Nefesh Mountain

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The question is not, how do we get diversity into bluegrass, but how do we get diversity back into bluegrass?
— Rhiannon Giddens in her 2017 address to the International Bluegrass Music Association

Your attention, please!

Yes, Beneath the Open Sky is a bluegrass album.

Yes, some of its lyrics are sung in Hebrew.

No, it isn’t a gimmick or a parody.  And, no, it’s not klezmer music.

Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s hear Beneath the Open Sky for what it really is: a soulful, euphoric, folk-flavored outpouring of hope and joy, propelled by the kind of crisp, crystalline picking that gives lyrics wings.  It’s a distinctively Nefesh Mountain sound.

Formed in 2014 by the husband and wife duo of Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, Nefesh Mountain first enchanted the bluegrass world in 2016 with its self-titled debut album.  The band quickly followed with two charming music videos--“The Hanukkah Dance” and “Hanukkah’s Flame”--that showcased Woody Guthrie’s fascination with Jewish traditions.  Each successive outing from Nefesh Mountain has enriched the bluegrass canon and significantly widened its audiences.

Beneath the Open Sky is very much a hands-on undertaking.  Besides writing or arranging all 11 songs, Lindberg and Zasloff also co-produced the album. They recorded it in Nashville with the instrumental backing of Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tony Trischka and David Grier, aided by Nefesh Mountain’s touring band members,  Alan Grubner on fiddle and Tim Kiah on bass.  A dazzling picker in his own right, Lindberg provides lead guitar and banjo strands, while Zasloff soars with some of the most melodic, incisive and soul-stirring vocals we’ve heard since Mary Travers first took the spotlight.

Lindberg and Zasloff draw four of the album’s songs from the folk tradition—“Bound for the Promised Land,” “I Want to Hear Somebody Pray,” “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “Kitchen Gal,” investing each of these ancient tunes with new insights and, in some cases, new lyrics.”  Of the new material, “A Mighty Roar” urges us to savor the earth’s majestic melodies; “The Narrow Bridge” sings of the earth’s resilience, even in “troubled times” such as our own; “Halleluyah” counsels us to “breathe in this world/with all of its wonders”; and “On and On (L’dor Vador)” offers the reassurance that “the light in us shines on and on.”

“Eretz’s  Reel,” the album’s lone instrumental offering, is a heart-racing, fox and dogs chase with Lindberg’s sprinting banjo leading the pack.  “Oseh Shalom,” sung largely in Hebrew, rings loud and passionately as a plea for peace and love.  Lindberg and Zasloff close the album with Irving Berlin’s seldom-performed “Russian Lullaby,” a song Zasloff says is “very special” to her:

“My grandmother Mildred, who was born in Poland, used to sing that song to my mother.  And then my mother—every night—would sing it to me, as my grandmother would when I was little.  It always meant so much to me because there’s something so sad and so hopeful, sweet and touching about it.  It just felt the right way to end the album.”

Throughout these songs, you can hear the foundational similarities between bluegrass and Jewish traditions, notably the lure of “home,” the love of nature and the comforts of a like-minded community.  Jerusalem Ridge, Rocky Top, Flint Hill and Nefesh Mountain are clearly parts of the same eternal chain. 

Both native New Yorkers, Lindberg and Zasloff have long and strong ties to bluegrass.  “I grew up in Brooklyn,” says Lindberg, “but my dad’s side of the family, which was not Jewish—he converted when he married my mother—lived in rural Georgia.  I would go down and hang out with my uncles, who were great guitar players.  We’d hike the Appalachian Trail and listen to old-time music.  Something in my soul responded to those feelings I had when I was down South.  In my early teenage years, I started being exposed to guys like Bela Fleck and then taking that and going really deep into Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.”

Zasloff says her musical preferences were the same.  “I’ve always felt like a bit of a cowgirl.  I’ve always been a free spirit—always musical and always drawn to country, bluegrass and folk.  I feel it’s so pure and truthful and real.  When I met Eric, it was like a match made in heaven.”

“When we choose to speak in Hebrew,” Lindberg continues, “it’s just us celebrating—  not so much religion as our culture.  I’ve never felt a language barrier when I’m listening to West African or Celtic music.  I was talking to Jerry Douglas about this.  There’s the “Transatlantic Sessions” he did over in Ireland, and so much of the music was in some form of Gaelic. But regardless of the language, all I got a sense of was the beautiful melodies and this rich tradition that I wanted to learn more about and be a part of by just listening.”

“We want to have a chance to share our story with everybody,” Zasloff adds. “What we’re doing gives us the opportunity to open some people’s minds and hearts to Jewish and other cultures.  We’re all in the same boat here.  We’re all trying to figure it out.”