You shouldn’t change the way you address or interact with someone you’ve known for years, even if the most prestigious of honors come their way. At least, J.D. Crowe doesn’t think you should.
The legions of associates and musicians inspired by the Grammy-winning Central Kentucky banjo legend still address him simply, but very respectfully, as Crowe.
The fans who have followed his music over the past six decades – from his formative years with bluegrass great Jimmy Martin to his ’60s gigs with the Kentucky Mountain Boys to the groundbreaking blend of traditional and progressive string sounds forged with the New South – rely on a less formal though equally endearing means of greeting. To them, he will always be J.D.
From a purely technical standpoint, that changes this weekend. With his final performance with the New South at hand and retirement from touring (but not from all artistic duties) set to begin, Crowe will receive an honorary doctorate tonight from the University of Kentucky for his career’s work and music.
That will officially make the banjoist Dr. Crowe. But here’s a tip: Don’t call him that.
“I tell you, if you want to tick me off, call me Doctor,” said Crowe, 75. “That’s not where it is. That’s not what it is. If you’re involved with education or with UK, I can maybe see calling somebody that. With a real doctorate, I can see that. Not an honorary doctorate. That’s the way I look at it.”
Such a response shouldn’t indicate for a second that the honor isn’t welcome. Crowe is openly thrilled by it. But despite the recognitions that have come his way in an extraordinarily influential bluegrass career – the Grammy, induction into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and adulation from successive generations of artists and musicians – Crowe remains unspoiled.
“Of all the accolades I’ve had, this has to be right up there at the top. For one thing, there’s the doctorate itself. But the next thing is where it came from.UK. Because I’m a big UK fan. That right there is like two honors.
“I’ll have to go to the commencement just to see you in cap and gown,” added longtime friend H. Russell Farmer, producer/director of the 2008 KET documentary A Kentucky Treasure: The J.D. Crowe Story.
Crowe responded with laughter. “I keep telling people it took me 60 years to get this. But, no, don’t call me Doctor. Don’t even call me Mister. I’m still J.D.”
Retirement from the road: On Saturday, one night after receiving the doctorate, Crowe will travel to The Birchmere in Arlington, Va. to play his final concert with the New South, the pioneering bluegrass band he has led, in various lineups, for more than 35 years. After that, he will retire from touring and bandleading duties. Crowe will continue to play occasional concerts with all-star groups and special friends. After this weekend, though, his tenure as chieftain of the New South will be complete.
“I told my band at the first of the year that this was what I was doing. It wasn’t really a surprise. It was just time. I’m just relieving myself of the responsibility of having a band.
“Luckily, the guys I’ve got with me now, they’re good people and great pickers. It’s probably the easiest band I’ve ever had to work with.”
Crowe retired from the road once before, in 1988. But the reasons then were different. The cumulative demands of leading a bluegrass band during an era when commercial interest in the music had started to wane, along with a never-ending touring schedule that he was largely booking himself, was taking a toll on the banjoist and his music.
“I was just burned out. The band wasn’t really what I thought it should have been given the amount of talent that was there. There was the traveling and all the booking. I was tired.
“I had a little different outlook on everything when I came back (in 1994). I said, ‘I’m going to play the music I want to play, regardless. If they don’t like it, tough. I wanted everyone to know that was the situation when I hired them into the band. We’re going to play what we want to play.”
To the musicians who passed through the various New South lineups over the years – including progressive bluegrass virtuosos Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice, country stars Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, and longtime ally Bobby Slone – Crowe became as much a mentoring figure as a bandleader. Testimonials from many New South alumni, and interviews with musical pals whose association with Crowe predated the New South (Doyle Lawson), and with high-profile fans (Alison Krauss) are featured in Farmer’s documentary.
“It wasn’t supposed to be that involved,” Farmer said. “I told Crowe, ‘Do you mind if I follow you around with a camera for a couple of days?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ But then I started doing some research and found out that something like this needed to be done better and bigger.
“The other thing that made the documentary so successful was the eagerness of the artists we interviewed. I didn’t ask any of them to go out of their way. Everyone was eager to do it.”
“It’s a great feeling to go to these people today and know you’re still friends, still buddies,” Crowe said. “Most of the guys who played with me, they’re like brothers, but closer. I learned as much from them as they learned from me – without them knowing it, of course.”
Deserving the doctorate: Tom Adler found a legion of educators, artists and political figures to be in equal admiration of Crowe’s music and accomplishments.
That discovery surfaced when the Lexington folklorist, author and fellow banjoist went in search of letters of recommendation. The letters were forwarded to an anonymous nominating committee at UK that, in turn, made recommendations for honorary doctorate recipients to the university’s board of trustees.
“The inspiration just came from my love and respect for J.D. Crowe,” Adler said. “That’s what put the energy into it for me. He has always been a hero of mine and to 100,000 other banjo players from around the country. Next to Earl Scruggs, he is unquestionably the most influential banjo player there is. So I thought, ‘Who better deserves a doctorate from the University of Kentucky than J.D.?’
The primary concern UK came back to Adler about had nothing to do with Crowe’s artistic merit for a doctorate. Adler said the institution wanted to make sure Crowe would be in attendance for the commencement. Turns out that was an issue the only other time UK awarded an honorary doctorate to a bluegrass artist.
“Apparently that came up in ’84 when Bill Monroe was to receive a doctorate,” Adler said. “Probably, in his characteristic way, he said he had a concert booking to honor the same day as the commencement.”
Monroe wound up receiving the honor in 1985.
“The doctorate was mentioned to me a while back,” Crowe said. “I mean, you hear all this and it goes in one ear and out the other. I thought, ‘Yeah. That would be great.’ But I figured it wouldn’t ever happen. But all of a sudden, here it is.”