Although I was able to see most of the 1990s and 2000s versions of J.D. Crowe & the New South, I never got the chance to attend a performance by what many people consider the classic lineups of the New South – the 1970s groups featuring first Tony Rice and then Keith Whitley. Although the albums made by Crowe and his bands from that time are now close to four decades old, they are still fresh, exciting, and just as good as they were when they were released.
This past Saturday night (December 20), a group of about 150 bluegrass fans got the chance to hear a little bit of faux Crowe when a recreation of the 1970s New South bands headed up by Josh Williams and Don Rigsby took the stage at Grayson, KY’s Simply the Best Sports Bar and Grill. This was the second of a two-night run for the Tribute Band (the first was at Nashville’s Station Inn on Friday), and although there were a couple of last-minute fill-ins, the band obviously knew the music well.
Their material was almost exclusively 1970s and 80s New South songs, stretching a bit into old standards (Banks of the Ohio with a nice groove, from an audience request after which Rigsby commented “Don’t know if J.D. ever did that one.”) and a few of Williams’ popular interpretations of Tony Rice hits. With Rigsby on mandolin and tenor vocals, Williams on guitar and lead vocals, Mike Anglin playing electric bass, Aubrie Haynie with some excellent fiddling, Josh Hale on drums, and Jason McKendree doing a fine job on Crowe-style banjo, the group had fans singing along and even dancing through the restaurant on a couple of tunes.
Although the musicians were surely tired, having driven from Nashville to northeastern Kentucky, they played for over three hours. As it got closer to midnight, Williams joked that they were going to play for as long as it took them to get there – and to be honest, they didn’t miss it by much. They went through all of the well-known New South songs from that era, including almost every song from the legendary self-titled Rounder “0044” album (including an almost-perfect replica of Summer Wages), and a number of Keith Whitley-era, edge-of-country favorites like Girl from the Canyon, Where Are All the Girls I Used to Cheat With, and Another Town.
It’s hard to pick highlights from a show that was so well-played, and filled with so many of my favorite bluegrass songs, but a few did stand out. Williams’ earnest Rose Colored Glasses and the spot-on Come on Down to My World, as well as a blazing fast Blackjack that featured some great picking from all on stage, all had the listeners captivated and thoroughly excited to be in the audience. The Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young cover Helplessly Hoping, a somewhat obscure cut that the band said was a favorite when Crowe played the Red Slipper Lounge, was another treat simply because most of the crowd had never heard it.
Although early New South songs are now considered bluegrass classics, most of them haven’t slipped into jam standard status. That’s what made this concept of a cover band so great. This was a talented band playing great songs that most bluegrass fans know, but they’re songs that haven’t been done so many times they’ve become tired. I did miss the addition of a steel guitar slightly, and there were a few times when the group had to take a minute to make sure they all knew the song they were getting ready to play. However, the J.D. Crowe Tribute Band was an awesome idea that I’m sure fans would love to see worked into a larger tour – something Williams says they wouldn’t be opposed to.