Eric Lindberg lets out a big sigh as he acknowledges a conundrum that has come with increasing success.
As bluegrass devotees and Jews, he and his wife, Doni Zasloff — the husband-and-wife duo at the center of the Nefesh Mountain bluegrass band — find themselves threading a needle as they attempt to widen their audiences for their particular brand of Americana-inspired music.
On one hand, they are the latest stylists of a decades-old sound that continues to remain largely identified with a distinctive slice of the national landscape. On the other hand, they infuse Jewish spirituality — sometimes singing in Hebrew — into performances and recordings that have helped the band gain a steady following.
Yet the two, who live in Montclair, enthusiastically maintain that there is no stylistic incongruity as they go about balancing their musical passions with their identities. And it is this unique blend of sounds and commitment that they will take to the stage of the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Dec. 21.
“Musicians don’t like labels,” says Lindberg. “Even ‘bluegrass’ doesn’t sum up what we do. We do Americana and folk with bluegrass instrumentation, like the banjo.”
He adds that other than an occasional melodic flourish, their compositions are far removed from klezmer, the musical genre associated with Jews who have Eastern European origins.
“As musicians, artists and composers, we’re trying to tell the story of who we are. It’s not easy to be a Jewish-American, especially in this political climate. But we can’t deny our DNA. We’re trying to be open about it. We always wear the (Jewish) star on our chests. We’re proud to be who we are. At this point in history, we can’t shy away from it.”
To be sure, the atmosphere in the U.S. can sometimes feel thick with hostility. From the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., to a growing number of hate crimes, a backdrop of intolerance and uncertainty has increasingly become a part of everyday life for the nation’s Jewish communities. But Zasloff and Lindberg also see this as an opportunity to use music for a greater good.
For example, they wrote a prayer-like song called “Tree of Life,” which is named after the Pittsburgh synagogue where a 2018 shooting left 11 people dead. The ballad, which appears on their 2021 album Songs for the Sparrows, has an old-timey, Appalachian feel and a universal theme.
“In order to do what we do with this band, we’ve branded ourselves as bluegrass, but at the core, we don’t like to follow rules,” says Lindberg. “And there was no roadmap. So when you freely admit there are no walls, no genres, you just make music that’s honest. But what we’re also trying to get at through our music is to represent Americans as a group.”
Formed in 2015, Nefesh Mountain came about after Zasloff — a former preschool music teacher with a background in Jewish studies and theater — spent a few years with another band that was something of a precursor to her current group. That earlier effort combined traditional Jewish music with other sounds, although it was oriented more toward kids.
But after she and Lindberg met and began working more closely together, they formed a duo that blended her focus on Jewish spirituality and diverse sounds with his own tastes toward bluegrass, folk, blues and jazz. They instinctively found themselves embracing bluegrass as their favored genre, although they sometimes add dollops of a Celtic or klezmer melody here and there.
“I don’t know where or when I first heard bluegrass, but I felt a real spirited sound: I just got so excited by the energy of it,” says Zasloff, who notes that nefesh means ‘soul’ in Hebrew. “It felt a little bit like the same excitement that klezmer can sometimes have, that makes you want to get up and dance. There’s the ruach — the spirit — that I found in the bluegrass sound.”
An example of how they expertly blend their spirituality with their musical inclinations can be heard in a song called “Evermore,” which is based on a prayer called Hashkiveinu that petitions God to make it possible to watch over us as we sleep at night and return to life the next day. The band delivers this plea in the form of a gentle folk song that features a subtle banjo and flute as it builds in emotion.
At first blush, the couple comes off like a pair of laidback hippies, but they have plowed an ambitious path. Over the past six years, Nefesh Mountain has released four albums, including a live Hanukah set recorded live at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, N.Y., and they have toured extensively across the United States for much of the past two years, including a stop at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
They also pulled off a coup on Songs for the Sparrows by arranging appearances from bluegrass legends Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Bryan Sutton. Along the way, the group has racked up accolades from Rolling Stone, Bluegrass Today and various public broadcasting stations, as well as Jewish news sites, one of which cleverly dubbed the band “Jewgrass.” And the moniker is apt.
“As painful and confusing as the world is right now, it keeps reminding us that we need to keep doing whatever we’re doing and continue to try to put love and good vibes out into the world as Jewish people because there’s so much hate,” says Zosloff. “We’re not politicians. We’re not giving speeches. But if we can make people feel something other than hate, it fuels us to continue to do this.”
Nefesh Mountain performs at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Visit sopacnow.org.
For more on the band, visit nefeshmountain.com.
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