thinking about trying to make a living playing music?
It’s up to them, really. But if you are going to do it, do it as a business. Don’t give it away. That’s what most of these acts have done through the years, they have given it away. Never do that. Earl Scruggs is still making money. He is smart at it. He knows how to make a dollar, him and his wife. I remember one thing Earl told me one time. We were talking and he said, "JD, the trouble with this music is everybody plays too cheap." I have never forgot that, and how right he was.