Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Galilee Thunder roars out of the Middle East

If any further proof is needed that bluegrass and grassicana have extended their reach well beyond the American heartland, one need only look towards the Holy Land and the Israeli outfit that calls themselves Galilee Thunder. Formed in early 2017, the group consists of several veteran bluegrass musicians that have played both individually and collectively all over Israel over the course of the past 40 years. 

The band was originally the brainchild — at least in part — of Tammy and John Worley, a husband-wife duo that emigrated to Israel from Texas. Both sing and play an upright bass known as “Bubba.” John also plays mandolin and guitar in the group. Both were previously involved with a band called The Haifalutins, while John performed in the past with two other combos — The Hazel Hill String Band and Canaan Country.

“Most of the band members have been in Israel for 30 to 40 years playing in different groups, but meeting up at the Jacob’s Ladder Festival where we’d jam,” lead vocalist, mandolin, dobro, and guitar player Lynn Lewis explains. “Just over two years ago, the festival organizers asked me and Tammy Worley to get a ‘proper’ bluegrass band together to perform at the next festival. So in January 2017, we started to rehearse and managed to get a set worked up for our first performance. Since then, we’ve played at most of the Jacob’s Ladder Spring Festivals and Winter Weekends, as well as other venues including the main folk clubs where bluegrass is an acceptable genre, and appreciated by the audiences.”

The group’s current repertoire includes songs and tunes from the entire spectrum of bluegrass music — from tight three-part harmony vocals and fast paced instrumental breakdowns, to acapella four-part Gospel songs, presented with verve, panache and humor.

“We have all been mostly influenced by early original bluegrass pioneers,” John Worley remarks. “We gravitate back to these old original instruments and structure of the music. We love the harmonies, simplicity and the power of original bluegrass — people like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and the Osborne Brothers. My wife, Tammy, had the idea to pulling together the best bluegrass players we knew in Israel into one band. So, two years ago we joined forces and began performing throughout the country.” 

The group, whose name pays tribute to Ricky Skaggs’ band, Kentucky Thunder, consists of eight musicians, including two native Israelis, one from the U.K. and the remainder from the U.S., all of whom have spent much of their adult lives in Israel, while performing together in various configurations for a number of years. The outfit currently consists of the Worleys, Lewis, Joshua Goodman (guitar), Hillel Mogle (banjo), Paul Inbar (fiddle), David Green (guitar, vocals) and Danny Sherban (fiddle, vocals). 

Ironically, Galilee Thunder wasn’t their original choice for a name however. According to their website, other handles they tossed about included “The Paunch Brothers, Nebbish Mountain, The Soggy Matzah Boys, and having a John, a Paul and a Ring(o) in the band, we could have been The Bluegrass Beatles.”

The group’s current set list consists of covers that incorporate traditional bluegrass songs as well as various Gospel numbers and some newer songs. “We don’t integrate Israeli material in our music,” Lewis notes. “I think we are all basically purists, although personally I like to integrate songs from other genres such as Buddy Holly and The Beatles.”

Like most musicians, Lewis says he acquired her influences early on. “I always liked country and folk music, but it wasn’t until I heard the Beverly Hillbillies theme that I heard bluegrass, and I was immediately hooked,” he reflects. “My favorite singers were Red Allen and Jimmy Martin, The Stanley Brothers and the harmonies of Lester Flatt and Curly Seckler. It took me a little longer to appreciate Bill Monroe, but I got there. I also really love the three-part harmonies of the Osborne Brothers.”

Their Israeli audiences appear to agree. “We’ve always had an excellent response,” Lewis adds. “There are fans of the genre through folk and country dancing. Through exposure to the music, young Israelis are beginning to appreciate bluegrass, and even the less musically inclined love to swing each other around while screaming ‘Yea Haw.’ Israel is such a small country that it’s is only a pocket. Fans of the music were initially English speakers — for the most part coming from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia — who gathered at the folk clubs usually in the larger towns. Over the years, they’ve been joined by Israelis and ex-patriots from all over the world.”

We can only say shalom to all that!

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.