On a sunny late afternoon last September, the band Nefesh Mountain prepared to take a stage in front of the North Carolina state capitol. They could see a half mile down Fayetteville Street, where tens of thousands of people mingled and moved among eight different stages at Raleigh’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival. A good crowd was left over from the prior act. It seemed like an ideal setting, but singer Doni Zasloff suddenly got uncharacteristically anxious.
“I had a moment where I had this major fear that everybody was going to walk away,” she says in the new episode of The String. “What if everybody just hates us? What if they hear Hebrew and they freak out and they all leave?”
They didn’t. In fact, as the music began to move and swirl, with its unique and beguiling blend of bluegrass and Jewish folk music, the stage proved a magnet. The crowd grew, in its size and its focus. That transcendent energy began to flow between artist and audience. “And then at the end they gave us a standing ovation,” Doni said. “And they cheered when I said we were here to represent diversity in bluegrass. And I thought wow there are moments when you think this world is going to be okay and people are good.”
There’s abundant agreement that Nefesh Mountain are part of what’s good and okay in the world of roots music. Zasloff and banjoist/guitarist Eric Lindberg were both working musicians when they fell in love. About four years ago, they were coaxed by a friend into formalizing their nascent duo experiments and the band was born. They’ve released two albums so far. The second, Under An Open Sky, pulled in special guests like Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and earned widespread praise. They’re not the first to fuse Jewish and bluegrass music. Mandolinists Andy Statman and David Grisman have been one prominent example. But doing so as a formal group is pretty novel, and Lindberg says it comes from he and his wife sharing an interest in spiritual horizons.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Eric heard bluegrass and became aware of that it had sacred and secular channels and when it was religious, it was explicitly Christian. “It’s beautiful that it’s had this spiritual and cultural rock for the Christian community,” he says. “But as a Jewish kid I had a feeling like am I not supposed to play it if I don’t believe in that? I guess I saw these imaginary walls, or maybe they’re not imaginary. I’ve always wanted to be who I am – a Jewish guy who plays this music.” It suited Doni’s temperament as well. “I’ve always been fascinated with music and with being Jewish and what that means to me,” she says. “And I studied it growing up. I was this rebel little girl questioning it and trying to understand it.”
Bluegrass has been on its own journey of discovery in recent years, actively courting groups that have historically been left out of its music scene. When Zasloff saluted diversity on stage, it was a nod to Rhiannon Giddens’ keynote address of the prior year where she said bluegrass was born from many strands of American life and only later became codified as white, Southern and Christian. Lindberg says it’s a thrill to be part of a return to roots that is also a return to true diversity of faith, outlook and background.
“We do find ourselves in this really interesting place where the music means something on a social level that we didn’t intend,” he says. “But I’m excited to talk about this – what it means to be Jewish and American and I think the roots music world is in this amazing place – so many bands and peers of ours making music that is all about breaking down boundaries – and we live in polarizing, weird times.”
Also in the conversation, you’ll hear a detailed account of how Nefesh Mountain took a banjo and bluegrass singing to Pittsburgh in January for a cathartic concert of healing in the wake of October’s Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. It’s a remarkable moment for the genre and for artists who clearly have much more exploring and boundary crossing to do. The song that got them invited to that ceremony is below in video performance.