Throughout his career, bluegrass banjo master J.D. Crowe selflessly made room in his band the New South for innovators. Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, and Jerry Douglas all played in the group, which, under Crowe’s leadership, tested the limits of tradition-minded bluegrass culture by welcoming electric instruments and embracing songs from the folk and rock worlds.
In the late 1970s, he hired vocalist Keith Whitley and recalibrated the New South around the Kentuckian’s country music inclinations, in effect giving Whitley the platform he needed to launch his Nashville career in the 1980s. “He was ensconced in bluegrass but was always looking forward,” bassist Steve Bryant, who played opposite Whitley in the New South, says of Crowe.
Crowe died Christmas Eve morning at age 84 at his home in Lexington, Kentucky, leaving behind a legacy that was already cemented in 1975 with the release of his masterwork on Rounder Records: J.D. Crowe and the New South was an album that changed bluegrass forever. Known familiarly by its “0044” catalog number, the LP was as much a celebration of the talent who worked under his banner as it was a statement on progressivism in music. It showcased Rice’s wondrous lead singing and introduced Skaggs’ tenor vocals and hot mandolin picking to new audiences.
Risking the ire of purists — whom Crowe often called “grassholes” — the album communicated to many fans and musicians the possibility of modernization in the bluegrass neighborhood of country music. Using the very best elements of bluegrass, one could re-imagine New Orleans rhythm & blues, Canadian folk, and songs by Nashville-based writers — and remain employed. Young audiences appreciated outside influences as much as they loved first-generation legends such as Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, which Crowe understood.
As he reflected in this 2020 interview, change was essential: “If you’re not out there trying to do something different, you’re not doing nothing.” There could be no better motto for Crowe.
Why did you change your band’s name from the Kentucky Mountain Boys to the New South?
When I hired Tony Rice into the band [in 1971], I did not want to have the “Mountain Boys” attached to the band name because you’re labeled. I wanted a name that you could be doing any kind of music. Three or four of my friends were sitting around talking about bands changing names, and I said, “I want to get out of the ‘Mountain Boy’ deal, been in that long enough. I need to have something that pertains to the music but can be any kind of music. It could be bluegrass, it could be country, it could be rock, it could be whatever.” We brought up “North Country” and things like that and this fella sitting there said, “New South,” and it just hit me. I thought, “Man, that’s it. That’ll work.”
But there were critics of those who would dare diversify…
They were the diehards. I called them “grassholes.” You always have some flak. If you’re doing something different or trying things there’s always a few that want you to stay the same. They don’t understand that if you stay the same you stagnate. If you’re not out there trying to do something different, you’re not doing nothing. That’s why I started doing different material, things that nobody did, bringing material from other genres of music into what we do.
Bands like Newgrass Revival were totally different. What they did was took a lot of rock stuff and did it in their way and it had more of a rock beat. I like what they did. I didn’t care for it at first because of the caliber of pickers that they had. That’s what makes a difference. When they finally got it together, man, I liked it. Of course a lot of people frowned on it because it wasn’t hardcore bluegrass. I loved bluegrass, I grew up on it. But there’s other music and other things you can do.
You famously worked out the new repertoire during a long-standing gig at a hotel in Lexington.
We were playing in Lexington two or three nights a week at local bars — I call them “knife and gun” clubs — but thank goodness they were there. This one bar that we were playing, it catered mostly to younger people — this is like 1962, 1963, 1964. And we had a lot of these university students. You couldn’t get in on Friday or Saturday night. It was totally packed. It was called Martin’s Place.
One night we were playing there and there was a group of people come in. In that group was the daughter of the guy who built Holiday Inns. They loved it, and she went back and told her dad that he needed to come back down and hear us. He approached me with that spiel about if we would like to work at the Holiday Inn. It was unheard of…a bluegrass band in a nice atmosphere. I didn’t know if the people who followed us would want to come to a place like that. It was nice and I know I would have loved it, but it was out of the ordinary at the time. He said, “Let’s just start out at three nights a week: Thursday, Friday, Saturday.” It was packed. They had never seen anything like that. We did that two weeks, and the owner came back to me and said, “I would like to sign you up to a year’s contract, five nights a week.”
We did a lot of things that we never recorded, performed one or two Beatles songs at the Holiday Inn. We never recorded them because we didn’t feel like it was our bag to do that. Some things you leave alone. But you could do them in a club setting.
Tony Rice came into your band on guitar in 1971. How did he fit in with what you were doing?
I think sometimes his vocals were overshadowed by his picking. And I always told him, “Picking’s important, but a singer is the most important. Dwell on your vocals as well as your playing.” Tony had a unique voice. He didn’t sound like anybody else I had ever heard.
And then you hired Ricky Skaggs after he left the Country Gentlemen.
I knew Ricky was a good picker and he didn’t have a job playing. I talked to Ricky and he said he wanted to get his own group eventually. I said, “Come with us and when you feel like you’re getting ready to leave, just let us know.” So he did. He joined us late in ’74 and he stayed until August of ’75. That’s when him and Tony and Jerry Douglas all left and Ricky and Jerry formed Boone Creek right after that. After that he went with Emmylou Harris and after that he got his own deal.
So you understood Skaggs was going places?
There was a lot of talent there in Ricky, and I knew he wanted to do his own deal. At the time, I was kind of surprised that he got into the country thing [in the 1980s] because he never cared that much for country music when he was with me. He wanted to play bluegrass or that style, and when he formed Boone Creek, he was just getting back into bluegrass. The way they played was different; they did what they felt. That fell apart and the next thing I knew he had a job with Emmylou Harris playing in her band. He had the talent to do that. But it kind of changed him to looking toward the country music deal. Of course it would. I knew he had the talent to do whatever he wanted to do and that’s what he did.
Skaggs helped bring Jerry Douglas to the New South, which made it a five-piece: you on banjo, Bobby Slone on bass, Skaggs on mandolin and fiddle, Rice on guitar, and Douglas on Dobro.
I didn’t want more than five in the band. The more people you got in the band the harder it is to control. The more people you got in the band the more aggravation you got. That’s the way it works. You got too many ego problems. Somebody has to call the shots.
How did the New South’s celebrated “0044” album come about?
Rounder had just gotten started into the recording business, and they approached me to do an instrumental album, which I didn’t want to do and I said, “No. If I do an album, I want to do a band album. I’ll do a couple of instrumentals on the band project.” We had gotten to the point that we knew what each other was thinking by just looking at each other, and that’s a great feeling to have.