Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Crowe on the Banjo

Marty Godbey’s Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe will be a welcome addition to the library of even the most knowledgeable of bluegrass music fans.  For Marty, who sadly died before the book’s publication, and her husband Frank, the book was a labor of love.  Both were fans of J.D. Crowe’s music long before they began to think about producing the banjo player’s music biography.  The book is filled with details and memories culled from numerous interviews with the musicians who have worked with Crowe for more than half century (and from hours and hours of conversation with Crowe himself), resulting in a clear picture of J.D. Crowe, banjo picker and band leader.  As the book’s subtitle implies, much less attention is given to Crowe’s early life or to life not directly associated with his music.

Crowe, born and raised around Lexington, Kentucky, was only thirteen years old when he decided that he wanted to play the banjo.  That inspiration came in the person of Earl Scruggs, who along with Lester Flatt, often performed on the Kentucky Barn Dance.  Crowe learned by watching Scruggs as often as possible and would soon be playing with local bands and on radio shows himself.  One of those radio performances would lead to a six-year job with Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys that would end in 1962 when Crowe decided to leave the band for a solo career.

Those years with Jimmy Martin were not wasted.  Crowe modeled his own work ethic and style around what he experienced with Martin, resulting in an incredibly tight band filled with musicians capable of producing superb instrumentals and harmony vocals second to no one.  Crowe finally came to national prominence in the 1970s when he formed the New South, a band whose original members were Tony Rice on guitar, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Bobby Sloan on fiddle and bass.  Today, of course, this first version of the New South would be considered an all-star band.

J.D. Crowe, Owensboro, KY, 2009
But it was in 1975, with the release of Rounder 0044 (titled J.D. Crowe & the New South), that the real impact of J.D. Crowe upon bluegrass music was first felt.  The trendsetting album so successfully transferred country, folk, and rock songs into a bluegrass treatment that bluegrass music was changed forever.  The sound was so successful that it even led to a breakthrough into mainstream country music for rising star Keith Whitley, a member of the New South by the late seventies, who so sadly died of alcohol poisoning just as solo success was finally his.

Despite having “retired” on more than one occasion, J.D. Crowe is a fixture of the current bluegrass scene and lucky fans around the country can still enjoy his most recent New South configuration. 

Crowe on the Banjo, which includes some 25 black and white photos and a discography, is filled with the details of J.D. Crowe’s musical evolution from the moment the thirteen-year-old first discovered his love for a banjo, right on through every band that he worked with or put together from that point onward.  It is far from being a personal, or complete J.D. Crowe biography, but it is a first-rate take on the banjo picker’s “music life” that will be much appreciated by Crowe fans.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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