Klezmer fusion band specializes in Jewgrass

What do you call the fusion between Appalachian bluegrass music and Jewish klezmer?

In a word, Jewgrass.

That’s what clarinetist Margot Leverett calls it. She leads the Klezmer Mountain Boys, a band that runs both genres through a musical super-collider, creating music that honors tradition while turning in something new.

Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys will share the bill with the Wronglers at a Sunday, Aug. 16 concert at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center.

Employing a licorice stick-full of chirrups, yips and yawls, Leverett mastered klezmer clarinet to perfection. Yet 10 years ago, she sensed connections between klezmer and other ethnic music forms, like bluegrass.

“I had been dabbling in all kinds of American fiddle music,” she says from her home in Queens, N.Y. “But I didn’t think I could do it professionally. Clarinet is generally not very welcome at a bluegrass picking party.”

Eventually, she asked a few bluegrass musician friends to jam with her. Her plan didn’t go much further than putting the klezmer-bluegrass hybrid through a test drive.

Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys. photo/melanie wellner

“I thought this would be a novelty, this Jewgrass idea,” she says. “It was something deeper, much more beautiful.”

For 20 years, Leverett has lived with the beauty of klezmer. As a member of the Klezmatics, the Ohio native played a role in the klezmer revival that began in the 1980s.

She says it’s not a revival anymore. “What’s going on now is beyond a revival,” Leverett adds. “It’s something alive and vital, and part of our time.”

A Jew-by-choice, Leverett also believes fusing klezmer and bluegrass shouldn’t seem strange since klezmer itself is a form of fusion, too.

“Klezmer is Hebrew melodies mixed with Turkish, Roma, Romanian, Polish, Greek melodies overlapping,” she says. “Bluegrass and klezmer come from the same place in the heart. You have two groups: Scots-Irish in Appalachia and Jews from Eastern Europe. Both had to find their way in harsh circumstances and looked to their music for inspiration and joy.”

That joy became palpable at one of Leverett’s first gigs with the Klezmatics. It was at a Simchat Torah celebration, something she had never seen before.

“Somebody said ‘We want the clarinetist to lead the procession,’” she remembers. “There were 200 Jews dancing behind me.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.