What’s Jewish about… country music?

Kinky Friedman is easily the most openly Jewish of country stars; he calls his backing band The Texas Jewboys, for one thing. And he has songs like "Ride 'Em, Jewboy" (that's Willie Nelson singing it) and his signature "They Ain't Makin' Jews like Jesus Anymore." But even if the discussion about Jews in country music starts with Kinky Friedman, it doesn't end there. Or with Borat, either.

In the world of mainstream country, there is one Jewish singer who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Literally- he's 6-foot-7. His name is Roy Benson, and he's the leader of the massive band called Asleep at the Wheel. They play Western swing, which takes country songs and adds a big-band swing, or they also run it the other way, taking classic swing or pop tunes and country-fying them.

Another country-like genre is bluegrass. So much Jewish music is being made in this mode that there is a sub-genre called- you guessed it- "Jewgrass." Its pioneers are no less than mandolin virtuosi David Grisman and Andy Statman. So far they have two albums out in their Songs of Our Fathers series, in which they give the bluegrass treatment to Jewish classics.

Statman is also famous as a klezmer clarinetist, so he is likely a fan of the Klezmer Mountain Boys (a pun on the band Yonder Mountain), founded by Klezmatics clarinetist Margo Leverett. Rabbi Bruce Adler also performs Jewish bluegrass, noting that he's "been a mountain man ever since the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai."

On a local note, Noam Pikelny is a banjo player who went to the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, studied country music, ate some lox, and ended up in a band called Leftover Salmon. He was also in Punch Brothers, and was recently nominated for a Grammy for his bluegrass banjo work.

And then there is Lucky Break, whose website describes them as "a band of veteran bluegrass singers and instrumentalists who combine the stark beauty of Appalachian music with Shabbat Z'mirot." But if you prefer a more Texas-style approach to your country-music Friday night service, you can find that at a congregation near Austin, because Shabbat at Shoal Creek is exactly that.

There are some Jewish performers who like to explore country among other sounds, like children's singer Mama Doni and the Albuquerque-based Rabbi Joe Black. But Texas-dwelling Robbi Sherwin has several albums of Jewish music, most of which are country-inflected.

The expression "Jewish songwriter" is pretty much a cliché, and that stands true even in Nashville. Daniel Antopolsky's story is so interesting they are making a documentary about it.

Arnold Rosenthal bills himself as "The world's first Jewish country singer," although as we have seen some might take issue with that. And Billy Kirsch has had his songs performed by Wynonna Judd, Kenny Rogers, and Alabama.

Jewish rock musicians who have dipped their toe in the Nashville River include Bob Dylan, with his classic albums John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. More recently, Neil Diamond visited Nashville to record Tennessee Moon, which included a country-fried remake of his standby "Kentucky Woman." And Simon and Garfunkel adopted a country sound for the track "Keep the Customer Satisfied," on their classic Bridge Over Troubled Water album.

Even Jewish actresses perform country music. Barbi Benton (born Barbara Klein) was a Hee-Haw regular. And Mare Winningham (born Mary) revealed her country pipes in the movie Georgia; she has since converted to Judaism and recorded the Jewish country album Refuge Rock Sublime

But you don't have to be Jewish to perform Jewish country music. Charlie Daniels, of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" fame, is a big Israel booster, and has performed HaTikva in concert. In Israel, where they know a thing or two about violin playing.

For a more comprehensive look at the Jewish contribution to country music, here is a longer piece clocking in at (an appropriate) 18 pages.

Jews love country music- especially bluegrass- so much, some Jewish filmmakers even directed a whole movie about it, so we'll close with Jewish actor Time Blake Nelson singing a song from that soundtrack.  Turns out, the answer to the question "O Brother, where art thou?" is "In a country-music video."

Paul Wieder photo 2013
Paul Wieder is putting Jewish music on your playlist! Plus updates on Jewish music festivals, reviews of Jewish music websites and blogs, and insights from Jewish music producers and promoters. Let’s make Jewish music part of your well-balanced musical diet!... Read More

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