Jew of Oklahoma - Interview with Mark Rubin
"I just believe there’s a soundtrack to a living culture." Mark Rubin
Mark Rubin is perhaps best known for his work in Bad Livers playing bass and tuba, but in addition to several other projects he has participated in, he has launched since 2015 a solo career that started with his first album “Southern Discomfort”. A multi-instrumentalist, he calls himself the 'Jew of Oklahoma' and recently released his newest album this year, the gritty and powerful "The Triumph of Assimilation". In songs like “A Day of Revenge”, “It's Burning”, “The Murder of Leo Frank”, “My Resting Place”, “Unnatural Disasters”, he presents us with an album with a clear and powerful message. Between interpretations of poems and his own lyrics, he brings us a beautiful album that makes us think about xenophobia, racism and intolerance. I think this album is a response to his own experiences as a Jew in North America and to other stories that can also reflect very well on our South American reality.
As a fan of his work, I contacted him for an interview about his new work.
1. Hi Mark! First of all, I would like to thank you for accepting to do this interview for the Brazilian Bluegrass Music Association.
A genuine pleasure. A kind regards to all the Bluegrass aficionados!
2. As a huge fan myself, I'd like to start by talking a little bit about your work with Bad Livers. How do you analyze the legacy the band left for music today?
As one of the Bad Livers myself it is difficult to gauge. Ultimately you never really know what your impact will be on the world while you are making something, no? I would have had no idea that there would be someone asking me these questions from Brazil 30 years later for instance. For myself, I’ve found it's not for me to parse our influence as such. I can only focus on what I can see in front of me and that’s a limited perspective at best. If I’m being honest though I don’t think that you’d have seen the banjo on stage in popular culture in the way that you have in the last few decades. If I’m being honest. I do know American music would look a lot different if there had been no Bad Livers and that in and of itself is enough for me.
3. You've certainly built up vast experience as a musician (playing and producing) over the years, but I believe you decided to launch yourself as a frontman musician, naming yourself 'Jew of Oklahoma', only on the release of the album “Southern Discomfort” (2015 ). After so many years in the music scene, what made you feel the need to put yourself as a frontman with an authorial work?
Yes, it took quite a long time before I felt I had gathered my thoughts and organized them well enough to present them. I’ve been moved not only by recent events by the traumas of history and how they resonate. These have been dynamic times in America and over my many decades of traveling and observing, I’ve got some things to say. I’m hoping what I have to say is consequential or at least meaningful to someone.
4. Your newest album, “The Triumph of Assimilation”, carries a very powerful message. After listening to it for the first time, I thought about how this is a very brave and assertive political album. How do you see the way the country/bluegrass music scene treats Jews and minorities in their context? Do you think this music scene has an open mind to differences?
Well, historically American Music has been abysmal to the outsider. “Whiteness” in its Protestant Christian form is the baseline standard and there are to be no derivations. I was sitting on the tour bus of a very beloved and famous Bluegrass bandleader hanging out with him and his band after Bad Livers and him and a few other label mates had just done a show together in Nashville. At the time, I was thinking about leaving Austin and moving up there so I could get more traditional Bluegrass road dates when Bad Livers weren’t on the road and we were touring less and less. I was sitting between this famous bandleader and his famous bassist when I mentioned it. At that point, you could have heard a pin drop on the bus. Dead silence. I look over at the bandleader and say “What’s the problem?” And he said “We already have a Jewish bass player in Nashville.” He meant Mark Schatz I think, but I was stunned. I said, “Really, is that what you’re telling me?” The bandleader puts his hand on my shoulder and says “We hire out of the church parking lot and I don’t reckon we’ll be seeing you there. You better stay in Texas is what you better do.” Up until this moment, there was never a single instance that my being Jewish ever came up. Only now. It’s ok to be in the Bad Livers, he said. But to play Bluegrass, no, that’s not for you. I’m not going to name him because I don’t want his fans to think less of him, and because he wasn’t being mean, I still consider him a pal and he was telling me the simple truth. No. American Roots music treats anything other than straight, male, Christian Whiteness as non-existant.
5. Songs like "The murder of Leo Frank," made me look a bit more about this sad story and think how it is still important to send a message in a world that still feeds much xenophobia, racism and prejudice. These stories play a key role in reminding us that we are still not very far from the tragedies of the past. How do you see the role of American music in people's awareness?
Thank you for looking into it. That’s really the point of these tunes, is to challenge and to inspire. And I think your question is the answer. Folk songs are are dangerous as they often the only reliable truth-tellers we have. Especially when the victors write the history books.
6. Here in Brazil we have a small but growing movement of people interested in bluegrass, country and related styles, even though the bands here do not really play traditional bluegrass, but look for inspiration in this sound. What do you think about people from other countries who are passionate about bluegrass and play this kind of music in their own way that is out of the context of tradition?
A fine question. In my neighborhood, I’m not joking, there's a little group of musicians who gather and study and play Brazilian Choro music. It’s wonderful. Forro, choro, samba, amazing musical traditions all being played some by ex-pats and some by locals who are simply charmed by the fun music. I think playing music is great and being inspired by someone else’s traditions are awesome as well. I simply suggest that a person be mindful of the culture that created that great art and be respectful. I don’t believe in “genres,” frankly I don’t believe in “music” either; I just believe there’s a soundtrack to a living culture, so when I’m playing someone else’s music I think of it like I’m entering their culture and I’d like to not be seen as an idiot while I am. Just try and be a good neighbor and you can’t go wrong. Good manners.
7. The song “My resting place” features Danny Barnes on the banjo. Your long-term partner. I was happy to listen to it. Although you've already played together on a few occasions after the pause with Bad Livers, this seems to have been the first recording in years that you've appeared together playing together, am I right?
Not so actually. We re-recorded an old BL tune called “Lathe Crick Dos,” more of the experimental end of the Barnes Production pallete: https://soundcloud.com/wildknees/lathe-crick-dos.
Was thrilled to have him on my new CD, however.
8. In the interview I did with him, he said there is a plan to release a new album with Bad Livers, or something like that. What can you tell us more about this?
So speaketh Barnes! That’s as much as I know. Bad Livers agenda items fall into Danny’s schedule and he’s a busy man. I have much going on myself but we have both agreed in principal to create a new release. Dan says he has a batch of tunes. 9. Finally, I would like to thank you for everything! This space is for you to say what you want to us, in addition to what was said in the interview. Thank you very much!
Well you are most welcome. Secondly, if you are a bassist looking to better your Bluegrass playing may I strongly recommend you research the output of Marshall Wilborn. Start at "Johnson Mountian Boys: Live at the Old School House” and go from there. He recently did a long interview on YouTube worth checking out.
Greatest living bassist of the form and will be remembered as a great long after he’s gone. Check him out, you’ll be glad you did. All the best and thanks so much.
To learn more about Mark Rubin, visit www.jewofoklahoma.com .