During the coronavirus pandemic, Nathan Salsburg, a guitarist, composer, and archivist based in Kentucky, recorded a series of projects in which he creatively explores his Jewish background. On a pair of 2020 albums, Landwerk Nos. 1 and 2, Salsburg sampled 78-rpm recordings mainly from klezmer and Yiddish sources, transforming them into something new by overdubbing parts on guitar and other instruments.
Salsburg takes an entirely different approach on his most recent album, Psalms. He began preparing for the project in 2016, when he developed the ritual of opening Tehillim, the book of Hebrew psalms, to random pages and reading the English translations to find passages that resonated with him. Salsburg finally recorded nine of his takes on the psalms in 2020, singing in both Hebrew and English with a group that includes Spencer Tweedy on drums and Will Oldman and Joan Shelley on backing vocals, as well as the Israeli singer Noa Babayof.
Psalms is almost as much about Salsburg’s connection with his acoustic guitar as it is with his heritage. From the opening notes of the first track, “Psalm 147,” in dropped-D tuning, each song begins with a gem of a fingerpicked idea that not only reveals Salsburg’s impressive command of the instrument, but creates a stately and meditative atmosphere fitting of the sacred texts. And instead of relying on the modes and harmonies associated with traditional liturgical and instrumental music, Salsburg filters everything through his own modern folk lens, resulting in one of the most personal statements in Jewish music on record.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.