Crowe on the Banjo

From receiving his first banjo as a Christmas present at the age of 13 to his IBMA Hall of Fame Induction in 2003, very few people have made as big an impact on a musical genre as J.D. Crowe has had on bluegrass. The recent book Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe, does an admirable job of telling his musical story.

Authored by the late Marty Godbey, this ten chapter tome covers Crowe’s illustrious career, including a wealth of comments and interviews with his fellow artists as well as personal discussions with J.D., over the course of 193 pages.

This book covers it all. It begins with the story of Crowe’s introduction to the five string banjo at a Flatt & Scruggs performance, and continues until arriving at the present day New South. Much of the book retells stories from Crowe’s time on the road with a variety of bluegrass bands. Anecdotes from his years with Jimmy Martin lead into descriptions of each version of J.D.’s own bands, the Kentucky Mountain Boys and the New South. Mixed within are personal stories from Crowe and other musicians with whom he has played throughout the years, as well as little-known tidbits about Crowe’s musical resume – such as the fact that he was a Blue Grass Boy for one show in 1965.

Godbey goes into great detail about several musicians who have worked with Crowe over the decades, and numerous other musicians are mentioned. She profiles these artists, giving their musical backgrounds along with their connection to Crowe. It’s interesting to see just how many bluegrass and country musicians have learned from or been influenced by him over his career.

This book depicts Crowe as somewhat of a preservationist of bluegrass traditions, as his work with the Bluegrass Album Band exhibits. With a keen ear and fondness for multiple musical styles, his contributions to the genre have also brought the music to a new plane.

Like many biographies, some of the best parts of Crowe on the Banjo are the personal accounts. Not only does Godbey examine particular recordings and concerts, but she also makes use of humorous tales from both Crowe and other musicians. It is easy to envision the stories she includes, like the time Jimmy Martin and J.D. Crowe attended an Elvis concert when the two lived in Detroit. The author also includes several stories about what life on the road is like for a member of the New South. As it turns out, Crowe is a bit of a trickster – even carrying an extra suitcase filled with gags on occasion.

Throughout the years, members of Crowe’s band have always played practical jokes on each other as well as other musicians whom they have known. For instance, while traveling one night shortly after the passing of Lester Flatt, as Crowe and Co. passed Earl Scruggs’s bus, Keith Whitley promptly began performing an imitation of Flatt across the CB radio: “Earl… I’m back.”

Previous members have also found their shoes filled with wet paper towels, and now and then interesting items have made their way inside of instruments while on the road; most notably, toy cars inside of Phil Leadbetter’s dobro. Also, a favorite prank among members seems to be loading each other’s cigarettes.

Godbey first saw Crowe perform on Easter weekend in 1968 when she and her husband made their first overnight trip to see a concert. Before passing away unexpectedly last year, she closely followed Crowe’s career and collaborated with him to produce this captivating volume. Frank Godbey, Marty’s widower, should also be commended for his work in seeing this text through to completion, as Crowe on the Banjo was still in the production stage at the Illinois Press when Marty passed.

Having taken part in a musical genre for longer than the style itself has been set apart from other forms of music – bluegrass diverged from country music at a later time – Crowe remains one of the most influential musicians in the field. He has released at least 13 albums and performed on many others, most notably the Bluegrass Album Band recordings.

J.D. Crowe and the New South still play many dates each year, even performing outside the United States on occasion. As this book illustrates, Crowe is truly a master of his craft. Crowe on the Banjo, the first biography of this talented musician, is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in the musical career of J.D. Crowe.

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About the Author

John Curtis Goad

John Goad is a graduate of the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program, with a Masters degree in both History and Appalachian Studies from ETSU.