While it’s generally considered an indigineous American musical art form, albeit one originally derived from the Irish and Scottish immigrants who arrived on these shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bluegrass has never been the exclusive realm of the nation’s heartland. Even broad terms like Americana and Grassicana generally presume the outside influences of other cultures and traditions which, like the nation itself, become part of a musical melting pot that’s served up in equal and plentiful portions.
Nefesh Mountain — a diverse duo consisting of husband and wife musicians Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff — are all too aware of those diversions, and have used outside sources to embellish and accelerate their unique bluegrass brand. Beneath The Open Sky, their sophomore set and follow-up to their 2016 eponymous debut, makes ample use of old world traditions, especially as they apply to the pair’s Jewish heritage. Two earlier outings — The Hanukkah Dance and Hanukkah’s Flame — indicated their affection for music that reached beyond a secular sound. Here too, there are echoes of an old world tapestry, heard most notably in the closing number, Russian Lullaby, a song Zasloff’s mother sung to her as a child, and Oseh Shalom, which the pair sing mostly in Yiddish, but also execute adroitly with frenzied banjo, fiddle and mandolin creating a whirlwind of sound and an ideal juncture between east and west.
Make no mistake. Despite some exotic origins, this isn’t klezmer music or any sort of sound confined to the far reaches of the old world, religious or otherwise. As its title would suggest, Beneath The Open Sky provides the freewheeling frenzy and precise execution of its bluegrass base — note the rousing A Mighty Roar, The Narrow Bridge, Eretz’s Reel, all of testify to that fact — but given the universal appeal and stylistic segues, it does come across with the stamp of universal folk music, one with a rugged, resounding sound and some immediately obvious intents.
Not surprisingly then, Lindberg and Zasloff show no hesitation when it comes to expounding on an otherwise stoic sound. Their take on the lovely, high lonesome standard, Wild Mountain Thyme, demonstrates that versatility, beginning with Zasloff’s tender tones and then suddenly escalating the tone with further exuberance and intensity.
As if there was any need to prove their credence, Nefesh Mountain boasts a number of exceptional fellow travelers who scale the heights with them — Sam Bush, Tony Trischka, Jerry Douglas and David Grier being among those notable names. Yet it’s also clear that these two have a vision and versatility that lifts them ever higher on their own.