J.D. Crowe, whose full name is James Dee Crowe, is an American banjo player and bluegrass band leader. Born on August 27, 1937, in Lexington, Kentucky, he is considered one of the most influential figures in the bluegrass music genre. J.D. Crowe died on December 24th 2021
Who Was J.D. Crowe?
J.D. Crowe is particularly renowned for his distinctive banjo playing style and his contributions to the development of bluegrass music. He played a crucial role in shaping the sound of bluegrass during the 1960s and 1970s. Crowe has been a key figure in several prominent bluegrass bands throughout his career.
One of the most notable groups associated with J.D. Crowe is “The New South,” a band he formed in the mid-1970s. The New South became known for its progressive approach to bluegrass, incorporating elements of country and rock music into the traditional bluegrass sound. The band’s influential album, “Rounder 0044,” released in 1975, is often regarded as a landmark recording in the bluegrass genre.
J.D. Crowe’s banjo playing is characterized by its precision, speed, and melodic sensibility. He has received numerous awards for his contributions to bluegrass music, including inductions into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America’s Hall of Greats.
Over the years, J.D. Crowe has left an indelible mark on the bluegrass landscape, both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with other prominent musicians. His legacy continues to influence and inspire new generations of bluegrass musicians and fans.
Interview with J.D. Crowe
This is an interview from between Greg Cahill and J.D. Crowe, taken from banjonews.com
Shortly after J.D. Crowe announced his official retirement, Donald Nitchie sent a note to the professional banjo player community asking players what one question they might want to ask J.D. about his playing, his career and/or anything related to his status as one of the groundbreaking banjo players of all times. I was honored that Donald asked me if I would be interested in interviewing J.D. to discuss the questions submitted. J.D. was a mentor to me—and I’m sure numerous other players—and he has always been most gracious about taking the time to respond to any questions many of us had, and this interview was no exception.
J.D. has talked about his concepts of timing, tone and separation of notes many times over the years and he related his thoughts on all of this to his main premise about how he feels the music in this interview. Interestingly enough, I heard a discussion on NPR about how people defined what it was that made people who do what they do stand out after conducting my interview with J.D. A renowned tennis player defined that special feature as “flow” and a famous dancer/choreographer identified it as “heart and soul.” I believe this is what J.D. consistently referred to as “feel” and it clearly is that same spot in all who strive to find the “groove” in whatever they do. And when one really feels what they are doing—say, playing the banjo—that shows in how they play and that’s when they “own” how they play, which makes it their own style.
The one question that slipped my mind, offered by Elmer Burchett, was to ask J.D. how he made the opening pinch he did on Blue Ridge Cabin Home sound so perfect—something all banjo players strive to do.
We owe J.D. much gratitude not only for his masterful playing and singing throughout his illustrious career but also for his consistent willingness to share his thoughts and perceptions about the art of playing the banjo. He truly is our own living legend and I do hope we will see him at least visiting a festival or two in the coming years. And if you do cross paths with J.D., you might consider asking him how he got that pinch to sound so perfect—and then please share his response with all of us in the banjo community. —Greg Cahillhttps://www.youtube.com/embed/_kDGSEJq_O4
Greg Cahill: So I’ve got a few questions for you, if you don’t mind answering…
J.D. Crowe: Well, I’ll see if I can!
BNL: Kenny Ingram asked, “How do you see banjo players of your era—like Scruggs, Sonny Osborne, Allen Shelton, Bill Emerson—compare with the players of today.”
JDC: That’s like comparing apples and oranges. I mean, gosh, coming up today, modern banjo players, they’ve taken the banjo further, the reason being, I think the younger generation has been listening to some of the people from my generation and bled over into the next generation. Started playing these melodic or chromatic things. They’ve taken the banjo a lot further. You take Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, I remember those guys when they first started, they were playing the Scruggs stuff some, but I could tell it was going into a different type of playing thanyou’re used to hearing. And they’ve taken this instrument to another level. I mean, Bela has done fantastic things with the banjo, that I would never have even thought of doing. But mainly because, I did not want to do that. And the biggest reason is, I did not hear it. Back in those days, when I was growing up, see, we didn’t have that; no one was doing that. And you, yourself, you’re kinda like me, but you’ve finally gotten into some of what I’d call more modern playing. And I think the thing is, you can’t play the same thing year after year. Things have to change. And I think it’s good to have different perspectives on banjo playing, and banjo pickers. I mean, they’re hearing things different now.https://www.youtube.com/embed/tTv6CAmCO8I
The only thing that really bothers me, as good as they are, if you ask them to play a Scruggs tune, they really can’t play it with the timing and the tone. Because it’s totally a different style… I’ll try to give you an example.
I first met Bill Keith back in the 60s. I was still with Jimmy. We were playing a concert in Connecticut with a Grand Ole Opry package show. After the show, Bill came back and introduced himself. And I did not know him; first time we’d met. He asked me if he could see my banjo. I said, “Of course.” So I gave it to him, and he proceeded to hit a few licks. We were just talking, and he said he had been trying to play some fiddle tunes. And when he said that, I immediately assumed he meant playing them like Scruggs would. But it wasn’t! He started playing those chromatic things, and that was the first time I had ever heard that style. And I thought, “Man, that is really neat. He’s played every note that a fiddle plays.” It was totally different. And from there, that style just kept going. People just kept taking it farther and farther, to where it is now. A lot of them combine Scruggs and chromatic styles.https://www.youtube.com/embed/kKp2lT8ipwg
But you know, I just think it’s whatever a fellow wants to do. And what he feels. And I think the style we played—-and I include myself, and Sonny, and Alan Shelton, and Kenny Ingram—-we just all loved Earl’s style. That’s what we grew up on, that’s what we heard. And what we felt.
I remember I was in Nashville, at that point I had gone back with Jimmy for a few months—which was a mistake, but anyway—[laughter] He talked me into rejoining him! So I did. And so I ran into Bill Keith at the Opry, he was playing with Monroe at the time. He came over to our house, and some of us were jamming together. And he was playing things like Devil’s Dream, and he showed me how he did that. And I picked up on it, you know. And when I did, I realized it was a total different timing technique. I played it, but it never really felt comfortable. It was a different stroke with your right hand—and your left hand. But I learned it. And when we played the Holiday Inn there, for years, I used to play that, just to make it a little different.
BNL: I’ll be darned, I didn’t know that.
JDC: Well, it was recorded, but it was live, in a bar, and you know how that goes. laughter] But I’m sure you’re familiar with that! In fact, we’ve played a few shows together.
BNL: We have indeed.
JDC: But that type of banjo playing, up to a point, it’s just wide open, it’s whatever you want to do. Whatever style you want to play.
BNL: Well, that brings me to another question, although you pretty much answered this already. Ron Block asked, ‘What would you say to upcoming banjo players about knowing and understanding the roots of bluegrass?’
JDC: Well, you know, let’s face it, everybody has to start somewhere. And a lot of pickers don’t care for certain styles of playing. Not out of disrespect, they just don’t feel it. They don’t really get into it. Now Ron’s a great banjo players, he is different; he’s got his own style. And that’s what you have to do. You have to do something on your own. So that people will recognize when you start playing, who it is. By the style, the notes you select, plus the tone you get from your instrument. I think that’s what you’ve got to do; you can’t sound like someone else all the time, you’ve got to be a little different.
BNL: And you’ve said that quite consistently, too. So when you were listening to all these players back in the day—-we know you heard Scruggs, and would go see him as often as you could—but you didn’t have any of these resources that are available today. And I know you played some guitar, and I know the bluesy stuff and string-bending stuff got into your banjo playing—in addition to your tone, and your timing. But where were you getting your ideas? Who were you listening to?
JDC: Well, I’ve always listened to all different styles of music. I like different genres. I listened to rock and roll, rhythm and blues players, and even going back, some of the jazz, back in the day—when it was, let me put it this way, it was more stylish than it is today. I mean, as I said, you have to be different. And I think there’s always going to be a slot for all styles of music. Because you cannot overlook the innovators. They start things; that’s where things start. And to me, the difference that I hear in my era, when I was coming up, the musicians that moved us the farthest—-they weren’t probably as progressed as the new pickers are today, but there again, they played the melody. And I always heard that. And I’ve always been told, if you’re going to play an instrument, play the melody of the song. And that’s the only beef I have with some of these new pickers, is that they don’t play the melody. When they take a break, you don’t know what they’re playing. They’re not playing the melody, they’re playing a lot of notes. And it might fit, but not a melody. And a lot of people like that, and that’s fine, if that’s what you want to do. But I, for one, want to hear a melody. And I’m not taking anything away from their playing, but I don’t think the new pickers feel the same way about that like I do. When I play a song, I am into, totally, that particular song and whatever style it is. And I totally feel what I am doing. And if you do that, that shows in your playing. That’s why you sound like you do.
BNL: Boy, that’s really something that people are going to appreciate hearing.
JDC: And there are so many good pickers. I mean, there are banjo players coming up I don’t even know about. And they’re all a little different. And that’s how they should be. But I think if you really want to learn, you should learn the fundamentals, the basics of whatever music you’re into. You should learn where it came from. How it started; why they did it the way they did. And then go from there. And… I don’t hear the real good timing, the separation, in a lot of their picking. That’s what I listen to. And that’s everyone’s preference.
BNL: That’s interesting, because that was one of Bill Evans’ questions. He said, “That note separation you get in your playing, he doesn’t know if that means the same thing to all the players.” So what does ‘note separation’ mean to you? And, how do you get that?
JDC: Well, again, it goes back to what I hear. The way I feel. The way I interpret the song.
BNL: But then, how do you get into the groove? With the guitar players?
JDC: Well, you know… it’s a hard subject to talk about. It’s really hard to get into the depths of it, because so much involved in it is personal. In other words, if I hear a banjo picker, or a singer, if they don’t make me feel
BNL: It’s all about the feeling…
JDC: Yeah. The music I grew up on, and listened to, I could feel that, what they were doing. It did something to me. That’s what happens. And the reason I got the separation of notes, is because they leave enough time between notes for feel<. For the rhythm to carry that. I mean, the people I used to listen to were not putting a lot of notes in a break. They put four or five notes in where new pickers might put ten. So you see, they’re jammed together quicker. So you don’t have time for that timing to really take effect.
BNL: Right… That’s a great way to put that. That makes sense.
JDC: But it’s hard to explain, the feel, it really is. But whenever I do, I feel that. And all those other guys I listened to, back in the years, the rock and roll pickers, the blues singers, if you listen to them compared to today, nowadays, what they call ‘blues’ or rock, it’s not. It’s just a bunch of noise, as far as I’m concerned. It’s so many styles fused together that it really makes no sense to me. There’s no feel to it. To me, it isn’t even music, and that might be a little blunt, but that’s how I feel.
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