restricted access Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J. D. Crowe (review)
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Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J. D. Crowe. By Marty Godbey. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. 232. $19.95 paper)

Since its publication of Robert Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown (1984) and Neil V. Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History (1985), the University of Illinois Press has established itself as the leading publisher [End Page 193] of Bluegrass music historiography. Among the dozens of country and folk music monographs in its impressive Music in American Life series, at least eleven deal directly with Bluegrass. Along with most books on the topic, these titles focus on the originators and “first generation” of artists, particularly Bill Monroe. There is a dearth of literature covering the innovations and developments of the genre since the early 1970s. Marty Godbey’s Crowe on the Banjo addresses this deficiency with a profile of J. D. Crowe (b. 1937), the influential banjoist, band leader, and Kentucky native who has served an integral role in the evolution of Bluegrass music over the last fifty years.

Godbey’s first chapter chronicles Crowe’s birth and childhood in the Lexington area. His father and mother were natives of Montgomery and Jessamine Counties, respectively. As a youngster, Crowe idolized the country stars he heard on the Grand Ole Opry and became determined to learn the electric guitar. In 1949, he saw banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs at the Kentucky Mountain Barn Dance, the Lexington Saturday-night country-music variety show at the time, and promptly switched his musical aspirations to the instrument. Scruggs’s band based itself in central Kentucky for over a year, and Crowe studied his performances at every opportunity. Chapter two begins in 1951, when Crowe began playing professionally with prominent local artists in and around Lexington. In 1956, he joined Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, staying until 1960 and establishing himself as one of the the top young exponents of the banjo. In chapters three and four, Godbey provides a detailed account of Crowe’s time with Martin, an important collaboration that produced some of the most classic Bluegrass recordings in history.

While chapters one through four clarify Crowe’s biography and his early career with important new information, the remaining chapters (five through ten) embody the most significant contribution of the book. They present a vivid record of his musical achievements after he left Martin and settled back in Lexington. Finally, the legendary stories about Crowe’s glory days at Martin’s Place, the Limehouse, and the Holiday Inn’s Red Slipper Lounge come to life (or prove false) in the words of the musicians themselves. Godbey also tracks the [End Page 194] genesis of Crowe’s most enduring band, the New South, including the leader’s mentorship of such future Bluegrass luminaries as Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, and Keith Whitley. Comments by these and other band members expose the narrative behind their successful incorporation of country and rock ingredients that forever changed the musical landscape of Bluegrass. The book follows Crowe’s musical journey all the way into the new millennium, taking the mystery out of his hiatus in the late 1980s and early 1990s and tracking each incarnation of the New South through 2010. Godbey also includes a helpful discography of select recordings and an “Additional Reading” section as well.

The late Marty Godbey was a respected and prolific music writer who contributed numerous articles to such trade publications as Blue-grass Unlimited and Banjo Newsletter as well as the liner notes for many Bluegrass albums. As a result, readers hoping for a more scholarly treatment may be disappointed (there is no formal bibliography). Her research is almost exclusively based on interviews, and at times the book reads like a collection of lively anecdotes rather than linear biography. Structurally, the prose favors the use of direct quotations, a penchant that sometimes clutters the direction and clarity of the writing. Despite these aspects of methodology and style, Crowe on the Banjo represents a crucial addition to Bluegrass literature that, along with other recent biographies of Butch Robins (What I Know ‘Bout What I Know, 2003) and Tony Rice (Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story...