The self-described “Jew of Oklahoma” and eternal Bad Liver confronts Antisemitism on his excellent new solo album
Mark Rubin has always lived two parallel lives, both personally and professionally.
A southern Jew, raised in Oklahoma, his religion was seemingly at odds with the culture found in his environs. Likewise, the music he’s made throughout his career is unexpectedly incongruous as well; his band, the Bad Livers, takes traditional Americana music and twists it into a distorted mesh of punk and posturing that veers dramatically from its folk and bluegrass origins.
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In that regard, Rubin can be seen as something of an outlier, especially given his willingness to defy the norms and pursue a route that upsets expectations. Nevertheless, it’s a status he’s accepted, and while it hasn’t always been easy, he assumes that distinctive status with a certain sense of pride. It’s little surprise then that his new album, descriptively titled The Triumph of Assimilation, not only underscores his religious roots but also addresses the issues that mark the divide between his mantra and his music.
Songs such as “Down Home Kosher,” “Yiddish Banjo Tunes,” “Good Shabbes,” and “Avinu Malkeinu” allow for a cultural crossover while offering a certain reverence through both sound and spirituality. Likewise, Rubin also makes it a point to share difficult lessons learned, as adroitly expressed in the song “Murder of Leo Frank,” which, like Dylan’s “Death of Emmitt Till,” evokes the tragedy of an insidious incident where the victim was murdered simply because he was a member of a minority.
Rubin says he’s pleased with the album and especially proud of the way it turned out. Speaking from his home in Austin, where the heat index was hovering well above 100 degrees (“We’re under a heat advisory. It’s gonna be a feeling like 110 today”), he suggests that he’s found what he terms “a comfortable duality.”
“When you when you live in a small town, you don’t really get to choose your identity,” he suggests. “It’s kind of thrust upon you. And even though you are just as culturally Southern as your neighbors, and you’re exposed to the same culture as everybody else, you’re just not allowed to participate in it. You’re the ‘other.’ Then, when I moved to Dallas, a big city where they’ve got synagogues, I had more of a choice to kind of decide whether or not I was going to hold on to this identity that was kind of thrust upon me, or if I was going to assimilate into the greater community. It’s kind of a uniquely American situation. And that’s kind of one of the things I was kind of thinking about when I made the record. I was wondering if this has affected my psyche all along.”
So was the attempt reconcile those two worlds a challenge? Rubin considers the question and offers a reflective response.
“Honestly, it wasn’t until it became a stark contrast,” he muses. “I didn’t really notice it because, I’m kind of a big guy. I don’t let things affect me so much. I had a rough childhood. We were pariahs in some respect in our community. My father was the leader of the Jewish community there, and during Jewish holidays, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, we were in the paper every Passover, with our pictures, our home address. So you could expect some rocks thrown through the window, and we had a cross burned in our yard. It was horrible. I had teachers get down on their knees and pray for my immortal soul in the middle of class. We had prayers to Jesus every morning over the loudspeakers in school. We had the Gideons come and hand out bibles at school. The thing about white Protestant Christianity was that anything that deviated from that was just unacceptable, and they let you know it. And so that’s always been inside me. That’s always been like a dull roar in my consciousness ever since I was a small kid, and also, something my dad told me about growing up as an outsider. He said that we lived amongst these people and that we were to observe what they did, like Christmas and Easter. These were things that they kind of forced us to participate in — not just participate in, but to observe. And so in my life, I took that on to where I really observed everything. I became like a continual outsider. And I think that that’s really affected my perspective and my outlook, kind of being on the outside. And that’s what’s helped me navigate while juggling these dual perspectives.”
Nevertheless, he says there was one instance in particular that made him realize that no matter how hard he hoped to assimilate, he would always be typecast due to his religion. He recalls being on a bus after a gig and hanging out with one of his label mates. Everything seemed to be going fine until he mentioned to the leader of the other band that he was thinking of relocating from Texas to Nashville so he could pick up some side work as a bluegrass musician when the Bad Livers weren’t on tour. After asking for some feedback, the other man put his hand on Rubin’s shoulder and advised “Well, maybe you should just stay in Texas.” When Rubin asked why, he was told, “We’ve already got a Jewish bass player in Nashville.”
“I was shocked,” Rubin recalls. “It was just like a thunderclap. I looked at this fellow and asked, ‘Is this really how it is? Is this for real?’ He looked at me square in the eye, and said, ‘We hire out of the church parking lot.’”
The reasoning, he realized later, was that most bluegrass bands make a good portion of their money playing gospel gigs. Nevertheless, the incident had a profound effect on him.
“That was it,” he insists. “I cut off my relationship with bluegrass music and American traditional music. It just died. It was like being told you can no longer participate, at least professionally, in the music and culture that’s part of your nature…the music you were nurtured on. The fact of the matter is that the music of that culture was already pretty foreign to a kid from Oklahoma who had made his career playing American roots music in Texas. That was 1998 and that was the seed started me thinking the way I did. It’s taken me this long to kind of work that out. Finally, after all of these years of being a sideman, and working like I have in the klezmer community, and kind of thinking about it, and letting it ruminate, I was finally capable of get my mental state together. I don’t mind sharing with you the fact that I was diagnosed as bipolar. But as soon as I was able to get my head together, get my meds together and get counseling, I was able to clarify some of the issues that were really bothering me and being denied me. It was really, really affecting me. There was the double edged sword of being treated as a curiosity while also doing by your own people.”
Rubin says that finding the ability to break through those barriers without compromising his own background became a mission, one that he eventually was able to accept while also finding a way to thrive and succeed.
“I feel like you need to use the right tools,” he suggests. “On the one hand, if you’re trying to do something new, or if you’re trying to get a point across, it’s really important to use tools that people understand. For instance — and this is gonna sound really weird — but I’m not like the biggest fan of the guitar. But I found that if I want to get people to listen to me, I kind of have to get up on stage and play the guitar. Because in American music, people are just kind of trained to see a guy or gal, or something in between, up on stage. strumming a guitar and telling stories. So I learned to do that. I taught myself how to play the guitar so that I can get my point across. With the Bad Livers, we were coming from a traditional background, but we wanted to present something new. And to do that, you had to kind of find a way to break through and get to people.
That, he says, remains his main objective.
“I’m trying to wake people up in some respects, and the way I do it is to pick up the guitar or pick up a banjo and look for all the world just like everybody else. But I’m also hoping that my messages share something new in a way that challenges people as well. You can’t beat people down. My friend and mentor Sy Kahn once said to me, there’s nothing worse than than a songwriter getting up on stage and then telling you a story about some awful thing, going on for like nine minutes and describing the song, and then singing a nine minute song about what they just described. It’s important to be to be entertaining to get your point across. And that’s why I try and be light-hearted as much as I possibly can. Because if you’re just a downer all the time, people aren’t going to want to be around you and hear what you hope is an important message. Make revolutionary songs that are that are fun to listen to. I hope that some of that gets across. The song I wrote for the new album about not being able to keep kosher is funny as heck, but it’s also a little subversive.”
VIDEO: Mark Rubin livestream concert 2021
While Rubin admits that to some promoters he’s personally considered a hard sell, the Bad Livers remain an ongoing entity centered around him and his musical partner Danny Barnes. “It’s always been basically me and Danny Barnes,” Rubin insists. “In the past, we’ve hired another hand, but towards the end of our last touring run, it was just him and me. Danny’s got a whole Bad Livers record written and ready to go, and we do plan on recording that. The plan was to go out and do some festival dates before the pandemic, and we’re still ready and willing to do that as soon as things calm down a little bit.”
In the meantime, he’s hoping the new album will make a mark all on its own. “I’ve really put put everything on this one,” he says. “It’s the first time I really think that I’ve spoken truly from the heart. I’m just just happy that I got it out and that folks are hearing it.”