March 20, 2008
Jewgrass adds a new song to the South
(Page 2 - Previous Page)So it's something of a surprise to find that actress Mare Winningham came out with a country Jewgrass album last year. Technically speaking, "Refuge Rock Sublime" isn't bluegrass. True, it is largely acoustic, but most of its songs are slow waltzes -- bluegrass prefers a very brisk 4/4 time -- and it is, in its way, more old-timey than bluegrass itself. It doesn't depend on breakneck virtuosity or complicated vocal harmonies. Beyond its fiddle-and-mandolin adaptations of Hebrew prayer, a country weeper or two and some slow religious ballads, it also contains music that could come straight out of an early 19th century Christian hymnal. In other words, Winningham has come up with something eerie and often quite beautiful: the first country gospel album for Jews.
There are some early indications that Jewgrass might actually have legs. Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys have a following and are in the process of recording a new CD. The Sinai Mountain Boys are also in the studio and, like Rocky Mountain Jewgrass, are beginning to play to wider (and non-Jewish) audiences at bluegrass and folk festivals.
In the end, this success and the rather uncanny weirdness that makes Jewgrass so interesting also poses a problem. Jewgrass musicians are either pioneers or outliers, and their music will either become an innovation or remain a novelty.
It's hard to know which to hope for. If the viral creativity of the Web helps it go mainstream, Jewgrass will lose its weirdness and will most likely fall into to a series of easy cliches. And both Judaism and bluegrass have more than their share of comfortable conventions. On the other hand, if Jewgrass remains just weird, then its seriousness -- as music and as an expression of Yiddishkayt -- will lose out to its sheer peculiarity. So Jewgrass faces the dilemma of all hybrid forms and composite names. Its future will depend on which half of this newfangled term -- the Jew or the grass -- prevails.
This article is reprinted from The Forward with permission.
The Sinai Mountain Boys
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