Album of the Week #21 – J.D. Crowe’s Blackjack (Ramblin’ Boy)

Ramblin' Boy - J.D. Crowe & The Kentucky Mountain BoysIn light of the sad but understandable news that bluegrass visionary J.D. Crowe is going to be retiring at the end of this year, this week’s Album of the Week is going to be an often overlooked gem from the master. One of his earliest albums, Blackjack (Ramblin’ Boy) is definitely worth digging out for a careful listen.

A former member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, J.D. hit the national stage at a young age. One of the first banjo players to expand the creativity of Earl Scruggs, Crowe really began to come into his own once he became his own boss. J.D. Crowe & The Kentucky Mountain Boys are often overshadowed by his next endeavor, The New South. This is a shame, for the Kentucky Mountain Boys laid the foundation on which The New South was built.

Playing primarily around the Lexington, KY area, The Kentucky Mountain Boys featured (as is common with Crowe) a number of future bluegrass legends. The New South helped establish the careers of Tony Rice, Keith Whitley, and Ricky Skaggs; The Kentucky Mountain Boys did the same with such bluegrass heavyweights as Doyle Lawson and Red Allen.

Ramblin’ Boy was the last LP by J.D. Crowe & The Kentucky Mountain Boys. Doyle Lawson would leave to join The Country Gentlemen shortly after, being replaced by none other than Tony Rice. When it was released in 1971, Bluegrass Unlimited’s Walter V. Saunders remarked…

“…all indications are that ’71 will be a banner year for bluegrass record releases; perhaps the biggest ever, and Crowe’s latest effort will surely rank as one of its more memorable albums.”

Later re-released under the name Blackjack, Ramblin’ Boy started the ball rolling for the monumental success of J.D. Crowe & The New South. At this time, J.D. Crowe & The Kentucky Mountain Boys featured J.D. on banjo, Doyle Lawson on guitar, Larry Rice on mandolin, and Bobby Slone on bass.

Born To Be With You opens up Ramblin’ Boy and would eventually become a New South standard. The slap of Bobby Slone’s bass gets this track off to a rousing start. The trio of Lawson, Rice, and Crowe is solid throughout the entire song, and sets the stage for the rest of the album. This now classic, written by Don Robertson, still retains its uniqueness: it has no distinct chorus; it is just several verses that end with the same line. Even today, it sounds fresh.

The powerful trio of Lawson, Rice, and Crowe is going strong on Sin City. Another Crowe standard, the Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman song got its first bluegrass makeover by J.D. Crowe & The Kentucky Mountain Boys.

Sin City is a very deep song about its namesake (Las Vegas). Many of you may be familiar with J.D. Crowe & The New South’s version of Sin City featuring Keith Whitley, or any of the live New South recordings featuring Tony Rice. Make sure you don’t miss the original J.D. Crowe & The Kentucky Mountain Boys version. It is definitely worth the time.

Ramblin’ Boy also features a trio of Flatt & Scruggs originals: Somehow Tonight, Bouquet In Heaven, and I’ll Stay Around. This should not be surprising at all. As a thirteen year old kid, Crowe sat front and center every Saturday night to watch Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys at the Kentucky Barn Dance. Scruggs and his “fancy banjo” became the spark that started Crowe’s fiery passion for learning the five.

Somehow Tonight will make you nod your head and pat your foot. J.D. Crowe has become known for his impeccable timing, and this track shows how that reputation developed. Crowe’s ability to play impressively without rushing or dragging is remarkable. The powerful chop of Rice’s mandolin is like a metronome, complimenting Crowe’s banjo very nicely. It’s fun to compare this recording with The Bluegrass Album Band’s recording, which also features Doyle Lawson and J.D. Crowe. Draw your own conclusions about which is more appealing.

Although a Flatt & Scruggs’ song, I’ll Stay Around has also become associated with J.D. Crowe. A young Doyle Lawson delivers some very powerful lead vocals. Doyle is singing his heart out, and makes it sound effortless. Also a former Sunny Mountain Boy, there was no question that Doyle was on his way to becoming as big of an icon in this industry as the same caliber as his boss and dear friend, J.D.

Lawson co-wrote two of the songs on the album. He and bluegrass songwriting legend, Pete Goble, teamed up on Please Search Your Heart. Pete Goble co-wrote many songs which Lawson would later help become hits: She’s Walking Through My Memory, Poet With Wings, Joe’s Last Train, Julianne (just to name a few). This heartbreaker of a tune will bring a tear to your eye. J.D. and Doyle also recorded this one as members of The Bluegrass Album Band on California Connection. The Ramblin’ Boy version puts the spotlight on Lawson whereas the Album Band’s rendition turns the songs into a duet with Tony Rice. This is another one where comparing the two tracks can be fun.

Blackjack - J.D. Crowe

Doyle also helped J.D. compose what would become the album’s eventual title track. Originally released in 1971 on Lemco Records as Ramblin’ Boy, this LP would later be released in 1979 under the name we all now know it by: Blackjack, a lightning fast instrumental that puts Crowe front and center. This barnburner of a tune showcases why J.D. will always be revered as one of the greatest banjo players of all time. He is tearing through this song with such fervor, that it does nothing but captivate the listener. If they remake Bonnie & Clyde (which I have heard is in the works), and they choose not to make Foggy Mountain Breakdown the “chase song,” I vote for Blackjack as the Barrow gang’s next getaway soundtrack.

To me, this album shows a balance similar to that of Crowe’s style. One reason his banjo-playing is known the world over is due to his careful blending of creativity and tradition. He knew how to perfectly push the envelope without going too far into left field. That is a fine line, and Crowe has always right where it lies. This balance has kept his music fresh and relevant for the past fifty-six years.

This is also why Alison Krauss says she digs out Rounder 0044 when she needs inspiration, and why pickers keep pictures of J.D.’s right hand in their instrument cases. He knows how to do his own thing without disrespecting tradition, which is something I think most musicians strive to accomplish.

This balance is perfectly represented on Blackjack. Dave Freeman of County Sales and Rebel Records seems to agree…

“This is one of the landmark records in bluegrass, a well-paced collection of both traditional and contemporary songs done in a dynamic, straight-ahead fashion, and featuring smooth trios which have become one of the trademarks of Crowe’s bands.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Ramblin’ Boy was re-released as Blackjack on Rebel Records (REB-CD-1583), and can be purchased through County Sales or the Classic Country Connection. It is also available as a digital download through iTunes and Amazon MP3.

Make sure you get a copy of this bluegrass classic.

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.