Music News & Reviews

Milestones pile up for Kentucky banjo legend J.D. Crowe

J.D. Crowe turned 73 last week, but he keeps a busy schedule with tour dates and his festival.
J.D. Crowe turned 73 last week, but he keeps a busy schedule with tour dates and his festival.

With a career that has run a full half-century, from 1950s work with Jimmy Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys to the newest edition of his own band New South, it's safe to say that J.D. Crowe has seen and heard it all when it comes to bluegrass music.

"Oh yeah," said the Grammy-winning Lexington/Nicholasville banjo great. "I really have."

But as the bluegrass festival that bears his name prepares to celebrate its 10th edition this weekend, many milestones from Crowe's remarkable career are about to converge.

At the festival, he will host performances by longtime musical mates Doyle Lawson and Bobby Osborne. But there also will be sets by celebrated younger acts, notably The Grascals, that are redefining the string-music strategies of bluegrass in much the same way that Crowe did during the '70s.

Meanwhile, there is the matter of the present-day New South, which recently recruited two new members.

That's a pretty fair amount of time traveling for Crowe, who turned 73 last week.

"It just takes a while to get things like this rolling," Crowe said of his festival. "I've always said if you can hang on for five years, you're pretty good. We're up in attendance about 22 percent over the last two years. So we're real pleased with that, especially in this economy."

This year's festival welcomes Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver to the lineup. A regular of the regional bluegrass touring circuit, not to mention one of the country's most established harmony-driven bluegrass-gospel bandleaders, Lawson also enjoys a musical camaraderie with Crowe that goes back to the days of the Kentucky Mountain Boys in the '60s.

"Doyle has wanted to play the festival for a few years," Crowe said. "But this year, we were finally lucky enough to get him."

Lawson will be a featured performer on Friday night's festival roster. His set will be preceded by The Dean Osborne Band. A versed bluegrass banjo artist and teacher (he heads the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music at Hazard Community and Technical College), Dean Osborne also has been the promoter and organizer for the Crowe festival since its inception.

"It's kind of J.D. Crowe old-home week whenever the festival comes around," Osborne said. "People who know J.D. out in the community take that time to visit with him. And he makes himself available that whole weekend to talk to anybody."

The years will begin blending together Saturday. The lineup then will include Bobby Osborne, half of the groundbreaking bluegrass duo The Osborne Brothers (and Dean Osborne's cousin) and his Rocky Top X-Press band. Headlining — after a Crowe set, of course — will be The Grascals.

One of the more popular new-generation bluegrass bands to emerge in recent years, The Grascals walk a tightrope between traditional string music and contemporary country. That's territory well known to Crowe, as he explored such a mix with the late Kentucky-born country star Keith Whitley in the late '70s and early '80s.

Crowe highly endorses The Grascals, and he has friendships with several band members — including guitarist Terry Eldredge and mandolinist Danny Roberts — that predate the band's formation in 2004.

But Crowe remains guarded about some of the directions that newer bluegrass bands are taking, especially ones that lose sight of the music's tradition. That's something his most progressive music with the New South never betrayed.

"I realize these newer acts can't sound like everybody else. They're trying to do their own thing. And, you know, who am I? I just do what I do. And I really do understand where they're coming from," Crowe said. "But I think maybe some of them are getting out just a little too far. When you get out too far, you leave the whole perspective of the music. Then you're riding the fence, so to speak. Now, I've done that some, too. But I've always been able to keep it in perspective between the country audience and bluegrass.

"We've done some country rock songs down through the years, too, that have adapted well to a bluegrass style. But I guess what made us a little different was that we were the first to do it. That helps."

Crowe's festival sets this weekend will hold a different sense of surprise. The music will follow the more traditional path that the New South has taken during the past two decades, but with two new members. Joining Crowe, guitarist/vocalist Rickey Wasson and mandolinist/vocalist Dwight McCall will be bassist Kyle Perkins and dobroist Matt DeSpain.

"I kind of watched them progress," Crowe said. "Then, when it came time and there was news that they were free, I just hired them."

Keeping an eye and ear out for new talent comes with the job for Crowe. He has scouted players like Perkins and DeSpain "a bunch" over the years.

"You just take names and numbers along the way from these players because you never know when you're going to need them."

"J.D. also knows how to bring these players into his sound while letting them sound like themselves," Osborne said. "That's the mark of a great bandleader."

Crowe said he is in the process of gathering material for a recording with the new lineup but gave no promises as to when an album might surface.

"Lord knows when that will be," he said. "It just takes time, and I never was one to rush into things too much."