Rocky Mountain Jewgrass was formed 10 years ago by a trio of musicians who put a Jewish prayer to a bluegrass beat during a rehearsal at their synagogue, Congregation Rodef Shalom in Denver.
“We started fooling around to see what it would be like to perform some of the prayers for morning service in bluegrass style,” said Saul Rosenthal, who’s been the shul’s cantor for the past 30 years.
With Rosenthal on guitar, Ben Cohen on banjo and Gail deVore on fiddle, the trio sang and played Adon Olam like a bluegrass tune.
“We said maybe there’s really something here,” Rosenthal remembered. “So we invited a couple of other musicians to play with us and, within a couple of months, we decided we had a band.”
After seeing the audience’s enthusiastic response to their first concert, the band realized they were doing something people liked and that was very different from anything else that was around in the Jewish music world at the time, he said.
They then started getting serious about writing music for the band and finding other music to convert to a bluegrass style, he added.
Besides setting Jewish texts and prayers to music and playing classic Jewish songs like Bei Mir Bist Du Shein with a bluegrass beat, they also perform songs written by contemporary songwriters, such as Sue Horowitz, Steve Dropkin and Dan Nichols, who are well-known in the Jewish music scene.
But the turning point in the band’s development came when they recorded their signature song, David Buskin’s Jews Don’t Camp, which echoes a sentiment many Jews would agree with: “If your sleeping bag is tiltin’, you can find me at the Hilton, ’cause Jews don’t camp.” The video has been viewed more than 15,000 times on YouTube.
Rosenthal and the band then began writing humorous songs of their own, such as, I’m Only In It For The Food, that includes the chorus, “Chassidic or Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, I’ve been a gastronomic Jew since the day that I was born.” They rewrote the lyrics for some popular songs they perform. The Beatles’ Eight Days A Week became Three Days A Year, a parody of three-day High Holiday Jews. And JDate, the Jewish dating website, is the target of the band’s version of the 1980 country hit, Lookin’ For Love (In All The Wrong Places).
Since Jewgrass hails from Colorado, where marijuana is legal, it’s not surprising they would record a song about weed. The song, High Holy Day, on Bupkes, the second of their four CDs, is an ode to medical marijuana. The tune’s rousing chorus has a spiritual dimension with its double entendre: “Make every day a high holy day; not only in the month of Tishrei; you can smoke it, you can bake it, you can have it your own way, ’cause every day is a high holy day.”
Playing their instruments, the band’s current personnel – Rosenthal, deVore, Cohen and the newest member, Eric Roberts on bass – sound like a classic bluegrass band, but, unlike most bluegrass bands, they sing without a high tenor. “We don’t have a high tenor and I’m a bass baritone, so the sound that comes out is more often described as Jewish folk music, rather than Jewish bluegrass,” Rosenthal said.
Rocky Mountain Jewgrass performed at Pride of Israel Synagogue during Jewish Music Week in Toronto in 2013, and this year the festival is bringing them back to Toronto’s Lula Lounge on May 21. The band usually opens and closes their shows with Tzena Tzena Tzena, or Henei Ma Tov. In between, expect to hear some humour, serious material, Jewish classics and “Jewgrassed” versions of songs by contemporary composers.
Tickets for the show, at 7 p.m. at 1585 Dundas St. West, are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. For advance tickets, visit jewgrass.eventbrite.ca. You’re guaranteed a seat if you make a dinner reservation (416-588-0307) after purchasing a ticket. For more information, visit jewishmusicweek.com.