Kentucky Bluegrass via Kelsey Crews

Kelsey, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this man, care to introduce yourself?

Hi! My name is Kelsey Crews, I am primarily a banjo, mandolin, and guitar musician. I perform and teach all kinds of music from Bluegrass to Country to most any other styles of music. I also create social media content when I’m not playing. I am based out of Nashville, and I work wherever the music takes me!

JED: Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. How did you get into music, and what made you choose this path over others?

I am originally from Glasgow, KY. I grew up on a farm outside of town. About the age of 6, I started listening to my Dad who would play and sing old country songs from people like Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Lefty Frizzell. My dad only knew about three chords on guitar, D, A, and G, but this was enough to get me interested. He also loved bluegrass, so that was my start. I remember the first bluegrass record I ever listened to was a JD Crowe 45 rpm, which included Red Allen, Bobby Slone, and Doyle Lawson. That sparked my interest, and after learning a bit on guitar, I insisted that I get a banjo.

JED: How old would you have been when you decided you wanted a banjo?

I think I was around 10 years old when I got my first banjo. I was drawn to that particular instrument for whatever reason I’m not sure. I suppose each of us are drawn to different instruments and styles, perhaps depending on what artist or musician stands out to us. 

Kelsey’s baby picture with his Mom (Sarah) and Dad (William.) June 4th 1998.

From there, I spent all my time on nothing but music. I knew this was my calling. My father passed away when I was 12 years old. I then moved to Nashville with my mother, and that’s where I really got to meet a lot of folks in the scene.

JED: Wow man, I didn’t realize your dad had passed away when you were so young. I can’t imagine how difficult that must’ve been. So you were in Glasgow up until about age 12? What part of Nashville did you grow up in?

Yes, I had a wonderful childhood, and many fond memories of Kentucky. My family was very supportive. After the death of my father, My mother decided to make the move, with my music career in mind, We came to Nashville. I started my first year of high School in Franklin. I lived in Brentwood on the Nolensville side.

I later had the pleasure of meeting, playing, and recording with a few of my heroes. I now am blessed to have many friends, and now what I consider family, in this music.

JED: Oh that’s cool! Who are some of your heroes that you’ve gotten to share music with? 

I’ve had the pleasure of making music with many wonderful people. Some of them were childhood heroes, and some of them became my heroes after joining their bands or playing with them. Ray Cardwell became a good friend and mentor, he was like a big brother. I learned to grow in his band. He taught me so much about how to be in a band, and one of my biggest influences while learning vocal harmony.

I’ve had the pleasure of picking with many other of my heroes, and I’m sure probably heores to many folks, such as Roland White and Sam Bush, Curtis Burch, Pat Flynn, David Grier, Wayne Lewis, Mike Bub, just to name a few. Of course we all love JT Gray, and he has become one of my biggest heroes and dearest friends.

What is really cool for me is that I have many friends here that reach way back to my folks in my hometown that play music.

Kelsey and Curtis Burch at the Plaza Theater. Photo by Justin Clark. 2016.

JED: So there is a community of musicians in town that hail from the Glasgow area?

Not so much that there are musicians from that area that live in Nashville, but many don’t know that Newgrass Revival started in that area. Courtney Johnson lived in Barren County his whole life and career, and was the connection from the Nashville circuit of music and musicians, to that part of the world. All of the members, including Sam, lived there at one point or another. There is a whole different sound that is acquainted with that area of KY, and that is where my style originated.

Music is still my passion, and I have no regrets in choosing this path, only that my father could be here to enjoy it.

JED: Ya know something that has been a recurring theme when I ask people that question is that they say they didn’t really feel they had much of a choice; it’s almost like the path chose them. Do you relate to that sentiment?

I agree with that 100%. Obviously everyone has the choice not to pursue music, but when the music is in your soul, that is the path you must take.

JED: What are some of your favorite albums, and how do they influence your work?

When I was starting out, some of the guys from the early Newgrass Revival became good friends of mine, including the great Curtis Burch. All of Newgrass’s early albums influenced me greatly through Courtney Johnsons’s banjo playing, and the new things they were doing with the music at the time. 

I always got so much out of Courtney’s picking. He knew how to put just the right amount of melodic playing in with hard driving phrases. This gave so much drive to the melodic style. I think you can play too much melodic or too many licks, and your playing loses drive and taste. He played some of the most soulful and beautiful melodies, but could switch into high gear and play some of the most nitty-gritty, bad-ass, red rooster claw, string bendin’ pickin’ you ever heard. A Lot of times they would play tunes that had a lot of syncopated rhythms in it. Now Courtney didn’t always understand Syncopation, coming from a straight grass background, but he always came up with his own thing and it never failed to be something amazing, and that’s what set him apart from everybody else. The reason I say all this is because I know most people don’t appreciate his picking like I do, but you’ve got to understand, that’s what made Courtney, Courtney. In my opinion, his organic, heartfelt, soulful banjo style is still in a league all of its own, and I am honored to carry on his music. Courtney gave 100% to the music 100% of the time.

I am also a big Seldom Scene study, mostly for the vocal parts.

JED: What are some of your favorite NGR & Seldom Scene records?

It would be hard to choose, each record from each band brought something different. Personally when I run across bootleg live shows, I tend to study those even more, That is where the real music happens, in real time.

JED: Yeah man I can see that. The stage puts some additional pressure on the band to really deliver the goods and thus those live shows can really capture a moment that the studio can’t. Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.?

Early on, I was sure I wanted to spend the rest of my days on the road. Nowadays, after having traveled half the globe, I enjoy studio work, running my online content, teaching, writing, and any new projects that come my way; although, being on the road with the Farmhands is great right now.

JED: Did the road just wear you out? I always feel like I romanticize getting to tour extensively until I go out for a weekend run and eat fastfood 2-3 times a day, don’t get any sleep, and arrive home as broke as when I left. Haha! Maybe I just need better gigs.

The road has been very rough at times. I think every musician goes through this starting out. I have been cramped up in the back of a 6 passenger SUV for 14 hours at a time. No leg room and not much pay. I have also been on very comfortable tour busses with great pay and very enjoyable music and musicians. 

Kelsey performing with Pat Flynn. Bowling Green, KY 2018

Right now I am with the Farmhands. Tim has a great vintage 40’ 1971 MCI, great shower, with soft bunks. We work hard, but we stay very busy. I am very thankful, the future looks very bright. The good Lord has blessed me. 

JED: What are three musicians today do you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?

That is easy. Listen folks; COURTNEY JOHNSON. JOHN DUFFEY. CURTIS BURCH. JOHN STARLING. Yes this is more than three, and three of which have passed away, but they deserve notoriety.

Courtney was my all time banjo idol, as I explained before.

Curtis Burch has been a great friend of mine for many years, and I am very honored and thankful for his friendship. He has taught me more about music theory, chord work, and told me more stories of music past than I ever imagined possible. I think Curtis is one of the most underrated musicians of our time and Newgrass Revival would not be what it is today without him.

As I said before, I am a very big Seldom Scene study. John Duffey and John Starling have been two of the most influential vocalists for me and my career. 

Duffey grew up in a household where both his parents were professional operatic singers, so he was taught correct vocalization from the start. In my opinion, he remains one of the greatest tenors of our time. 

John Starling still remains one of my favorite lead singers ever. His phrasing, tone, and soul felt conviction still remains untouched. 

This is part of what made the Scene so great.

JED: Tell us a little bit about your current rig – what does your “rig” consist of? What instrument(s) do you play, pedals, mics, etc.?

I don’t do much in the way of electric, other than the occasional pickup and fishman preamp. I play Hatfield Banjos, and Ed Weber Banjos. I also play a Collings A-model varnish mandolin, and a 2002 HD-28 martin guitar.

JED: Man I used to be a Collings diehard. I’ve owned 2 CWMhas and a D2HAV all of which were fantastic instruments. Right when I bought my last Collings the varnish finish option was becoming popular. It is a pretty substantial upcharge for that finish isn’t it? Do you think it makes a strong tonal difference over a traditional finish?

Actually I bought mine from an individual. I’m not sure if the varnish perk factored into the price or not. Yes, I think Varnish and lacquer allows the wood to breath and therefore age well. If you’ve got polyurethane on one, you might as well pour concrete over it.

JED: Interesting man. If you were given an unlimited budget for an album production to record your dream album, what would it look like?

Photo by Kelsey. 2020.

It would be ungodly.

JED: That is, without question, the most concise response to that question I’ve ever gotten. I almost don’t really want to ask for more details and just leave it at that, but just because I’m curious; Who would you want to record on it? What kind of tunes would you want to record? Who would you want to engineer and mix it? Would you want to self-produce or would you want someone else’s input?

I would definitely spare no expense. I would pay whatever it took to have every musician for as long as needed and make it as great as it could be. I would definitely have all of my hero pickers and friends. Each track would have whoever needed so as to give it exactly what is required of the song. Given that there would be no track limit, half would probably be originals, the rest would be covers and originals by those joining me on the record.

I have recorded quite a bit up at Chris Lathams’s studio. He is a good guy, and has the same mindset of what you need done. He’s already got it done before you ask. I would definitely self-produce, but would be open to others input.

JED: What is your favorite album or recording that you’ve made to date?

I guess one of the coolest records I ever played on was Ray Cardwell’s “Stand on my own” album. A lot of great music, and it was the first time founding member, and later member of Newgrass Revival ever recorded together; Curtis Burch and Pat Flynn, respectively. They’re two of my great friends. It was an honor to be a part of that.

JED: What are you currently working on?

I currently create online social media content, gaining quite a following. As I said, social media is a wonderful way to share exactly what you do, and who you are, organically. I also teach on the side and work the road with the Farmhands. My fellow bandmates are very open-minded and the music is very intriguing. We are currently working on a new record that will be coming out on Pinecastle in January. I also work on my own projects off and on. I am very blessed and many great things are happening.

JED: It is great that you’ve been able to stay busy during a time when so many musicians have struggled to make ends meet. Kelsey thank you for being willing to interview with us and talk to me about your music man. Stay safe on the road and don’t be a stranger!

Jed, thank you for having me, it’s always a pleasure.

Keep in touch with Kelsey via his website and Instagram. Featured article photo by LuAnn Smith.