Jews and country music — it’s not a relationship steeped in history. Some lesser-known Jewish acts have graced the honky-tonk bars of Nashville, Tennessee, while Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond successfully dipped their toes into the country waters.
But there aren’t many musicans like 70-year-old Daniel Antopolsky. Now some 50 years into a peripatetic, up-and-down career — currently experiencing a distinct upturn — there’s nothing he likes better than to find a quiet spot on his farm in South West France to write new tunes. He even finds time for Talmud study, although he prefers to do this in his pick-up truck.
Born and raised in the small Jewish community of Augusta, Georgia, Antopolsky’s music is a product of his upbringing. An infant when his mother died, his earliest musical memory is listening to gospel with his nanny, an African-American woman named Frances. His singing style, on the other hand, was learned from his shul’s chazan.
“I was really impressed. This guy could sing, really harmonise. It was an amazing thing,” he says. “These other guys, the older European guys, would bang on the tables — it was really something.”
His family, 19th-century immigrants to the US from Lithuania and Poland, escaped to the Deep South after becoming suffocated by New York City. His father, he says, didn’t see a tree until he was 12-years-old. To this day, Antopolsky has an aversion to big cities.
After many happy years in the South (he rejects the notion of widespread antisemitism), his father passed away when the young musician was 17. With fewer ties to his home town, he hit the road after graduating from university.
By the early 1970s, he had become friends with John Townes Van Zandt, one of the towering figures of “outlaw” country music, a sub-genre of country with its roots in rockabilly and honky tonk. It allowed Antopolsky to become a Zelig-like figure in the movement; present for its defining moments but never in the limelight himself.
He was alone with Van Zandt when the latter wrote Pancho and Lefty, his most famous song. Legend has it Antopolsky is the inspiration for “Lefty”, the mysterious side-kick of real-life Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
“By my second year of college, I had started smoking marijuana, I had grown my hair long, had beads round my neck — it really was the hippy era,” he tells me. “We travelled around, but in some ways it was a bad, bad time. What goes up has to come down.”
A nihilistic attitude towards heroin abuse (he once saved Van Zandt from a lethal overdose) and the dawn of the Aids epidemic convinced Antopolsky to make a break with outlaw country.
After travelling in East Asia, the turning point in his life came in August 1985, when he met Sylvia Kirsch, a Jewish French medical student sent to the US on a residency. He had few qualms about packing his bags and following her back to Bordeaux. Living on a farm on the city’s outskirts, now with twin girls Hannah and Liza in tow, he rediscovered his creative spark.
“I’ll be growing my vegetables, or driving the tractor and I’ll pull over and write some songs,” he says. “It just came back to me.”
A chance meeting in Israel with film-maker Jason Ressler, who now acts as his manager, triggered the latest phase of his late-career revival. In the past decade, he’s written three albums, while a documentary of his life, The Sheriff of Mars, is slated for release this year. With British audiences proving receptive to his work, he is also preparing for a one-off gig at Bush Hall in West London on April 30.
“It may seem like a miracle, but I don’t want to call it a miracle,” he says. “I was happy before, and I was never out to be famous. I just enjoy the music.”