Country music has always been a lot more diverse and omnivorous than many like to give it credit for. This is most certainly true when enumerating the contributions of Jewish Americans to country music over the decades. Though few would consider country music synonymous with Jewish people, their absence would be incredibly missed if their contributions were wiped clean from the slate of country music tomorrow.
From performers, to songwriters, to executives and producers, to the strong scene of bluegrass entertainers from New York that have gone on to define the very highest reaches of the discipline, these Jewish contributors deserve our recognition and appreciation.
PLEASE NOTE: This is simply meant to be an illustration of Jewish contributors in country. If someone was missed, please don’t take it as an offense, and please feel free to include them in the comments section below.
There are country artists that happen to be Jewish. Then there is Kinky Friedman, who wears his Jewish heritage on his sleeve, and made it an integral part of his act when he launched his country career in 1973 out of Austin, TX. The wild and crazy country rock humorist called his band The Texas Jewboys, which was a play on Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Songs like “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” playing tribute to Holocaust victims, and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” challenging racism and bigotry in all its forms became signature tracks for Kinky.
The Kinkster didn’t come without controversy. His outspokenness and Rated-R material meant his legendary episode of Austin City Limits never officially aired, and he’s cheesed off many individuals in his day for one reason or another. But Kinky Friendman also helped normalize the presence of Jewish artists in country, while also making country music cool to Jewish audiences and intellectuals who otherwise may have not been receptive.
Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel
That’s right, the guy who’s been helping to keep Western Swing alive for so many years happens to be Jewish as well. Originally from Philadelphia, PA, Ray Benson formed Asleep At The Wheel with a couple of friends in the tiny town of Paw Paw, West Virginia right on the Potomac River. When Willie Nelson got a whiff of them in 1973, he convinced them to move to Austin, TX. Since then, Asleep At The Wheel has been the torchbearer for Western swing, with Ray Benson being the one constant of the band as it has racked up nine Grammy Awards, and become one of the most revered and influential bands in country music history.
“I didn’t want to be known as a Jewish country western singer; I wanted to be known as a country western singer who happens to be Jewish,” he told the Jewish Journal back in 2008. “You don’t usually tell your religion or politics on stage. For years, because I’m 6’7” and people don’t think Jews are all, and because I guess I don’t look like the stereotype Jew, most people don’t known I’m Jewish.”
When you go to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, there is one man’s influence you will see more than anyone else’s. No, it’s not Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams. It’s the timeless work of Jewish Ukrainian refugee Nudie Cohn, who came to the United States when he was 11, and went on to become the most famous clothier in country music history as the namesake of the Nudie suit. He didn’t invent the Western suit, but it was his vision and the Rhinestones he added to them that became synonymous with classic country music.
Country singer Tex Williams is where Nudie Cohn got his start in country music, later making famous suits for the likes of Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Gram Parsons, and so many more. David Allan Coe would have never adopted the name “The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy,” and Glen Campbell would have never had a hit with “Rhinestone Cowboy” if it wasn’t for the influence of Nudie Cohn.
And it doesn’t stop there. Go to Graceland in Memphis, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, or many museums covering the silver screen cowboys of the 50’s, and there you will find ample evidence of the importance of this Jewish contributor. (read more)
Yes, Shel was much more than the children’s book author/illustrator that most of America knows him as. He was a strong songwriting contributor to country music, writing songs for the country rock outfit Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, Tompall Glaser, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, and many more. Bobby Bare created entire records around Shel Silverstein compositions, and Johnny Cash’s rendition of “A Boy Named Sue” became Cash’s biggest single in history.
Shel Silverstein was born to a Jewish family in Chicago in 1930. He became an illustrator in the US Army, and later for Playboy before getting into songwriting. Silverstein was also integral to opening up Key West, Florida as a songwriting destination for many country songwriters, stimulating folks like Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, and David Allan Coe to frequent the island.
Victoria Shaw was one of the most important songwriters in country music in the early 90s, co-writing the #1 song “The River” with Garth Brooks, Doug Stone’s #1 “Too Busy Being in Love,” and John Michael Montgomery’s #1 “I Love The Way You Love Me,” which later won the ACM for Song of the Year. Victoria Shaw was also a recording artist, receiving a nomination for Top New Female Vocalist from the ACMs in 1995, though as a performer, her career struggled to find traction.
Shaw was born in New York City, but raised in a Jewish household in California. Her first interactions with music were her mother singing her Yiddish lullabies, and she formed a band when she was 13 called Solace, which performed at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs. Victoria Shaw remains active in country music, co-writing “Two Pink Lines” with Eric Church among other more recent collaborations.
One of the most important mandolinists in bluegrass history that was especially instrumental in spreading the love of bluegrass beyond its traditional borders grew up a Conservative Jew. Born in Hackensack, New Jersey, early on David Grisman’s played in bluegrass and jug bands that would give birth to artists like Maria Muldaur, John Sebastian, Red Allen, and Peter Rowan.
But of course it’s when David Grisman moved to San Francisco, fell in with Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, and appeared on the timeless songs “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple” from their American Beauty album (1970) that he became an indelible part of American music culture. Grisman was also a member of Garcia’s legendary bluegrass band Old and In The Way with Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements. Though Grisman is also known for collaborating in jazz and folk circles as well, his work was seminal in the bluegrass and newgrass world of the 70s.
You may have seen Barbi Benton somewhere else outside of country music. In fact, you may have seen all of Barbi Benton, since she appeared in numerous issues of Playboy after Hugh Hefner apparently fell in love with her, and made her a co-host of his TV show Playboy After Dark. But Benton also had a career in the country music realm, specifically appearing on four seasons of Hee-Haw, and releasing five country music albums, including three successful ones for Playboy Records in 1975 and 1976—Barbi Doll, Barbi Benton, and Something New.
Benton’s debut single “Brass Buckles” became a Top 5 hit in 1975, and she also had a successful single “Roll You Like a Wheel” featuring Mickey Gilley. But perhaps her appearances on Hee-Haw were her most memorable contribution. She was born in New York City to a Jewish family, and raised in Sacramento, California.
Yes, there is a Jewish American officially inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and it is country music producer and label executive Paul Cohen who was instrumental in the very formation of country music as a commercial enterprise, and forging Nashville as its epicenter in the 1940s. Originally from Chicago, Cohen worked for Columbia Records in the late 1920s, and then helped start Decca Records in the United States in the mid 30s, becoming the branch manager for the Midwest in 1935. This led him to Nashville, and the signing of artists such as Ernest Tubb and Red Foley. Soon Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce, Brenda Lee, and others were part of the Decca roster, thanks to Cohen.
Paul Cohen was the precursor to Owen Bradley, who like Cohen and other Nashville producers, acted in the role as producer and label executive. Cohen was replaced by Bradley in 1958. Cohen also acted as President of the Country Music Association (CMA), and was there to help open the original Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967. Paul Cohen died in 1970, and was posthumously elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976.
Si Siman and Scott Siman
You may not recognize the name right off the bat, but Si Siman was one of the most important people behind-the-scenes who was responsible for the very formation of the country music industry during the post World War II era. He was a songwriter, an executive, a radio and television producer, and a music producer among wearing other hats. Most notably, Siman is given credit for discovering both Chet Atkins and Porter Wagoner. He was also seminal to the Ozark Jubilee, which beat the Gand Ole Opry to television, and was second only to the Opry in breaking stars and sowing influence in country music.
Si Siman also was an executive producer of country TV shows like Five Star Jubilee and The Eddy Arnold Show, but his most lasting influence might have been in song publishing, with titles like “Always On My Mind,” “The Letter,” as well as songs from Gary Stewart, Little Jimmy Dickens, Carl Smith, and Conway Twitty all coming from his catalog. Siman is also credited for making Springfield, Missouri a country music epicenter throughout the 50s and 60s.
Si Simon’s son Scott Siman is also very active in country music, managing Tim McGraw, and acting as an attorney for Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and also signed The [Dixie] Chicks when he worked at Sony.
Steve Goodman – Along with writing the “perfect country and Western song” according to David Allan Coe (“You Never Even Called Me By My Name”), Steve Goodman also contributed songs to the careers of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins, Lynn Anderson, and scores of others, including through his song “The City of New Orleans.” Born in Chicago to middle class Jewish parents, Goodman is mostly considered folk, but his country contributions were strong as well.
Gene Lowinger – Gene is credited as the first “Northern” fiddler in country music, who joined the ranks of Bill Monroe’s legendary Blue Grass Boys band, and was one of the first Jewish Americans to participate actively in country music and play the Grand Ole Opry (despite Kinky Friendman claiming that distinction years later). Lowinger was also the author of one of the very first books translating bluegrass fiddle into musical notation, and is a world-recognized photojournalist.
Béla Fleck – That’s right, what many consider to be the most talented banjo player of all time and has a host of Grammy Awards to prove it comes from a Jewish background. However, Béla Fleck is quick to point out that even though his mother was Jewish, he was not raised Jewish, and considers himself “assimilated.” Nonetheless, the first banjo he ever received was from his Jewish grandfather and purchased at a garage sale, and Béla definitely comes from Jewish blood.
Mickey Raphael – There may not be a more immediately recognizable sound in country music than the lonesome moan emanating from the harmonica of Mikey Raphael on a Willie Nelson song, and more recently, on recordings from scores of artists as Mickey has become quite prolific over time. Once when asked what it was like to be a Jewish guy playing in Willie’s band, Raphael responded, “Fine. But playing harp with Willie, manipulating the media and controlling world banking is really wearing me out.”
Charley Crockett – Some will roll their eyes because it almost seems like Charley Crockett claims to be part everything. But his bloodline includes European, African, Cajun, Creole and yes, Jewish roots. Charley Crockett is the hardest working man in country music, the 2021 Saving Country Music Artist of the Year, and one of the fastest-rising artists in independent country.
Nefesh Mountain – Formed in 2015, this is a Jewish bluegrass band that unlike other Jewish contributors, often works a significant amount of their Jewish heritage into their music through Eastern European influences along with Appalachia bluegrass and Celtic folk. They made their Grand Ole Opry debut earlier this year (2022), with Eric Lindberg of the group saying, “Bill Filipiak with the Opry told us that the board really want to have a diverse group of artists on stage, and it says so much to us that they want to accept and include what we do.”
Andy Statman – Speaking of Opry debuts, lots was made when Orthodox Jewish mandolin maestro Andy Statman made his Grand Ole Opry debut in July (2022). Though known mostly as a klezmer music great, he’s collaborated with folks like Ricky Skaggs and Béla Fleck over the years.
Paul Burch – Previously signed to Bloodshot Records, the strong lyricist and songwriter was part of the initial wave of performers in the 90s who took back Lower Broadway in Nashville from pawn shops and dirty bookstores. He performed at Tootsie’s and other locations at a time when they were virtually abandoned. Though his penchant is for American music revivalism, Burch says his Jewish heritage works into some of his interpretations of the American songbook.
Bob Dylan – Though you don’t immediately associate ol’ Robert Zimmerman with country as much as you do folk and rock, he recorded multiple country music songs and albums, most notably 1969’s Nashville Skyline where he used Nashville session musicians in Nashville to a positive reception, and showed up on Johnny Cash’s TV show at the Ryman to record an iconic live rendition of “Girl from the North Country” that bridged the cultural divide in America at that time.
Wheeler Walker Jr. (aka Ben Hoffman) – Wheeler Walker Jr. is the lewd country music-singing alter ego of Lexington, Kentucky-native and professional comedian Ben Hoffman. Hoffman has written for numerous TV shows and briefly starred in The Ben Show on Comedy Central before bridging his passions of comedy and country into the sometimes controversial character.
Eric Silver – A sought after studio musician based in Nashville, he’s played guitar, mandolin, violin, banjo, bass, and piano for a host of musicians, including the [Dixie] Chicks and Shania Twain. His great-great-grandfather was a well-known rabbi, and much of his mother’s family perished in the Holocaust.
Neil Reshen – Jewish lawyer Neil Reshen didn’t play a lick of music. But if it wasn’t for his representation of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others, there may have never been an Outlaw movement in the 70s. It was Reshen who negotiated the contracts of the Outlaws to allow them creative freedom over their music. Waylon once said, “There was a time when Neil fed me and Willie, and if it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know what we would have done. He helped us immeasurably. He got things for us that no country singer had ever gotten before. If we were going to become Outlaws, though we didn’t know that yet, we needed an Outlaw Lawyer, as Willie called him. Neil was perfect for the part. He was like a mad dog on a leash. When he got his teeth into something, he never let go.”
Glen Campbell – Though some may see it as sacrilege to label Glen Campbell as Jewish, he and his wife Kim were practicing Messianic Jews, also known as “Jews for Jesus.” Campbell was born of Scottish descent and attended a Church of Christ. In fact his brother became a Church of Christ minister. But Campbell and his wife celebrated Jewish holidays like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, along with Christmas, and Campbell kept a menorah on his mantle.
Folk singers Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who also rubbed elbows with country is of Jewish descent, Canadian country artist K.D. Lang has Jewish blood among other heritage, and many more…
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In Kosher Country: Success and Survival on Nashville’s Music Row by Stacy Harris, she also mentions Jewish songwriters Jerry Holland, John Michaels, Michael Kosser, Pam Belford, Sam Lorber, Stacy Beyer, Dennis Scott, Andie Jennings, and Karen Taylor-Good. Producers include Richard Landis, Steve Fishell, and Cliff Goldmacher.