The J.D. Crowe you might not know

Name recognition tricky for Ky.-born political cartoonist

Contributing WriterSeptember 1, 2010 

  • If you go

    Crowe Fest, annual J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Music Festival

    When: Thurs.-Sat.

    Where: Ichthus Farm, 9520 Harrodsburg Road, Wilmore

    Go to: Jdcrowefestival.com

  • The Two J.D. Crowes

    Occupation: Bluegrass musician

    Given name: James Dee Crowe

    Birthplace: Lexington in 1937

    Father's occupation: Farm manager

    Current home: Nicholasville

    Biggest inspiration: The music of Flatt and Scruggs

    Latest album/book: Lefty's Old Guitar (Rounder Records)

    Web site: Jdcrowe.net and Crowefest.comOccupation: Editorial cartoonist

    Given name: James David Crowe

    Birthplace: Richmond in 1959

    Father's occupation: Baptist minister

    Current home: Mobile, Ala.

    Biggest inspiration: Watching farm animals, especially pigs

    Latest album/book: Smell the Love (editorial cartoon collection from the Mobile Register)

    Web site: Crowetoons.com and Blog.al.com/jdcrowe

J.D. Crowe and J.D. Crowe grew up in Central Kentucky on farms less than 50 miles apart.

One J.D. Crowe is a Grammy-nominated banjo picker who is among the most influential and popular in the Bluegrass music scene.

The other is an award-winning political cartoonist whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Time magazine.

"I'd be the first to admit he's a little further up the Google chain than I am," the cartoonist said about the musician. "To me, he's the number one J.D. Crowe in America."

The cartoonist was an art student at Eastern Kentucky University in the late 1970s when he first became aware of the musician. J.D. Crowe and his band, the New South, were appearing at a club nearby in Richmond.

"The ads in the newspaper said, 'The one and only J.D. Crowe.' I got a big kick out of that. I started clipping the ads and putting them on my dorm room door," Crowe said.

"Another student came up and knocked on my door real humble. Real humble. 'Are you J.D. Crowe?' And of course I said, 'Yes I am.' He almost got a tear in his eye. 'I just can't believe I'm meeting you. My dad and I have been the biggest fans of yours for years.'"

Crowe soaked up the adoration, but when the visitor opened up a banjo case, he knew his cover was blown.

"When I finally told him that I was just kidding, that I was a student just like him, he couldn't have been more hurt."

Pencil and a grocery sack

Today, the cartoonist lives in Alabama, where he is the editorial cartoonist for The Mobile Press-Register. That's a long way from the family farm in Irvine, Ky., where his father, a Baptist minister, and mother still live.

"I was drawing before I could talk," Crowe said. "My mom figured out early on if she just tore open an old brown grocery sack and laid it flat on the floor and kept my pencil sharp, I'd be a good kid."

"I had picture stories in my mind. I would draw all day. I would fill up both sides of a grocery sack, and I guess that was as good a baby sitter as they could have gotten."

While pursuing an art degree at EKU, Crowe inked political cartoons for The Eastern Progress, the campus newspaper.

"I never dreamed that one day I could make funny pictures of the president and get paid for it," Crowe said.

Bachelor's in hand, he set out to find work as a commercial artist.

"I'd go down to the advertising or design places and show them my real serious work, and before I know it they are thumbing through my sketchbook and laughing. They said, 'You ought to be doing more of these cartoons.'"

Crowe found work first at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and later at the San Diego Tribune.

"Nobody out there in California has an accent," Crowe said. "It's kind of homogenized. I'd draw cartoons and use vernacular words like reckon. The editor told me that no one there would know what I was talking about. I said, "Well, shucks, I don't know if this is going to work out or not.'"

Sweet home Alabama

Crowe said he feels at home on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, where he and his Kentucky mannerisms have been dug in since 2000. There's been no shortage of material for his cartoons, especially in the last five years, which have seen Hurricane Katrina and the gulf oil spill.

"I try to draw what will have the most impact to my local readers." Crowe said. "I do a lot of local and state cartoons. A lot of times, the national issue is the local issue. I try to invite readers in and not necessarily bang them over the head with what I'm thinking, but sometimes I do that, too."

Lexington Herald-Leader cartoonist Joel Pett is a friend.

"J. D. is a heck of a cartoonist," Pett said. "You never wonder where he stands. In a fair world, ... I would be washing out his brushes."

Last year, Crowe got a surprise call from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. They requested an archival-quality print of one of his cartoons, Obama 44, for their museum. The cartoon, published after the presidential election, compares President Obama's slide into history with Jackie Robinson, the first player to break the color barrier in the major leagues.

Crowe meets Crowe

Earlier this year, while Crowe was home in Kentucky for his mother's 80th birthday, a mutual friend arranged the first face-to-face meeting of the two J.D. Crowes at the musician's home in Nicholasville. They spent a lot of time trading mistaken-identity stories.

"I've had quite a few people come up and say 'I didn't know you were an artist,'" the musician said. "I've had people mail me cartoons that they've clipped from newspapers. People want to know how I've got time to draw and play the banjo, too."

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