Crowe Ready to Roost

With about a half dozen shows left before he retires, one of the best banjo players to ever slide on the finger picks is too busy looking forward to look back on his bluegrass career.

“I’m going to play golf. I’m going to fish,” J.D. Crowe said in an interview with Bluegrass Today between sets Saturday at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. “I’m going to go to car shows. They’re always on weekends and I was always on the road.”

J.D., who turns 75 on Aug. 27, announced earlier in the year that this would be his last season touring with his band, J.D. Crowe and The New South. He’ll be going out on top.

“He’s not tired of playing the banjo. He’s not tired of the music,” said Rickey Wasson, his longtime sideman and lead vocalist in the band. “He’s just tired of traveling.”

As good as he is with the five-string – Ricky introduced him as “the finest banjo player living today” – J.D. is quick to acknowledge that a little luck made the difference between his hall-of-fame-level banjo career and being an anonymous electric guitar player in country bands.

The first bit of luck was J.D.’s decision to attend a show in Kentucky in 1949 at which Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were unannounced guests. J.D. was so taken with Earl’s picking style that he knew he had to play the banjo.

The second lightning strike came a few years later. J.D., attending a radio show in Lexington, Ky., was invited to “pick one” with the band. Listening in his car that night was a band leader in need of a banjo man – Jimmy Martin.

“He, of all people, heard me, and he happened to be looking for a banjo player,” J.D. said, a bit of incredulity still detectable in his voice more than half-a-century later.

Of course, it took more than luck to make J.D. one of the best in bluegrass. If he wasn’t good that night Jimmy Martin tuned in, nothing else would have mattered.

He’s been better than good ever since. And he’s been able to surround himself with great talent throughout his long ride with the Kentucky Mountain Boys and The New South. The list reads like a Who’s Who of Bluegrass: Doyle Lawson, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Keith Whitley, Ron Stewart and countless others.

J.D. continued that trend Saturday at Gettysburg. When mandolinist Dwight McCall was a late scratch, J.D. merely enlisted one of the best fiddle players on the circuit, Michael Cleveland, to stand in. Dwight’s absence gave the Gettysburg attendees another treat, too. J.D. added his baritone, raspy but in tune, to the harmony mix.

“Ain’t nobody going to fill them shoes,” Ricky said after the band’s set, in which J.D.’s banjo rang loud and clear.

The rest of the band will try to fill those shoes, though, soldiering on with a new name, American Drive, and a new project on the Rural Rhythm Records label that should be ready in time for IBMA next month. A song Dwight wrote, Long Haul Truckin’ Man, is already available as a single.

The band was, understandably, rattled by J.D.’s retirement announcement, but he was their biggest cheerleader and motivator.

“They was all upset,” J.D. said. “I said, ‘Hey, get your ass out there and get it. Get yourselves a good banjo player and go for it.’”

The retirement announcement surprised a lot of folks, but it was actually a long time coming, and not related to last year’s broken arm that sidelined J.D. for months.

“I’ve been thinking about it for about three years,” he said. “I made myself a promise that if I had good health and I lived to 75, I was hanging it up. I’ll miss it, that’s natural. But I’ve got a lot of things I still want to do while I’ve still got my health.”

He’ll still pick a bit, maybe eight to 10 shows a year, some with American Drive, some with Longview, and a few with old buddies Paul Williams and Doyle Lawson.

“We love to pick together,” J.D. said. “We have so much fun, and it’s so easy to play because we’ve all worked together. You might lose your edge a little bit, but you don’t forget. You never forget.”

J.D. paused to sign one last copy of one of the New South’s early recordings, Bluegrass Evolution, which features a youthful J.D. on the cover with reddish-blond hair. “I’ve never been that young,” he chuckled, then scribbled one word before signing his name – “Thanks.”

No, thank you, J.D. Crowe.

We’ll never forget either.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.