The Jewish Roots of Coun­try Mu­sic

The Nashville mu­sic scene isn’t heav­ily iden­ti­fied with Jewish tra­di­tions, but the roots are there.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Mar­garet Littman

IfA­dam San­dler’s “The Hanukkah Song” were rewrit­ten with a twang and a steel gui­tar, it would name check the fol­low­ing artists: Si Si­man, Barbi Ben­ton, Nudie Cohn, Bob Dy­lan, Paul Co­hen, Ray Ben­son, Kinky Fried­man (that one might be in the cho­rus; he comes up a lot).

As San­dler would have said, “They’re Jewish, too.” In fact, in ev­ery decade since coun­try mu­sic came into its own in Nashville, Ten­nessee, more than 90 years ago, Jews have in­flu­enced the Mu­sic City sound.

Of course, Jews are not what comes to mind when coun­try mu­sic comes up. Rather, it’s trucks and Buds and Christ­mas al­bums.

Let’s face it, Nashville’s im­age is more about ba­con and bis­cuits than bagels and brisket. Cer­tainly, other than Dy­lan — a man of many gen­res with deep Nashville roots — and Fried­man, who is a Texan, not a Ten­nessean, the names of Jewish coun­try are tough to come up with. Fried­man claims to be the first “full-blooded Jew” to take the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

Still, the in­flu­ence of Jews on the Nashville mu­sic scene, both past and present, is there; in fact, it stares au­di­ences in the face al­most ev­ery time a mu­sic star takes the stage.


We’re talk­ing now about the sig­na­ture look of a coun­try star — the rhine­stones from hat to boots. Those singers wouldn’t shine on­stage but for Nudie Cohn, a Jewish im­mi­grant from Ukraine (born: Nuta Kotl­yarenko).

Cohn started sewing bling on G-strings for bur­lesque dancers

strip­pers, says Bill Miller, who in 2016 opened Nudie’s Honky Tonk, a live mu­sic venue that hon­ors the leg­endary tai­lor. Cohn then used his stitch­ing skills to make one-of-a-kind suits for stars from Johnny Cash to Elvis Pres­ley.

Cohn con­verted to Chris­tian­ity in the 1960s. But his roots as an im­mi­grant and a Jew were threaded through his work and the legacy of “Nudie suit,” which still in­forms the coun­try mu­sic aes­thetic. As bars on the city’s leg­endary Broad­way have be­come more di­verse (you’re now as likely to hear rock as you are coun­try mu­sic), and more like Bour­bon Street than Mu­sic Row, Miller feels that the ex­is­tence of Nudie’s Honky Tonk, with its photos and Nudie suits be­hind glass, and even one of Cohn’s sig­na­ture Cadil­lac El Do­ra­dos sus­pended from a wall, helps con­nect the city and tourists to its past, and to Cohn’s story.

“It was a genre that never had a lot of Jewish peo­ple. It was not a nat­u­ral fit back in those days,” Miller told me. “But he de­fied all the odds. He was short in stature, but a gi­ant among men.” Miller cited Cohn’s in­dus­tri­ous­ness, cre­ativ­ity and im­mi­grant roots as part of what made him a leg­end that still de­fines how peo­ple see Nashville to­day.


Mu­si­cians who have been in this city and its mu­sic in­dus­try for decades agree with Miller’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the Nashville of yore — “not a nat­u­ral fit” when it came to Jews.

Ses­sion mu­si­cians — that spe­cial mu­si­cal breed, able to play a va­ri­ety of styles and gen­res, and of­ten many in­stru­ments — have an es­pe­cially long in­sti­tu­tional mem­ory of the town.

Eric Sil­ver plays gui­tar, man­dolin, vi­o­lin, banjo, bass and pi­ano, and has done so with some of coun­try’s big­gest names, in­clud­ing Keith Ur­ban, the Dixie Chicks and Sha­nia Twain. He grew up Jewish in North Carolina, and moved to Nashville in 1981 to pur­sue his mu­si­cal dreams. While he couldn’t have ar­tic­u­lated this 30 years ago, to­day he has said, “I was al­most afraid that peo­ple would think I re­ally did not be­long here.”

“Now coun­try [mu­sic] is ev­ery­thing,” he said — an amal­gam of some pop, some rock, some Amer­i­cana, some blue­grass.

“In that era, it wasn’t,” Sil­ver said. He re­called that his own style was more pop than tra­di­tional coun­try: “Peo­ple would say, ‘Why don’t you move to L.A.? You’d fit in there.’”

Sil­ver never hid his Ju­daism, but he didn’t an­nounce it, ei­ther. It was a don’t-ask-don’t-tell ap­proach re­peated by other long­time Nashville mu­si­cians in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle. Yet the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence, Sil­ver said, was an im­por­tant part of his back­ground. His great-great-grand­fa­ther was a well­known rabbi; much of his mother’s fam­ily per­ished in the Holo­caust. To­day his brother works in a synaand gogue, teach­ing bar mitzvah stu­dents.

For a while, Sil­ver was hes­i­tant to talk about be­ing Jewish or to make his faith known, “just be­cause it seemed so odd to peo­ple.”

Sil­ver cites jazz and blue­grass man­dolin­ist (and fel­low Jew) David Gris­man, in whose band he played, as one of his cre­ative in­spi­ra­tions. While Gris­man’s mu­sic has no di­rect con­nec­tion to Jewish­ness, Sil­ver said, you can hear it in modal and mi­nor themes. “I don’t know that you can get away from any in­flu­ences you’ve had in your life,” he said.

Sil­ver now splits his time be­tween Nashville and Brazil, and the per­spec­tive of both lo­cales is ob­vi­ous in his cur­rent work. He won a Grammy for the best Brazil­ian roots mu­sic al­bum of 2016.

“To me, this is a folk al­bum,” he said of the record’s tra­di­tions. “There

are about 10 de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion be­tween that and my in­flu­ence, but I don’t know that you can ever get away from your in­flu­ences.”


For oth­ers, the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence comes through in the lyrics. No, you’re not go­ing to hear “L’cha Dodi” sam­pled in a song by the band Florida Ge­or­gia Line. But Cliff Gold­macher, who now lives in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia though he still works and records in Nashville, sees a con­nec­tion be­tween his Jewish back­ground and his own work from “The Great Amer­i­can Song­book,” that col­lec­tion of pop­u­lar songs from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Ge­orge and Ira Gersh­win, he noted, were in­flu­enced by tra­di­tional Yid­dish tunes to cre­ate their canon; those songs then in­flu­enced Gold­macher. “It is not a di­rect line from the Yid­dish, but goes to the Gersh­wins, to my level of con­nec­tions, to con­nec­tions of con­nec­tions and be­yond,” he said.

Sil­ver­man has seen the oc­ca­sional fid­dle player or klezmer mu­sic fan in­cor­po­rate those sounds into con­tem­po­rary coun­try and Amer­i­cana, too.

He’s not alone. Paul Burch, a song­writer, mu­si­cian and cre­ator of “Merid­ian Ris­ing,” an imag­ined mu­si­cal autobiography of coun­try mu­sic pi­o­neer Jim­mie Rodgers, said, “I know [a Jewish in­flu­ence] works into my lyrics some­times, mostly be­cause those kinds of phrases are so old and so es­tab­lished.”

Asked for an ex­am­ple, he said: “There’s a song on one of my records where each line be­gins, ‘Why is this love un­like any other?’ I wasn’t think­ing of car­ry­ing on a Jewish tra­di­tion by writ­ing that. But those are the kinds of things that are in my head be­cause they’re very renewing kinds of phrases. You hear them ev­ery year, even if you’re not very ob­ser­vant (which I’m typ­i­cally not).”

In his mu­sic, Burch strives for lyrics that are like a book you reread as you age, rather than just a sum­mer snow cone, with its fleet­ing sat­is­fac­tion.

“You have to be re­ally f--king smart to [de­cide], ‘I’m go­ing to write some­thing and it might take 20 times, but on that 20th time some­one is go­ing to re­al­ize that I’m do­ing some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than some­one else,’” he said. “That’s the whole al­tru­is­tic trip. That’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween pop mu­sic and mu­sic that’s go­ing to stay around for a long time: the idea is that pop is go­ing to be en­joyed on a very sort of sur­face level or sort of re­me­dial level. The mu­sic that re­ally hits you is go­ing to hit you first emo­tion­ally, and then you’ll think about it more and think about it more. I love that. Most of the mu­sic I like I’m still hear­ing it dif­fer­ently than I did when I was a kid.”

In striv­ing for this goal, Burch said, the chest­nut about Ju­daism en­cour­ag­ing its flock to ask ques­tions is at the root of the lyri­cist’s quest. “Why?” he be­lieves, is the es­sen­tial ques­tion for both a song­writer and a Jew.


ROOTS MU­SI­CIAN: Mul­ti­in­stru­men­tal­ist Eric Sil­ver is the great-great-grand­son of a rabbi.


KIND OF BLUE­GRASS: David Gris­man’s Jewish­ness can be heard in cer­tain mu­si­cal mo­tifs.

MAD HAT­TER: At left, Nudie Cohn, who cre­ated elab­o­rately em­broi­dered stagewear for coun­try artists.


Many Nashville mu­si­cians have adopted a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ap­proach to their Jewish back­ground. NASHVILLE SKY­LINE: Down­town Nashville seen from Broad­way Ave.


HER­ITAGE: Paul Burch made a mu­si­cal about mu­sic pi­o­neer Jimmy Rodgers.

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