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