"I can't believe I was actually going to be playing with this guy," dobro pioneer Jerry Douglas said about what became a life-changing artistic voyage. "I would have done it for free."
The musician he was referring to was Grammy-winning Central Kentucky banjo great J.D. Crowe. The passage, along with dozens of other praising (but never patronizing) remarks, make up the late Lexington writer Marty Godbey's readable and posthumously published new biography, Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe.
Douglas, as most longtime local bluegrass enthusiasts know, was a key player in the mid-'70s lineup of Crowe's groundbreaking New South band, which included Tony Rice and a young Ricky Skaggs. But there are scores of other comments from artists populating the 50-year career that has made Crowe not only an innovative musician, both technically and stylistically, but a bandleader and bandmate with a quietly endearing personality. It is to Godbey's credit that Crowe's personal as well as musical profiles are explored.
Early chapters outline apprenticeships with bluegrass icon Jimmy Martin and even a one-night fill-in gig with Bill Monroe. Mostly, though, we witness the quest of the young Crowe, who subscribed to the work regimen of many budding artists, especially the more industrious ones.
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Specifically outlined are the mid-'60s, when Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys established residency (four nights a week) at the Lexington haunt on North Limestone then known as Martin's. Invariably, the players would get hired for private gigs, some of which fell after the Martin's shows were concluded. The repertoire at the after-hours shows began veering away from traditional bluegrass to include tunes by Donovan and Gordon Lightfoot. Subsequently, the vibe became looser, but Crowe's enthusiasm, as these pages explain, seemed boundless. The crowd wasn't exclusively composed of bluegrass clientele, either. A great number of underage University of Kentucky students were in attendance.
"Some people were listening, some were not, sort of like a wedding reception," Crowe mandolinist Gordon Scott says in the book. "J.D. just loved it."
Chapters involving the Douglas/Rice/Skaggs-era New South are equally enlightening, as are sections detailing the rise of vocalist Keith Whitley and the New South's subsequent detours into country music, and Whitley's inevitable death after years of alcohol abuse.
"I was not surprised at all," Crowe says in the book. "I was shocked, but I had always told (Keith), 'If you don't straighten up, you won't live to be 42 years old. And he didn't."
Godbey also doesn't skimp on outlining less obvious and less dramatic segments of Crowe's career.
Case in point: chapters describing the recording of what is probably the banjoist's most neglected album, 1986's Straight Ahead with Tony King, and the formation of comparatively newer New South lineups leading up to the recording of Crowe's most recent album, Lefty's Old Guitar.
"In a band, you're part of a puzzle, and whatever part you play has to fit in," Crowe says at the end of Crowe on the Banjo. Godbey, who died unexpectedly in December, should be applauded for fitting the many parts of Crowe's vast musical life neatly together to tell the refreshingly straightforward saga of one of Central Kentucky's most justly celebrated bluegrass pioneers.