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J.D. Crowe plays "Lefty's Old Guitar"

By John Lupton, November 2006

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The title song of the new disc refers, of course, to Lefty Frizzell, a musical hero from Crowe's teen years.

"I saw Lefty when I was like 12, 13 years old. I saw him when he was like, in his 20s and he had 4 or 5 top songs in the top 10. I saw him, at that time, in the early 50s."

By the late 1950s, Crowe had gotten his big break as a member of Jimmy Martin's Sunny Mountain Boys.

"When I was with Jimmy, we were at the Louisiana Hayride at the time, and we were working a gig out in Texas, and Lefty came to the show. And, of course, Jimmy knew him from being on the Opry. Jimmy was with (Bill) Monroe for a while, you know, and Jimmy knew Lefty and all those guys, and so...we went out at a restaurant or something. I remember sitting and talking, and that was before he made his comeback in the ‘60s. This was like ‘58, ‘59 when this happened. And then in ‘60, in this comeback he did ‘Saginaw, Michigan' and some other stuff. Lefty's always been one of my favorite singers."

Another song on the album that hearkens back to that "Golden Era" of country music is "Bluebonnet Lane," written by Cindy Walker, one of the great writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s in Nashville.

"I heard Jim and Jesse do that years ago. They recorded that, I mean, I guess back in the ‘60s, and I've always liked that song. And it lends itself to do just a straight lead, or you can do a high lead on it, and on this with Dwight singing tenor I thought it would be a good solo for him to sing that particular song."

The pairing of McCall and Wasson, possibly the strongest in the New South's long run, hits its stride on McCall's "I Only Wish You Knew," nearly reaching the kind of "brother duet" sound of the Louvins and the aforementioned Jim and Jesse. Crowe says that wasn't intentional. It's just how they do it.

"It's just kind of natural, Whatever we do, you know, it just kind of works out to sound that way. With Dwight doing the high lead, and then he went ahead and did the tenor, and Ricky did the low tenor on it. We went ahead and did that, because (Dwight) wrote the song, and he had the feel for it."

Looking back on his years with the mercurial Martin, Crowe laments that more than a few of today's talents haven't learned the same lessons he did about professionalism.

"I worked with Jimmy for five years, and I learned a lot from Jimmy. Jimmy knew the way to entertain, the way to act on stage."

He pauses and laughs in acknowledgment of Martin's occasional tempestuousness and continues, "Of course, sometimes in his later years he got a little away from it. But I mean, basically, back in the days I was with him, he was very serious about the music, and he didn't pull those antics that he did in later years."

"But I learned a lot from him, you know - stage presence, and above all, do the music as good as you can, and keep it solid, and look like you know what you're doing. Be professional about it. Don't stand on the stage and tune all the time and all that stuff. I notice a lot of them do that, and it just drives me up the wall. He always said, ‘Get the instrument to where it stays in tune,' and he said a lot of it is a habit, and it is. A lot of it is a habit, and it's easy to fall into that."

Bluegrass fans have long talked about the "Jimmy Martin sound," a melding of banjo and mandolin timing and rhythm that, when combined with Martin's signature "sock" rhythm guitar playing produced music with an irresistible feel and drive. Crowe takes more than a little pride at pointing out that he was in on the ground floor.

"Myself and Paul Williams (mandolin), when we were with Jimmy, we rehearsed. We started that style. Jimmy knew what he wanted, and we just happened to be with him, so we learned what he wanted to hear, and so that was what his favorite thing was, that trio right there, and he wanted everybody to sound like that that came with him. That was his big thing, and, of course, you can't get people to do that. You have to let them sound a little bit like their own selves. But his thing was he wanted it to sound as close to that sound as you could get. And nobody else really got that sound that Paul and I did with him because we were the originators. We started with him with that stuff. We learned it with him, see."

He quickly notes, though - as New South fans of 30 years and counting are well aware - he's moved on and will in all likelihood continue doing things his own way as he forges into his 70s.

"I'm not doing Jimmy Martin now. I'm doing my own thing. It's the material I'm doing, that's what you've got to work with."

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