J.D. Crowe, a banjo player who helped define the instrument for generations of bluegrass fans, died Friday, his family announced on Facebook.
“This morning at around 3 a.m, our dad, JD Crowe, went home. Prayers needed for all during this difficult time,” family members said in a post on his fan club page.
Testimonials began to come in from the legions of musicians who considered Crowe an influence or hero, including Billy Strings, one of the current popularizers of bluegrass music.
“Woke up this morning to hear the sad news about J.D. Crowe. What can I say? He was an absolute legend,” Strings wrote. “He will be remembered as one of the greatest to ever play bluegrass music. He had tone, taste and TIMING like no other. The space in between the notes he played and the way he rolled them out just kept the band driving, running on all cylinders like a V8 engine. He was just the best bluegrass banjo player out there, man.”
Béla Fleck tweeted: “We lost one of the greatest banjo players ever to pick up the five early this morning. Farewell and thank you, JD Crowe.”
Crowe’s Christmas Eve death made it a blue Christmas for aficionados of bluegrass who remember that another legend of the genre, the guitarist Tony Rice, a former member of Crowe’s New South, died on Christmas Day a year ago. Another banjo legend also died recently, his friend and compatriot Sonny Osborne, of the Osborne Brothers, who died in October.
Crowe's cause of death was not immediately reported. He was reported to have been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. A week ago, the website Bluegrass Today reported that his son, David, said he was in a rehab center after a brief hospitalization but was expected to be home for Christmas.
Crowe embarked on a farewell tour in 2012 but had continued to perform at shows and festivals until COPD was reported to have forced him to give up performing for good in 2019.
Crowe started out with Jimmy Martin, joining his band, the Sunny Mountain Boys, in 1956 when he was 19. In 1961, Crowe formed the Kentucky Mountain Boys, which included Doyle Lawson and Larry Rice.
In 1971, the group’s name changed to J.D. Crowe & the New South, as they became one of the key bands in the history of bluegrass, especially after it recorded the 1975 album officially called “The New South” and unofficially known among the cognoscenti as “0044,” after its Rounder Records catalog title.
The band at the time included a future who’s who of bluegrass: Rice on guitar, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Bobby Sloane on bass and Jerry Douglas on guitar.
Other well-known musicians who did time as part of the New South over the years included the country music legend Keith Whitley, Gene Johnson, Don Rigsby, Richard Bennett, Ron Stewart, Phil Leadbetter and Rickey Wasson.
Crowe’s accolades included a Grammy for “Fireball” in the country instrumental of the year category in 1983. He received the Bluegrass Star Award in 2011, an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky in 2012 and a lifetime achievement award from the Lexington Music Awards in 2016. An annual Kentucky festival, the J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival, is named in his honor.
Mark O’Connor, the legendary roots fiddler-guitarist, wrote on social media that Crowe was “one of the absolute greats in bluegrass, and a really wonderful mentor to me when I was a young boy coming up.” O’Connor was in Crowe’s band for just a few weeks in the mid-’70s when he was 14.
“He would take me out and buy me White Castle burgers after our shows with the New South until I couldn’t eat anymore," O'Connor wrote. "He was a wonderful mentor, and what a great bandleader in the music… and no better bluegrass banjo player in the history other than Earl Scruggs.”
The bluegrass band the Grascals wrote:, “We lost a true American treasure today. One of the finest to ever pick up a five-string banjo and one of the coolest cats of all time, his banjo is on some of our favorite bluegrass records. From leading the Kentucky Mtn Boys and the New South, working with Jimmy Martin as a teenager, playing with the legendary Bluegrass Album Band and more, his picking has been a part of the soundtrack of all of our lives.
"The friendship and inspiration he provided us will never be forgotten. As long as there’s bluegrass, the spirit and impact of J.D. Crowe will always live on," the band said. "Please keep his family, friends, and fans in your prayers in the coming days and weeks. We will all miss Mr. James Dee Crowe.”
Donna Ulisse, a country singer-songwriter who has turned to bluegrass, tweeted: “The wind is whipping up a moan outside my backdoor and I can only imagine that even the sky is sad to hear of J.D. Crowe’s passing this morning. A finer banjo player will be hard to find here but I know Heaven is welcoming this good and faithful servant in with open arms today. I was blessed to get to know him a little and what a grand gentleman he was.”
Adam Lee Marcus wrote on Facebook: “The banjo I have played since 2004 is a J.D. Crowe model Gibson ‘Blackjack.’ I didn’t choose it because I wanted to sound like him, but to sound like myself on a banjo built to sound like his. To me, the Crowe banjo tone is flawless. Like many, I was inspired by Earl Scruggs to play the banjo. But when I heard Crowe play, I heard how percussive a banjo could sound. Some of the greatest bluegrass that will ever be made had J.D. Crowe on banjo and Tony Rice on guitar. Flawless timing, tone, and tasteful playing. Heaven sure is building up a heck of a Bluegrass band. We’ll miss you, Crowe! See you up there.”
The band Blue Highway wrote: “Nobody ever had the groove, the touch, tone and timing of this man. Prayers for his family and for the whole Bluegrass community. This one really hurts.”
Bluegrass Today’s John Lawless wrote: “Everyone in bluegrass music was fond of J.D. Crowe. ... His affable, humble, and fun-loving personality made him everyone’s friend, and any attempts to shower him with praise for his music were always met with deferrals and a bit of embarrassment. ... No one every played bluegrass banjo more passionately, more inventively, or more interestingly than he did.
"Two generations of pickers have studied his playing, and even those who are taking the three finger style in new directions, like Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Noam Pikelny, will readily acknowledge Crowe as a major influence and an unmistakable stylist in his own right," he wrote. "If Earl Scruggs was a machine, J.D. Crowe was a carnival ride. His playing was fun, lighthearted, and even frivolous at times, all coming from his own distinct personality.”