A most merry Banjo Friday to you friends! Hope your day is off to a great start, & hope we can make it a little better with some fantastic banjo picking!
As regular readers know, this month the Banjo Friday series is looking at some of the stars of bluegrass style banjo playing—there are five Fridays this month, so we’ll be taking a look & a listen at five great banjoists who’ve made a big mark in the bluegrass field. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should note that I don’t have anything like the background in bluegrass that I do in blues, old-time or jazz. As a result, this particular series has required a bit more research than other music writing here on the blog, simply because I have less experience with the music.
Now of course Earl Scruggs & Ralph Stanley were pretty much automatic choices. But following them there are several bluegrass banjo players who make music at an extraordinarily high level. The next one I picked for your listening pleasure is JD Crowe, a man who’s been making music of the very highest quality since the 1950s when he was barely 20 years old—in fact, his first recording with Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys was made in 1956, when he was still only 19 years old.
Martin’s band was a traditional bluegrass outfit, but Crowe began to experiment with other songs, rhythms & sounds than those heard in the traditional style—it’s interesting that one of Crowe’s early musical inspirations was Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley’s guitar player on his groundbreaking late 1950s recordings, & his original dream was to play electric guitar with Ernest Tubbs!
Instead, Crowe became one of the bandleaders who most influenced the changing sound of bluegrass music, & this was especially true with his band that formed in the 1970s, the New South. The 1975 album JD Crowe & the New South really healded a new era in the music; the album featured Tony Rice on guitar & lead vocal, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin & tenor vocal, Crowe on banjo, Bobby Slone on bass & fiddle, & Jerry Douglas on dobro—a line-up of future all stars. The New South has existed with various personnel changes over the years, but always with Crowe & his hard-driving & virtuosic banjo playing at the helm.
Today’s song features a slightly later version of the New South. Here Jimmy Gaudreau has taken over on mandolin & Keith Whitley on guitar, while Steve Bryant plays electric bass (!) & Bobby Slone plays fiddle, Crowe gives us three superb & smoking banjo solos in the space of two minutes!