When you think of bluegrass, there are probably a couple of images that immediately come to mind. Whether it’s the suit and cowboy hat combo of Bill Monroe or an Appalachian porch clad with rocking chairs and fiddles, there’s a cultural tradition to the genre that walks hand-in-hand with the music itself.
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But in 2021, if you only looked to the acts that seemed like they’d perfectly fit into the traditional culture of bluegrass, you’d very well be missing some of the best bluegrass currently being made… which is arguably some of the best bluegrass ever made. See, many acts are beginning to push back against the homogeneous image of America’s treasured genre, demonstrating not only the diversity of those who love the music today, but also the rich, multi-cultural history that inspired bluegrass to begin with. One of the finest acts doing this is Nefesh Mountain, a group spearheaded by husband and wife writing duo, Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff. On April 29, the group released “Somewhere On This Mountain,” the second single coming ahead of their new album, Songs For The Sparrows, which is due on June 11 via Eden Sky Records.
With thoughtful, introspective lyrics and world-class musicianship—augmented by guest performances from Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and more—Songs For The Sparrows explores Lindberg and Zasloff’s Jewish heritage, identity and spirituality while framing the conversation around the oppression faced by marginalized people of all walks of life. Indicative of that, “Somewhere On This Mountain” is a perfect example of how the band approached taking these grand ideas and distilling them into song-sized messages.
“For this song, the idea of the ‘mountain’ represents Earth, in a very broad sense,” Lindberg began. “Doni and I are married, so it originally started with us thinking about how we’re so codependent on each other sometimes. We do almost everything together. Sometimes though, I’ll take my daughter to something and she’ll take our son to something else and we’ll end up separated. But, we realized ‘You know what? It doesn’t really matter, as long as we’re each somewhere on this mountain.’ As long as we know we’re coexisting together, we’re good. We’re codependent, but we have our own orbits and that’s okay, especially if we can exist together.”
With that idea ruminating, it didn’t take long for Lindberg and Zasloff to raise the meaning of “Somewhere On This Mountain” to an even grander place. “Over time, the song has taken on a much deeper meaning for us,” Lindberg continued. “Those ‘orbits’ aren’t only a way to think about relationships between us, but between the world. Right now in this country, you have half the people thinking one thing and half the people thinking another thing—regardless of what orbit you happen to be inside, we have to find ways to exist on this mountain. It’s about coexistence and endurance, figuring out how to be together.”
But there’s more—not only did the song grow thematically as they explored the concept more, but it also grew to be even more profound once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “The other layer of the song—especially because of the pandemic—is about people physically not being able to be together,” Zasloff said. “This whole year, singing ‘Somewhere On This Mountain’ was comforting to me knowing that I couldn’t see my parents and there were so many people missing each other. As long as we remember that we’re still on this mountain together, luckily, you can use technology to look into each other’s eyes and feel connected, even when we’re disconnected.”
In that regard “Somewhere On This Mountain” is emblematic of Nefesh Mountain’s artistry as a whole… even down to the fact that the word “mountain” is in the title of the song. “We named our band after mountains, we sing songs about mountains, we always travel to places with mountains and then we climb them… we’re like hippies who like mountains, I guess,” Lindberg said with a laugh. “It’s not a record of our’s without talking about mountains.”
But on a deeper level, “Somewhere On This Mountain” speaks to the care Nefesh Mountain takes with their music, as well as their disgust with the injustice plaguing marginalized communities around the world. Part of the inspiration for that came from what Lindberg and Zasloff were thinking about back when they first began working on this project in 2018. For as modern and relevant as a song like this is, its story actually starts years in the past.
“Back in 2018, we took a trip to Eastern Europe,” Lindberg said. “Doni’s mother brought us to Poland and Ukraine to track down some of these towns and villages that our families were from—the Jewish ancestral home of our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. Many of them died in the Holocaust. It was an amazing trip to go back there and see the beauty—it’s just a beautiful part of the world in general—but while we were there, we were really looking at the devastation of the Holocaust firsthand. Of course, that was back in World War II, but much of this stuff still hasn’t been dealt with in these Eastern European countries. A lot of it has been brushed under the rug. So, it was a bit of a painful trip.”
A little taken aback by this witnessing of the generations-long impact something as horrific as a genocide can have, Lindberg and Zasloff returned stateside and resumed their lives… until a national tragedy struck just a few months later.
“In October 2018 there was a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh,” Lindberg continued. “That rocked our world. We are feeling this onset of stateside anti-Semitism and white nationalism. You see those ‘6 Million Isn’t Enough’ t-shirts… it’s scary. It’s scary for Jewish-Americans. And for us, even taking the spiritual and religious practice out of it, our music is culturally Jewish—we’re trying to dig into our history. A lot of these songs spawned out of what’s been going on in the country.”
Yet, for as difficult as the topics they’re tackling are, Nefesh Mountain is skillful in instilling each song with a powerful spirit of hope. “It’s almost like a call for love—a call for inclusion and for open hearts,” Zasloff said. “We look at this darkness and pain and say ‘We’re going to pour love on this,’ because it’s ridiculous. Enough is enough. We’re seeing it in our homes. You think it’s over from the past, that we’ve moved on, but here we are: the same stuff is happening. Enough already. It’s a call for love and a celebration of hope through music.”
And with that, you can catch a glimpse of how Nefesh Mountain is forging new paths in the grand ol’ world of bluegrass. Still taking a good bit of inspiration from the classics, the band is in uncharted territory in terms of turning bluegrass into an expressive, mulit-cultural celebration.
“I am looking to the future,” Lindberg said. “There’s a lot of me that’s constantly studying and learning from Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe and Doc Watson and Tony Rice and all the folks who have set the stage. But pretty early on I got the notion that you don’t really want to try to sound like people who have done it in the past. I appreciate this whole revival in the bluegrass world of playing things the way J.D would’ve done it or the way Earl would’ve played it—that’s super important. But my headspace is trying to venture out into these unknown areas, especially in relation to where we come from with this music. Just the idea that we would be out there and open about our Jewish culture, pride and spirituality—I think that’s a very new thing for Jews in general. That’s why these songs don’t call for any nostalgia. They don’t call for the way things were done in the past. Quite frankly, this music could’ve never have happened in the 1940s… or the 1970s… or the 1990s. The world has to catch up to make it right. The timing is right to talk about this stuff.”
Nefesh Moutnain’s new record Songs For The Sparrows is out on June 11 via Eden Sky Records. Listen to the single “Somewhere On This Mountain” below: