Born and raised in Lexington, KY, Crowe picked up the banjo when he was 13 years old, inspired by one of Flatt & Scruggs’ performances on the Kentucky Barn Dance. After that show, he regularly attended the duo’s performances, sitting down in the front row to study Scruggs’ revolutionary picking. Soon, Crowe was playing with various groups in Kentucky, including an outfit that also featured Curley Parker and Pee Wee Lambert. The young banjo player frequently played on local radio stations, and that is where he got his first major break in 1956. Jimmy Martin was driving through Lexington when he heard Crowe on the radio station, and was so impressed with what he heard that he drove to the station and asked him to join his band, the Sunny Mountain Boys. Crowe immediately accepted and began touring with Martin. While he was in the Sunny Mountain Boys, Crowe didn’t stick to a strict bluegrass set list — he often added rock & roll songs to his repertoire.
J.D. was one of the most influential progressive bluegrass musicians of the ’70s. Initially influenced by Earl Scruggs, as well as rock & roll and the blues, Crowe worked his way through several bands during the ’60s, developing a distinctive instrumental style that melded country, bluegrass, rock, and blues. He began playing the banjo with Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys in mid-1950s. He cut his first recordings with Jimmy Martin on December 1, 1956, and his last on August 17, 1960, recording a total of 33 songs on Decca Records. After spending six years with Martin, Crowe left the Sunny Mountain Boys in 1962 to pursue a solo career. For a while, he played Lexington bars and hotels, developing a new, progressive direction for bluegrass which incorporated stronger elements of folk, blues, and rock. In the mid-’60s, he formed the Kentucky Mountain Boys with Red Allen and Doyle Lawson; they released their first album, Bluegrass Holiday, in 1968 on Lemco Records. The Kentucky Mountain Boys had a varied repertoire, but played solely acoustic instruments. Two other records followed — Ramblin’ Boy and The Model Church — before the group broke up in the early ’70s. Crowe didn’t receive national exposure until the early ’70s when he formed the New South, but after the release of the band’s eponymous debut in 1972 he became a fixture on the bluegrass scene for the next 20 years. . Many influential musicians have been a part of the band over the years, including Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, and Bobby Slone.
During the ’80s, the New South featured an ever-revolving lineup, as former members came back for guest appearances and Crowe discovered fresh, developing talents — the group became known as a source for new musicians who would later go on to individual success. In 1980, Crowe formed the Bluegrass Album Band with Tony Rice, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson, and Todd Phillips. The Bluegrass Album Band toured and recorded sporadically throughout the course of the decade, always to great critical and popular acclaim. J.D. Crowe continued with the New South until 1988, when he decided to retire from the road. Following his decision, he appeared at special, one-shot concerts — including a tour with Tony Rice — but concentrated on studio work, particularly producing records for developing bands. .
Retirement from the road proved somewhat of an selective decision for Crowe, however, and he continued to head the New South’s ever-varying linups, both live and in the studio. Flashback appeared in 1994 from Rounder Records, followed by Come on Down to My World in 1999 and Lefty’s Old Guitar in 2006, both also on Rounder.
Kentucky Educational Television in 2008 aired a biography of J.D. Crowe “A Kentucky Treasure: The J.D. Crowe Story” produced by H. Russell Farmer.
Crowe received the Bluegrass Star Award, presented by the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation of Dallas, Texas, on October 15, 2011. The award is bestowed upon bluegrass artists who do an exemplary job of advancing traditional bluegrass music and bringing it to new audiences while preserving its character and heritage.
- 1968: Bluegrass Holiday (Lemco)
- 1969: The Model Church (Lemco)
- 1971: Ramblin’ Boy (Lemco) – reissued as Blackjack (Rebel)
- 1973: Bluegrass Evolution (Starday)
- 1975: J.D. Crowe and the New South (Rounder)
- 1977: You Can Share My Blanket (Rounder)
- 1978: My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame (Rounder)
- 1981: Somewhere Between (Rounder)
- 1982: Live in Japan (Rounder)
- 1986: Straight Ahead (Rounder)
- 1994: Flashback (Rounder)
- 1999: Come on Down to My World (Rounder)
- 2006: Lefty’s Old Guitar (Rounder)