Legendary Bluegrass Pioneer J.D. Crowe Has Died

Keith Whitley. Ricky Skaggs. Tony Rice and Larry Rice. Doyle Lawson. Jerry Douglas for crying out loud. Phil Leadbetter.

These are just some of the many names that studied under bluegrass legend and banjo God J.D. Crowe, and did service time in his transformative band The New South. And now—similar to one of his students Tony Rice who passed away on Christmas morning in 2020—J.D. Crowe has also been sent to meet his maker.

Both a traditionalist and a revolutionary, J.D. Crowe is responsible for more of the movements and dialects that have graced bluegrass music than he isn’t. Born in Lexington, Kentucky on August 27th, 1937, he got his start playing banjo for the “King of Bluegrass Music” Jimmy Martin in 1954 in his Sunny Valley Boys. His collaborations with Martin continued up until 1961 when Crowe broke out on his own and eventually formed the Kentucky Mountain Boys.

Doyle Lawson was one of the early members of The Kentucky Mountain Boys, and they immediately became a force in bluegrass in Lexington and beyond. When Lawson left, he was replaced by Tony Rice, illustrating what a proving ground Crowe’s outfits would be for bluegrass talent in the coming years.

It was Crowe’s expansion of the “bluegrass” genre by bringing in electric instruments like steel guitar and drums that made him evolutionary in the discipline. It wasn’t Newgrass, but it was something beyond the Bill Monroe Bible that had always been adhered to before. 1973’s Bluegrass Evolution turned bluegrass on its side, and rewrote the rules for the genre.

But as much as J.D. Crowe and his outfit became rule breakers, they were also flamekeepers. When he formed The New South—which eventually included Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas, it still featured the electric instrumentation on a few songs—but it also saw J.D. Crowe go back to his bluegrass roots. By the time Keith Whitley joined, and Tony Rice ran off to form a band with David Grisman, they sounded just as much country as bluegrass, and the albums My Home Ain’t In the Hall of Fame, Live in Japan, and Somewhere Between have become standards of The New South catalog.

Though his output has slowed over the years, J.D. Crowe never stopped playing, and settled into his role as a formative, elder statesman of the genre that opened up the music to new sounds and players, while still keeping it close to its roots. It was this double pronged approach which made J.D. Crowe so important, and where he found his home. More than anything, J.D. Crowe helped prove that the banjo and bluegrass could be cool.

J.D. Crowe died Christmas Eve morning.

“We just want to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this difficult time,” said J.D. Crowe’s family in a statement. “As great of a musician as Dad was, he was an even better husband, father, and friend.”

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