J.D. Crowe and the New South are among the most influential bluegrass bands of the past three decades, with a visionary sound that suggests both a rich past and a wide-open future. From 1975’s classic J.D. Crowe and the New South (affectionately referred to by fans by its catalog number, 0044), to their newest project, 2006’s Lefty’s Old Guitar, bandleader/banjo player/guitarist/vocalist Crowe has lead an array of brilliant musicians in a mission to continually reinvent and update bluegrass while simultaneously paying tribute to the legacy of tone, taste, and timing established by Crowe’s musical idols.
A formidable presence on the bluegrass scene since 1956, J.D. Crowe first turned heads when the legendary Jimmy Martin hired the young Kentuckian fresh out of high school. Crowe, who was inspired to pick up the five-string banjo after hearing Earl Scruggs, stayed with Martin for five years - learning invaluable lessons in musicianship, band leading, and harmony singing in the process. His already remarkable banjo playing - clean, crisp, and always in the pocket no matter what the tempo - is in evidence on classic Martin tracks like “Hold Whatcha Got” (1958), “You Don’t Know My Mind” (1960), and throughout the classic 1960 album Good ‘n Country. After graduating from Martin’s employ, Crowe formed the Kentucky Mountain Boys with Doyle Lawson, Red Allen (later replaced by Larry Rice), and Bobby Slone. Their three albums hinted at the repertoire of The New South, integrating contemporary non-bluegrass compositions with more traditional material. On a Kentucky Mountain Boys record, one could find songs by Tom Paxton and Gram Parsons sharing an album side with cuts written by Flatt & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.
When Lawson departed to join the Country Gentlemen in the early ‘70s, the Kentucky Mountain Boys gave way to J.D. Crowe and the New South. The epochal J.D. Crowe and the New South album, released by Rounder in 1975, is still heralded as the dawning of a new sound in bluegrass music. The lineup of Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, and Bobby Sloan made it clear that Crowe was an astute judge of young talent. The music, at first blush, gave the impression of classic, straight-ahead bluegrass. Closer listening, however, revealed a wealth of innovation both in the picking and in the material, which placed bluegrass standards like “Sally Goodin” next to compositions by Rodney Crowell, Fats Domino, Gordon Lightfoot, Utah Phillips, Ian Tyson, and Bob Dylan.
The lineups of the New South continued to evolve and change from the release of 0044 onward. Many great musicians passed through on their way to start their own bands, including Jimmy Gaudreau, Richard Bennett, Don Rigsby, and Phil Leadbetter. Among the most notable alumni was the gifted, ill-fated vocalist Keith Whitley, who introduced a strong honky-tonk feeling to Crowe’s music on the albums Somewhere Between (reissued by Rounder under Whitley’s name as Sad Songs and Waltzes) and My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame (released by Rounder in 2002) before going on to mainstream country stardom.
J.D. Crowe briefly flirted with retirement in the mid to late ‘90s, but following the release of 1999’s Come on Down to My World (Rounder), he put together the strongest New South lineup since the days of Skaggs and Rice and resumed touring regularly. Guitarist and vocalist Ricky Wasson brings a full, rich vocal sound to the band, along with his abilities as an MC and front man. On mandolin, tenor, and high-lead vocals is Dwight McCall, whose remarkable singing was featured on Come on Down to My World. Steve Thomas joins the group in 2008 playing fiddle as well as contributing to the sound vocally. Also new in 2008 is the addition of John Bowman on upright bass and lead/harmony vocals.