Banjoist J.D. Crowe was one of the most influential progressive bluegrass musicians of the '70s. Initially influenced by Earl Scruggs, as well as rock & roll and the blues, Crowe worked his way through several bands during the '60s, developing a distinctive instrumental style that melded country, bluegrass, rock, and blues. Crowe didn't receive national exposure until the early '70s when he formed the New South, but after the release of the band's eponymous debut in 1972 he became a fixture on the bluegrass scene for the next 20 years.
Born and raised in Lexington, KY, Crowe picked up the banjo when he was 13 years old, inspired by one of Flatt & Scruggs' performances on the Kentucky Barn Dance. After that show, he regularly attended the duo's performances, sitting down in the front row to study Scruggs' revolutionary picking. Soon, Crowe was playing with various groups in Kentucky, including an outfit that also featured Curley Parker and Pee Wee Lambert. The young banjo player frequently played on local radio stations, and that is where he got his first major break in 1956. Jimmy Martin was driving through Lexington when he heard Crowe on the radio station, and was so impressed with what he heard that he drove to the station and asked him to join his band, the Sunny Mountain Boys. Crowe immediately accepted and began touring with Martin. While he was in the Sunny Mountain Boys, Crowe didn't stick to a strict bluegrass set list -- he often added rock & roll songs to his repertoire.
After spending six years with Martin, Crowe left the Sunny Mountain Boys in 1962 to pursue a solo career. For a while, he played Lexington bars and hotels, developing a new, progressive direction for bluegrass which incorporated stronger elements of folk, blues, and rock. In the mid-'60s, he formed the Kentucky Mountain Boys with Red Allen and Doyle Lawson; they released their first album, Bluegrass Holiday, in 1968 on Lemco Records. The Kentucky Mountain Boys had a varied repertoire, but played solely acoustic instruments. Two other records followed -- Ramblin' Boy and The Model Church -- before the group broke up in the early '70s.
Following the disbandment of the Kentucky Mountain Boys, Crowe formed the New South, which was the most revolutionary bluegrass outfit of its time. Originally, the band consisted of guitarist Tony Rice, mandolinist Ricky Skaggs, dobroist Jerry Douglas, and fiddler/bassist Bobby Sloan, and they played a wildly eclectic brand of bluegrass on electric instruments. When they released their debut, J.D. Crowe & the New South in 1975 on Rounder Records, it caused an instant sensation -- it marked a genuine turning point in the sound of the genre. All of the musicians in the original lineup of the New South were acclaimed and would later go on to popular solo careers -- in fact, most of them had left within a few years of the debut. By the end of the decade, the band featured guitarist/vocalist Keith Whitley, mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau, fiddler Bobby Slone, and bassist Steve Bryant.
During the '80s, the New South featured an ever-revolving lineup, as former members came back for guest appearances and Crowe discovered fresh, developing talents -- the group became known as a source for new musicians who would later go on to individual success. In 1980, Crowe formed the Bluegrass Album Band with Tony Rice, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson, and Todd Phillips. The Bluegrass Album Band toured and recorded sporadically throughout the course of the decade, always to great critical and popular acclaim. J.D. Crowe continued with the New South until 1988, when he decided to retire from the road. Following his decision, he appeared at special, one-shot concerts -- including a tour with Tony Rice -- but concentrated on studio work, particularly producing records for developing bands.
Retirement from the road proved somewhat of an selective decision for Crowe, however, and he continued to head the New South's ever-varying linups, both live and in the studio. Flashback appeared in 1994 from Rounder Records, followed by Come on Down to My World in 1999 and Lefty's Old Guitar in 2006, both also on Rounder. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine