Marty Godbey on the Music Life of J.D. Crowe

University of Illinois Press, 2011.
University of Illinois Press, 2011.

J.D. Crowe mentioned the biography that Marty Godbey has written about his life of music at the recent concert he and the New South gave at the Emelin Theater in Mamaroneck, New York. He had twelve copies of the book with him, all of which sold at intermission. Kristin gave me a copy of Ms. Godbey’s  Crowe on the Banjo: The Music Life of J.D. Crowe (University of Illinois Press, 2011) for Christmas. There are so many things that I like about this book that I made a list.

  • J.D. Crowe and the New South’s albums are covered with details from inside and outside the studio. I gained insight into J.D.’s role as a producer and artist because of explanations related to personnel choices and song selections. Snippets from album reviews are also included.
  • Ms. Godbey and her husband, Frank, first heard J.D. in Columbus, Ohio in 1967 before hearing him with Red Allen at Red’s invitation to The Red Slipper Lounge in Lexington, Kentucky the following year. This history I learned from their liner notes in the re-release of Bluegrass Holiday (Rebel, 2007). For venues in Lexington but also elsewhere, the author describes the ambiance, location, sound system, ownership, and audience composition in Crowe on the Banjo.
  • J.D. has played with many pickers. The pedigree of so many musicians, where they are born, what instruments they played, and their influences, could easily get repetitive and boring in the hands of a lesser writer. I drank up every detail of each picker and will probably read the book at least one more time.
  • I relate to writers best who have a nose for what satisfies my curiosity. Which famous musicians did J.D. meet that passed through the Louisiana Hayride? Detroit? Did he ever hear Elvis? What did he think? What was life on the road with Jimmy Martin like? What is his connection to the electric guitar? How did he evolve into a sound distinct from Earl Scruggs and uniquely “J.D. Crowe”? It’s all there.
  • I learned how songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, Tom Paxton and Paul Simon came to be included in J.D.’s repertoire. Ms. Godbey identifies answers among J.D. and his band members as to why their bluegrass treatments of these songs works so well.
  • J.D.’s banjos, their provenance, modifications, and wear on the road.
  • Photos that are strikingly handsome and vivid. Accompanied by detailed captions, they add a dimension to the book that underscores J.D.’s warmth and mastery. Many of the pictures, including the cover, were taken either by Marty or Frank Godbey.

Ms. Godbey approached the analysis of Crowe’s sound comprehensively. She skillfully shares the vantage point of listener and fan, technician and musician, historian and contemporary, even sister and father. Tragically, she died on December 23, 2010, while the manuscript was “in production.” Her husband, Frank Godbey, saw the book through to publication.