J.D. Crowe film premiers 8/28

Producer Russ farmer adjusting a microphone before conducting an interview with JD Crowe - photo by Frank GodbeyThe recently completed film about banjo ace J.D. Crowe is to have its first showing shortly at the J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival on Thursday night, 28 August.

The film entitled A Kentucky Treasure: The J.D. Crowe Story, has been produced by Russ Farmer with the invaluable help of long time Crowe fans Frank and Marty Godbey, both of whom provided their interviewing skills, photographs and general knowledge.

As we reported in March last year, Farmer is a former producer and director employed by Kentucky Educational Television (KET) and this is the first film that he has made since his retirement from that organization.

The film includes interviews with about twenty five former New South band members. Additionally, many others including Sonny Osborne, Mark Schatz, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Earl Scruggs and Alison Krauss have provided comment about Crowe.

Farmer spoke about the origins of the film and shared information about some of the trials and successes that have taken place along the two-year long path to completion …….

J.D. Crowe is interviewed by Marty Godbey while producer Russ Farmer films - photo by Frank GodbeyIt was Labor Day weekend 2006, I was sitting at a table having cornbread and beans with the master of the five string banjo, J.D.Crowe. Thursday evenings at the annual Labor Day, J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival and jamming, cornbread and beans are mandatory. As we were sitting there talking mostly about golf, an idea popped into my head and it came out my mouth really before I had even thought it through.

“Would you mind my following you around with a camera for awhile,” I asked, “and maybe editing something together later as a ‘day in the life’ of J.D. Crowe?”

J.D. though for a minute and said, “yeah, I think that might be OK.”

Little did I know the next year and a half of my life would be pretty much consumed by all things J.D. Crowe.

Very soon after that conversation I realize I had suggested something that was much more involved than the initial idea. I didn’t want to just follow Crowe around for a little bit and put something together on the fly. I needed to do something that was worthy of this legendary banjo man from the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. Something that would show not only J.D.’s life but would touch on the life of all the artists who have rubbed shoulders with J.D. or been a member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys or with J.D. through The Kentucky Mountain Boys and for nearly forty years, The New South.

After having retired from Kentucky Educational Television in 2003, I had been searching for an independent project to do and knew KET offered grant money through the KET Fund For Independent Production to produce Kentucky oriented programs. I thought, what the heck. You don’t get any more independent than me, and you don’t get any more Kentucky than both me and J.D. Crowe. So in October, 2006, I applied for a grant from the KET Fund For Independent Production. To my surprise I was awarded the full amount of their grant and given pretty much carte blanche to do what I wanted. The Grant was awarded in February of 2007, and I went to work.

Ricky Skaggs is interviewed for the JD Crowe documentary filmFrank and Marty Godbey are fixtures in the national bluegrass music scene and good friends of mine. Both have spent their life writing, photographing and living with bluegrass music. Frank is an accomplished five string banjo picker and mandolin player(Frank and I are in a local bluegrass band called Ruby & ‘Em). Marty quickly became interested in the project as we were both doing similar tasks. She is presently working on a biography of Crowe and many of the artists I wanted to interview, she also needed to interview. I very soon realized Frank and Marty were a wealth of information and photographs.

Both Frank and Marty volunteered to be a part of the production and soon became my “go to” people when there was something I needed to know. Marty and I would pool all our questions combining them into a list we wished to have the artists answer. It was a good system for both and proved to be a productive one. Frank and Marty both are near professional photographers and many of the photographs used in the project come from their archives.

Through the summer and fall of 2007, Frank, Marty and myself would travel a great deal to interview different artists. Doyle Lawson was our first interview and it went well. We followed that with Ms. Bessie Crowe, J.D.’s mom who, at 94 years young, still works the record table at local bluegrass festivals. We also interviewed J.D.’s sister Rosa that same day. Soon there would be over 20 interviews finished and they ran the gambit from Ricky Skaggs, a 1975 member of the New South, to Paul Williams who was with Crowe during the Jimmy Martin days.

I traveled to Tallahassee, Florida to interview Gordon Scott who was a University of Kentucky college student during the Kentucky Mountain Boys days and became a mandolin player in that band. Also to Okeechobee, Florida to interview Bob Joslin, one of the founding members of the Kentucky Mountain Boys.

On and on we interviewed folks who seemed not only pleased to be asked but really honored to be a part of the project. Earl Scruggs was quick to say yes. Jerry Douglas not only said yes but thought Alison Krauss, a huge fan of J.D.’s might be interested. She was, and we interviewed Jerry and Alison the same day. I asked Sonny Osborne for his comments, and although having suffered great illness this past couple of years, Sonny was willing and extremely able.

Producer Russ Farmer in his editing suite working on J.D. Crowe - A Kentucky Treasure - photo by Frank GodbeyDuring all this time I was doing research on photographs, video and film. I knew a lot of video existed since I had done a lot with J.D. during my days at KET. I met J.D. the first time in 1975, when one of the producers at KET brought The New South into our studios to videotape a program for our annual fund raiser, Festival ’75. I knew I had that and many other pieces of video through the years, but there were lots of video I didn’t have and I really didn’t know what existed and what didn’t.

There were disappointments through the months of research. For example; I thought I had traced down the performance of The Kentucky Mountain Boys on the old Dick Cavett Show only to contact Cavett’s production company and find out it no longer existed and had not been among those programs archived from that time period. I was sorely disappointed.

On the other hand, there were great achievements. I found that The Bluegrass Album Band had performed live on TNN’s Nashville Now, which was hosted by Ralph Emery. I was also told it was nearly impossible to obtain license for any video that came out of TNN. Most of that video is now owned by CMT whose parent company is Viacom and no licenses were being issued. Well, with the help of Dan Hays, Executive Director of the IBMA, and a couple of folks at CMT, I was able to not only trace the footage down but obtained a license for that video and it is included in the documentary.

Most interviews were finished by the first of this year, 2008 and with a July KET deadline looming, I began the editing process in January. Most of it flowed very easily. Other parts were more difficult but I found out really quickly it would take more than the original hour I had planned on to tell the story. With a quick call to KET and approval for a ninety minute program, I was able to breath a little easier.

The rough-cut of the project was finished about the last of March which gave me time to send out segments which needed approval from the participating artists. Once those were all back and approvals had been given, I could start the final edit and the tightening and sweetening of the program.

With two weeks to spare before my July 1 deadline, I was able to have the man himself drop by my house and spend the afternoon watching a program about himself. I don’t think that is an easy thing for J.D. to do but he was extremely patient with me and watched every moment.

When it was finished he looked at me and said, “You did good Russ, you did good.” That’s all I wanted to hear. (J.D. spent the rest of the afternoon just talking and picking on my old double pickup electric guitar. Can you believe it. I have photos to prove it.)

Shortly thereafter I submitted the finished product to KET and they were extremely pleased with the project. I don’t believe they expected anything less since most of those folks I had worked with during my thirty year career in television. Hopefully they were pleased enough to fund future attempts at producing an independent project around Kentucky Bluegrass Treasures. There are enough Kentucky artists out there to keep me busy for a long time. I look forward to producing their stories.”

Marty Godbey added some observations from her perspective ……

Former New South member Phil Leadbetter is interviewed by Marty Godbey - photo by Frank Godbey“I did the off-camera interviews, and Frank located pictures and helped my faulty memory, and we acted in an advisory capacity, as well. Russ has been around bluegrass a good while, doing his Jubilee series for KET, but Frank and I have been deeply involved since we were in (but too young to be in) horrible hillbilly bars in the 1960s. And I’ve interviewed J.D. numerous times since 1976.

When Russ first broached the idea to J.D., he was told (according to Russ) ‘Talk to Marty; she knows more about me than I do.’ That was a fine compliment, but I’m still making lots of discoveries, and never expect to know it all. I do know that everyone I have talked with, without exception, has said what a fine individual J.D. is, in addition to his acknowledged musicianship. That makes it difficult to do a ‘Warts and all’ biography, in the words of the late, unlamented Oliver Cromwell. J.D. has no ‘warts.’

I think Russ did a great job, especially since there is so little movie or television footage available for much of J.D.’s career; he managed very well with still photographs, and the end result is not static at all.”

KET, who are responsible for the grant money which enabled Farmer to work on this this project, will broadcast the 90-minute film sometime in November. It will be transmitted nationally sometime after that.

The program is not available on DVD and there are no plans at this time for that to happen. However, it may well be that the program will be offered as a premium for contributing to your local PBS station.

The J D Crowe Bluegrass Festival, now in its 8th year, takes place from 28 through to 30 August at the beautiful 111-acre Ichthus Farm, Wilmore, Jessamine County, Kentucky.

The showing is scheduled for 9:00 p.m. (approx.), 28 August.

Footnote:

As Russ Farmer mentioned, Marty Godbey is presently writing a biography of J.D Crowe’s life and music. It is expected that it will be a future edition in the Music In American Life series published by the University of Illinois Press.

Marty tells us that “There’s still the review process at the University of Illinois Press, and (assuming they like it) a couple of years to get it printed.”

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics.

A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.

He wrote the annotated series I’m On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.