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The Ballad of Daniel Antopolsky

Or how a Jewish American country music genius wound up farming chickens in France

Daniel Krieger
November 26, 2014
Daniel Antopolsky in Nashville. (Photo courtesy The Sheriff of Mars, a film project about Antopolsky.)
Daniel Antopolsky in Nashville. (Photo courtesy The Sheriff of Mars, a film project about Antopolsky.)

Last year, Daniel Antopolsky went to Nashville to make his first album, recording 11 songs of the hundreds he’d written over the past 40 years. The sessions had been scheduled for the prior year but one of his favorite chickens on the farm where he lives in Bordeaux fell ill, so he put off the trip to care for her. After she died, he finally set out for Nashville. At 66, he’d like for his songs to be out there on their own rather than gathering dust in a heap of notebooks and scattered papers.

The unlikely path that led Antopolsky from Bordeaux to Nashville began in Augusta, Ga., where he was raised Modern Orthodox, which he said was no big deal in the Deep South of the 1950s. “We thought of ourselves just as Americans. We weren’t closed off at all,” he said, sitting in the back room at the Fanelli Café during a brief visit to New York this past summer. Sporting a few days of stubble, he had on a worn gray Yankees cap and a notepad and pen tucked into the pocket of his black button-down shirt. Observing the Tisha B’av fast, he didn’t consume anything as he talked in a rapid-fire Southern drawl about his life, tossing in a few quotes from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, whose book The Empty Chair he kept on hand. One message he took to heart was: “Learn to wait. If despite all your determined efforts you cannot seem to reach your goals, be patient. Between acceptance and anxiety, choose acceptance.”

He was just like any kid in those early days, he said—a Mickey Mantle fan, who enjoyed underage drinking as well as Your Hit Parade and American Bandstand. He listened to folk, blues, country, bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll, gospel. He went to Hebrew school and spent time at the old-fashioned hardware store his father ran, which carried saddles, fishing tackle, pocket knives, and gear for making moonshine. His mom died of Parkinson’s when he was 10, and his father had a fatal heart attack seven years later. Afterward he wrote his first song, about a boy whose dad was killed working in the coal mines. Mostly he played country and folk classics like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and songs by Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Antopolsky (far right) and Townes Van Zandt (far left) with fellow musicians. (Photo: Palm Pictures)

At the University of Georgia in Athens in the late 1960s—where he ended up with a degree in public relations and advertising he never put to use—he became a weed smoking, long-haired hippie with beads. Skipping Vietnam because of the luck of the draw, he tried his hand at carpentry, working at the hardware store and for a chicken processing plant, but none of those jobs panned out. Supporting himself with money he’d come into when he was orphaned, he led a happy-go-lucky existence devoid of responsibility and seriousness but full of travel and adventure. In Athens, he was befriended by the legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, whom he joined on the road for six months, sometimes singing backup and even performing a song or two himself. Antopolsky’s songwriting started to take off around that time. “If I wrote a nice song,” he said, “I saw it was a wonderful way to touch people.”

In April 1972 they crossed paths with William Hedgepeth, a magazine journalist who was profiling Van Zandt, then an up-and-comer who musicians in Nashville were raving about, for the now long defunct Audience Magazine. Hedgepeth invited Van Zandt to his home in Atlanta, and he showed up with Antopolsky, described somewhat exuberantly by Hedgepeth in his article as “a stringy-haired and bearded benign-faced troll … who exudes the frenzied looking ecstasy of a super-hirsute and shoeless Rabbi.” Hedgepeth mentioned an anecdote shared by Van Zandt about when the two had first met. He was in bed with a woman when Antopolsky barged into the room through beaded curtains strumming a guitar, shirtless, dancing and singing his song, “Lovemaking Is as Basic as Food,” which went on for 10 minutes before he was told to get lost.

Hedgepeth was charmed by Antopolsky’s antics and in a recent interview by phone from his home in Blue Ridge, Ga., remembered him as being “a well-meaning and goodhearted guy” who was devoted to songwriting. “He was certainly more of a verb than a noun,” he said, and he had always wondered what had become of him. Of Antopolsky’s music, he wrote at the time: “His songs are epic-length stream-of-consciousness comments on contemporary life which he sings to the frenetic accompaniment of his own persistently-untuned guitar while stomping, bouncing up and down, wooing and oooing and ahhhing like some bizarre combination of Spike Jones and Tiny Tim all bloated to the gills with amphetamines.”

After two weeks staying with Hedgepeth, they set off in Antopolsky’s white Dodge van for Houston, where two days later Van Zandt nearly died of a heroin overdose. Antopolsky rushed him to the hospital as he was slipping into a coma. He was admitted D.O.A., but the doctors managed to revive him, saying if it had been two minutes later he would’ve been a goner. When asked about it, Antopolsky said he’d steered clear of heroin and had urged Van Zandt to be careful, limiting himself to alcohol, pot, and psychedelics. As musicians in the Outlaw Country scene gravitated toward the darker side of things, he veered the opposite way. “They looked at the hard side of life and saw people suffering,” he said. “I did too, but I thought there has to be a ray of sunshine.”

One of his close friends from the early days in Augusta, Albert Low, said recently that he thought Antopolsky had a positive creative influence on Van Zandt, and vice versa. “That’s when Daniel’s music started blossoming,” he said. “Townes really helped him learn how to structure songs.”


Not long after Van Zandt’s OD, Antopolsky started taking epic trips with Low, a fellow Southern Jewish hippie, known in those days as “Crazy Al.” They zigzagged around the country, avoiding interstates, visiting cities, state parks, and college towns and performing at open mics or wherever. With his sidekick Low, now a 64-year-old respiratory therapist who settled down in California, he wandered in search of meaning, always with his guitar, though never getting paying gigs. “He was always real prolific about writing, and he always kind of wondered if his songs were good enough to be out there,” Low said. “He always felt that if it was going to happen, it would just kind of fall into his lap.”

‘His songs are epic-length stream-of-consciousness comments on contemporary life which he sings to the frenetic accompaniment of his own persistently-untuned guitar while stomping, bouncing up and down, wooing and oooing and ahhhing like some bizarre combination of Spike Jones and Tiny Tim all bloated to the gills with amphetamines.’

After exploring the United States, they ditched the Dodge in California and procured tickets to travel the world—from Hawaii to Japan and then all over Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Their journey of several years took on a spiritual hue. “He was always pursuing a higher path,” Low said, recalling how they embraced Eastern spirituality, reading Krishnamurthi, whom they also met, and Gurdjieff, seeking out holy men and staying in ashrams. Antopolsky was writing songs the whole time, often on scraps of paper, and must’ve felt they had some value because he copyrighted all of them.

Antopolsky’s music, which could be called Americana, has always been fueled by a relentless optimism that was out of step with the mood of protest and rebellion of his era. “I always wanted to make songs that would bring people together and make them see that there’s something bigger than just their own personal thoughts,” he said. Eventually, his traveling days over, he wound up back in Georgia in a funk, unsure what to do next or where to go. That changed when he went to a party in Augusta one day in 1985 and met a French Jewish medical student who he ended up following back to France and marrying a few years later. After a stint in the city, where all of his instruments got stolen, he and his wife Sylvia, a doctor and the family’s main breadwinner, settled down on a 30-acre farm outside of Bordeaux. “I wanted more quiet and space and trees,” he said. He got into organic farming, and though he couldn’t get the business end of it going, still does farm work daily—“Keeps my energy grounded,” he said—tending chickens and growing tomatoes, corn, onions, peppers, eggplant, and green beans, mostly for family and friends.

After the birth of his twin daughters, Hannah and Liza, who are now 21, he returned to Judaism and started donning tefillin every morning and saying various prayers throughout the day. He observes Shabbos, keeps kosher, likes to read the Torah sitting in his pickup truck, and attends a synagogue in Bordeaux, where there’s always a police presence. “It’s a little scary sometimes for us now,” he said, referring to the hostile climate that has pushed a rising number of French Jews to move to Israel. “I wish everyone could pray as they like and get along with everybody,” he said.

The whole time he has been in France, he has gone every night to a little room upstairs in his 16th-century farmhouse to work on his music. He would have quietly gone on like this had he not encountered Jason Ressler, a filmmaker based in Bordeaux, who met the family in Tel Aviv through a mutual friend. Visiting them back in France, he heard Antopolsky’s music one night and was transfixed. “I thought, ‘These are some of the best songs I’ve ever heard,’ ” he recalled, and asked him to play more. Then he came up with the idea to record some of the songs for posterity and maybe to get one on the radio. He reached out to a producer he knew in Nashville, Gary Gold, and arranged an introduction at his recording studio. Antopolsky played a dozen songs for Gold and co-producer John Capek (both industry veterans who have been nominated for Grammy Awards). They liked what they heard and decided to make an album.

Gold said recently of that first time he heard Antopolsky’s music: “I thought it was coming from a very innocent but wise and deep place” and considered it a missing piece of the American musical canon. But working with a guy who has been making music by himself for so many years posed some challenges. “It was sort of like finding someone who was raised by a pack of wolves,” Gold said, recalling their negotiations over editing and arranging. With the song “Chickens,” for instance, Gold wanted him to pare down the lyrics, which were heavy on chicken names and stories. But Antopolsky wasn’t having it, so Gold gave in. “These chickens were his friends,” he said, “and it was as if he didn’t want one of the chickens’ feelings to get hurt because they got left out of the song.”

Antopolsky on his farm in Bordeaux, France in the late 1980s. (Photo: The Sheriff of Mars)

Gold felt that Antopolsky’s songs, which he described as “very authentic, heartfelt, Americana roots music,” needed a boost getting traction in what’s become a saturated marketplace, so he suggested to Ressler that he make a film in a roughly similar vein to the 2012 documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. “The story could deliver the music,” he said, explaining that the songs alone don’t tell the tale of a peripheral Southern Jewish country singer who drops out of sight and then emerges 40 years later in France with a treasure trove of Americana gems.

Ressler brought on cinematographer and producer Matthew Woolf as a partner on the project, The Sheriff of Mars, a 90-minute feature whose title comes from a wacky character Antopolsky has drawn since childhood. The film is now nearing post-production, and with the help of a recently launched Kickstarter campaign it should be finished next year. The album, Sweet Lovin’ Music, is due out following the self-released first single, “Daddy Liked Living in a Frontier Town.” Antopolsky wrote its title song while he was with Van Zandt in the early ’70s during a fertile period for both. They were staying at a hotel on the outskirts of Dallas, and each went off on his own for a few hours and came back with a new song, Antopolsky said. He shared his, “Sweet Lovin’ Music,” with Van Zandt, who complimented him on it and then unveiled the song that was going to become his most famous—“Pancho and Lefty.”

Ressler theorized that the Lefty in the song may refer to Antopolsky, who said, “I’m left-handed, but that doesn’t mean I’m Lefty.” On the occasions when Van Zandt talked about how the song came about, he mentioned that Antopolsky was there but didn’t reveal who the characters were and even said himself that he wasn’t entirely sure what it was about.

Now with one album under his belt and a taste of what it’s like to have his music out there, sort of, Antopolsky would like to do more. Ressler, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to put it all together. “Daniel is a genius songwriter who has a life’s work,” he said, “but nobody’s heard it. He didn’t get lucky, and he didn’t know how to play the game. But unlike Sugar Man, he never quit.”


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Daniel Krieger is a journalist in New York.

Daniel Krieger is a journalist in New York.