Actress Mare Winningham brings ‘Jewgrass’ to Arkansas

Mare Winningham is about to make Jewish history.

On Aug. 26 at the Eureka Springs Bluegrass Festival, the Torah will meet Southern spirituals when Winningham becomes the first Jewish cowgirl singer to headline the earth-shakin’, soul-savin’ “Sunday Gospel” show.

“I know Kinky Friedman did his Jew cowboy stuff, but I don’t think anybody’s done Jewgrass,” said the 48-year-old actress who has garnered Emmy and Oscar nominations. “Since I discovered Judaism, I was writing songs for God and learning Israeli folk songs and Hebrew songs.”

Her Jewish journey since converting in 2003 will continue in Arkansas when she performs her unique brand of folk music from her recent album “Refuge Rock Sublime,” a project born at last year’s festival that combines Jewish psalms, prayers and poems with an amalgam of blues, jazz and country.

Winningham received a 1996 Oscar nomination for her role as a country music star in “Georgia,” and has regularly performed country-tinged folk in nightclubs. In August 2006, when she was in Arkansas filming the upcoming drama “War Eagle,” hundreds of musicians rolled into town for the Eureka Springs Bluegrass Festival, the Woodstock of bluegrass. With her guitar in hand, Winningham joined the musical frolic.

“All the musicians were booked into [our] hotel and they were playing everywhere, in the lobby … in the hallways, by the pool — everyone was … passing guitars and sharing songs.”

Her own acoustic renderings caught the attention of renowned instrumentalist Tim Crouch. When they discovered a shared passion and vision for the genre, they made plans to convert traditional bluegrass to “Jewgrass,” a distinctive melding of her Jewish country songs interlaced with his instrumentals on the fiddle, mandolin and banjo, for her album.

The actress grew up in a Catholic home before developing doubts about her faith. After enrolling in an Introduction to Judaism course at American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) in 2001, she converted to Judaism.

“Refuge Rock Sublime” reflects her ensuing spiritual journey and the profound connection she feels towards Jewish life and values.

“I was so deeply affected by something God says to David, about how ‘the recitation of one of your psalms will mean more to me than thousands of sacrifices in the temple’ and I thought, how great to sing a song for God and how great if it could be a folk song, because it’s inclusive and it’s better with more people singing.”

While in New York this summer starring in an off-Broadway play, Winningham soaked up Jewish life (“I went to seven synagogues”) and set her sights on temples as a forum for engaging the Jewish community with her new sound.

Winningham hopes to prove that implicit in folk music is a strong sense of community: “I want to impart ‘What Would David Do’; in answer to when things are bad, when it’s hard, it is our obligation to choose life and to face it with joy — that’s something I’d love to continue to sing about.”

Winningham sings ‘Valley of the Dry Bones’ in this YouTube mashup video

Brachas vs. bluegrass: moms make the switch

Reality shows seem to be becoming less and less real every season. Exhibit A: The very intriguing but highly unlikely pairing of a Shomer Shabbos Jewish family from Brookline, Mass. (near Boston), and a coon-huntin’ family from Olympia, Ky. (on a map that would be nowhere near a kosher grocery store), in the Oct. 20 two-hour season premiere of FOX’s “Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy.”

For the past two years, the show has been trading moms between families of vastly different demographics (i.e., pro-choice and pro-life, gays and conservative Christians). And this one is no exception.

In spite of the obvious cultural differences between the Southern Martins (mom, Sharon; dad, Dale; daughter, Ashton, 20; and son, Aaron, 17) and the East Coast Shatzes (mom, Lisa, who wears pants; dad, Michael; son, Aryeh, 20; and daughters, Esther, 17; Adina, 15; and third-grader Kayla) both families are very insulated in their respective worlds.

Lisa, an MIT-educated associate professor of electrical engineering, asks Dale, a corrections officer, what bluegrass is when told that is what the state is known for. (It’s a grass.)

Sharon, a registered nurse, goes shopping at the kosher market with Michael, a physicist, and remarks that she couldn’t understand any of the “Arabic, Hebrew, whatever” on the labels, adding, “I could give a flying flip about the kosher.”
The families, who each receive $50,000 (with a twist) for participating, have very parallel, yet opposite, living situations.

According to Lisa, Aaron spends too much time playing on the computer and hanging out and not enough time studying. She wants to call a tutor, much to the horror of Aaron, who is adamant that he’s not stupid and doesn’t need a tutor. Lisa also makes the faux pas judgment that raccoon hunting, a Martin family pastime, is “intolerable and should be outlawed” after they take her on a late-night jaunt in search of the critters.

According to Sharon, the Shatz kids are socially awkward and need to have fun. She suggests throwing a party, much to the horror of Michael, who is adamant that there be no party and no dancing (“in the Jewish religion, we don’t give our kids permission to indulge in risky behavior,” he tells her). Sharon also makes the misstep of bringing up two very taboo topics at the dinner table: dating and Jesus.

So will there be fireworks in the second hour when Grandma confronts Lisa (“Do y’all still have sacrifices?”); Sharon tries to throw the Shatz kids a party (“They’ll dance! You wait and see!”) and the two moms meet face-to-face? It doesn’t take an MIT degree to figure that answer out.

“Trading Spouses” kicks off the new season Friday, Oct. 20 from 8-10 p.m. on