Banjo player and bandleader J.D. Crowe left the world with one less bluegrass hero when he died on December 24 at the age of 84.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky on August 27, 1937, Crowe made enormous inroads in the realm of progressive bluegrass in the 70s. Crowe started out playing professionally while he was still in his teens, and he first began to really attract attention back in 1954 while he was working in the band of bluegrass star Jimmy Martin.
By the start of the 60s, Crowe was ready to bust out on his own, and he started leading his own band, The Kentucky Mountain boys, in 1961. The band dug in hard and developed a rep in the bluegrass world, but after a decade they were ready to take both their sound and the entire genre to a new level.
In 1971 they changed their name to the New South and revised their approach, taking in elements from the worlds of straight-up country and rock ‘n’ roll. It wasn’t long before Crowe and his band started turning heads and influencing a whole new generation of musicians and fans as part of the burgeoning progressive bluegrass movement.
The band’s first album, Bluegrass Evolution, turned the bluegrass world around. That record used a full band including drums, and utilized electric instruments like pedal steel, going places few bluegrass outfits had gone before.
When their self-titled album arrived in 1977, it was just as much of a revelation, but in a different way. Though it was more acoustic-based, it tapped into the repertoire of modern folk and country artists like Gordon Lightfoot (also covered on Bluegrass Evolution) and Rodney Crowell in a traditional context, helping to alter the public perception of bluegrass in a major way.
Over the years, New South introduced the wider world to musicians who would become some of the biggest names in bluegrass and country, including Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Tony, and Larry Rice, Doyle Lawson, and Jerry Douglas.
After the news of Crowe’s passing, modern-day bluegrass innovators like Billy Strings took to social media to honor his memory and influence, underlining just how much he still meant to the evolving tradition of the music.