The great J.D. Crowe passed away on December 24, 2021, at 84 years old. He was the biggest influence on my banjo playing right after Earl Scruggs. I spent literally hours trying to get my pull-offs to sound like his. I learned many of his classic songs including "Train 45" and "Blackjack" and his break to "Crying Holy." I was fortunate to get to meet him in 2003 when both of us were teaching at a banjo camp in California. Casey was there too, as a camp helper and gofer. In one of my classes, I needed her to help me by playing guitar, so I sent a runner down the hill to fetch her. The runner came back empty handed. No Casey! Why not? She was helping J.D. Crowe in his class! Or maybe she was just attending his class. At any rate, she would not budge. Not even for her Mama! How could I fault her for that? It was J.D. Crowe!!! Of course, I wrote about the experience. Rereading this now makes me happy that I got to know J.D. just a little bit, and sad that he is gone. I offer this now as my tribute to him. Rest in peace, J.D.
WHAT WOULD J.D. DO?
(Reprinted with permission from Banjo Newsletter magazine)
I’ve been a fan of J.D. Crowe all my bluegrass life. The first banjo break I ever learned from a record was J.D.’s break to “Somehow Tonight” on the Rambling Boy album. So it seems amazing that a few weeks ago, at the J.D. Crowe Banjo Camp in Northern California, which was organized by Bill Evans, I was playing guitar and singing “Somehow Tonight” while J.D. picked the banjo. Thank you, Universe! Thank you, Bill Evans!
By then, Sunday afternoon, I had gotten pretty used to being around J.D. and was no longer petrified to pick with him or talk to him. I had gotten “thrown into the fire,” so to speak, at our first rehearsal when I had to join J.D. in picking “Train 45” with him sitting not five feet in front of me. Bill Evans was picking too, but I can handle Bill. Our styles are completely different. (Did I hear you murmuring “thank god,” Bill? Tsk, tsk tsk.) But I had learned to pick “Train 45” from a Crowe recording and was still basically playing it “like J.D. done it.” That works fine as long as J.D. is not in the room with you doing the same thing only better! Fortunately J.D. has a way of making you feel comfortable in a picking situation. He’s relaxed, easy going, takes everything in stride, likes to kid around, and is actually very supportive of the other players. In California-speak, his aura is kind. I suppose it’s significant that the song “Little Drummer Boy” is coming to mind as I write this: “Then He smiled at me, pah-rump-a-pum-pum, me and my drum.” Make the obvious substitution and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how I felt.
Meanwhile, J.D’s son David, 23, who had come along to handle CD sales, had fallen asleep in his chair. As we left the house, I kidded David about falling asleep while his dad was playing. “Aw,” he said, “I hear him pick “Train 45” all the time. Besides, it’s after midnight in God’s country.” “God’s country” is how David would refer to Kentucky, his home state, all weekend. Pretty soon I found myself asking him, “What time is it in God’s country, David?”
In the title of this column I asked the question “What would J.D. do?” Here’s one illustrative answer. Laurie Lewis (bass), Tom Rozum (mandolin), Alan Senuake (guitar), and Chad Manning (fiddle) were serving as the backup band for the two concerts we would be giving. (Some backup band!) At rehearsal, after they ran through “Sin City,” “I’ll Stay Around,” “Blackjack,” and “Old Home Place” with J.D. someone suggested that Laurie sing “Crying Holy.” She was willing, with one caveat: “I’ll have to sing it in D.” Implicit in that response (I think) was the knowledge that J.D. had recorded the song in B, which meant he was playing out of G position. Now, his kickoff—a killer kickoff—is the defining element in the song. To play in D—whether he played in D position or C position—he’d have to change the kickoff. (Or capo up seven frets, which I didn’t think he’d do.) What he did speaks volumes about his character and the way he views the music: he never hesitated for a moment. He just grabbed his capo, put it on at the second fret and starting working up a new kickoff out of C position. It took a few tries until he was satisfied, but when he had it, it was outstanding. I was so impressed. You see, with J.D., the overall band sound comes first. And he always defers to the singer.
Shift now to Sunday afternoon. Camp is winding down. I am teaching the Beginning Level class. All weekend we have been working on vamping I, IV, and V chords in different keys. Without a capo. Today we were learning to vamp to “Old Home Place” in the Key of G because it’s a J.D. Crowe standard and has two “off” chords in it: A and B. (Or as Janet Davis might say, “A II chord and a III chord.”) Normally I sing while the students vamp, but I have to keep things interesting for me, too, so I decided to play a banjo break. (And pretend I was J.D.!) Then I had an epiphany. (It was Sunday, you know. Epiphanies are allowed.) We had a group session coming up with J.D. What if J.D. himself were to play “Old Home Place” and the students were to vamp along? Then they could all go home and say that they’d played with J.D. Crowe. I got tears in my eyes just thinking about it! The students loved the idea! I cautioned them: “I’ll have to clear it with Bill and with J.D.” They understood.
I figured it would be okay with Bill. He is one of the most enthusiastic and cooperative people I’ve ever worked with. J.D., team player that he is, said it would be okay with him. I told him he’d have to play it really slow for the beginners. He understood. So, all the teachers, including Ron Block and Casey Henry, are sitting in front of the whole camp; everyone has their banjos out. I have the guitar. I tell the students what they are going to do (vamp), then I turn to J.D. and say (I loved this part!), “Kick it off, J.D.” “How fast do you want it?” he says. I strum the guitar really slowly. He immediately says, “No, that’s too fast!” I told you he’s a kidder. We arrive at a tempo and he kicks it off. I sing the first verse. Everyone is vamping. When it comes to the end of the verse, I listen expectantly for that classic Crowe fill in. Nothing. “Aren’t you going to put in some fill in?” I ask petulantly. “Oh,” says J.D., “you want me to do some fill in?” “Yes!” “Do it again,” he says firmly. “It’s been ten long years since I left my home....” And then J.D. is all over the neck with That Signature Sound. And Bill, Ron, Casey, and I are about to split our faces grinning because it sounds SO GOOD and we are playing with J.D. Crowe. The students are in hog heaven because THEY are playing with J.D. Crowe, and J.D. is handling all this collective worship with much dignity. He’s just doing his job, calmly and serenely, playing the banjo. Is this guy classy or what?
Shift now to Monday night and our concert at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. I was going to do my original song “Fried Chicken.” As part of the song, when I get to the chorus, the band yells “fried chicken!” with me. I had done the song at the concert on Saturday night, and when I came off stage, J.D. told me that I should have yelled “fried rabbit!” (It’s a Southern thing...) So Monday night I was on stage doing the song with Laurie, Tom, and Chad while the rest of the musicians were in the warm-up room behind the stage. When I got to the chorus, I noticed the audience was really cracking up over the shouts of “fried chicken.” But it wasn’t until the last chorus when I heard shouts of “fried rabbit!” that I knew that J.D., the trickster, had been up to something. Unbeknownst to me, he and the other players—Bill Evans, Alan Senauke, and, if you can believe this, David Grisman!—had snuck out during the song, crouched down behind a low wall at the back of the stage, and had been popping up yelling “fried rabbit” and then popping back down. That’s why the audience was in hysterics. It was exactly like something you would see on Hee Haw! To think I have lived long enough to be pranked upon by J.D. Crowe. I owe you, J.D. Watch your back!
When it was time to fly home, Bill dropped J.D., David, and me off at the airport. As Bill was trying to slide into a parking spot, I heard David softly singing the Mickey Mouse song: “Now it’s time to say goodbye....” and I finished it up with “to all our family.” I honestly felt like I was leaving part of my family. There were big hugs all the way around: David, Bill, J.D. David had given me three of J.D.’s CDs, and I had given David (if you can believe this) my Beginning Banjo DVD! (He’d told me he was learning to play the banjo.)
Since I’ve been home I’ve been wearing out my Jimmy Martin “Big and Country Instrumentals” album and my J.D. Crowe “Live in Japan” CD. What a weekend! As we say here in the Shenandoah Valley, J.D. is “a prince of a fellow.” Or as banjo picking Jim Fee would say, “He’s a dandy!” Thankyoubillevans, thankyoubillevans, thankyoubillevans. I’m already looking forward to the next one!