October 16, 2008
The beginnings don’t come any more humbler. Mare Winningham, a two-time Emmy winner and a multiple Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee, got her first taste of stardom as a winner on The Gong Show in 1976. The prize: a whopping $500.
“I remain amused by that whole episode,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. The producers coached her on how she might win. “I had to go for the pity vote. I had to look horrible and sing really heartfelt. And I did exactly that. I came in and looked like a nightmare…. It worked.”
Winningham will present a concert at B’nai Shalom in West Orange on Sunday evening, Oct. 26.
The native Californian, who converted to Judaism in 2006, was still on a high from davening and fasting the day before. “You’re catching me at a good time, because I’ve done no wrong; I’m clean,” she said. “We had an amazing Yom Kipper. My fast was easy and I got a lot out of the service.
“This is my sixth Yom Kippur. It’s always good for me as a Jew to remind myself, ‘Look how far you’ve come; look what you’re doing.’”
Winningham, 49, described herself as “a devoted member” of her Hollywood synagogue. “Every Shabbos we have a beautiful service and then a class afterward, which is my favorite part of the week.”
She received her musical epiphany during a film shoot in Eureka Springs, Ark. An avid musician — she has recorded two “folk rock” CDs — Winningham always travels with her guitar, which was fortuitous when she encountered a four-day bluegrass/gospel festival and wound up jamming with the musicians. “I hitched my wagon onto all of their stars.” That experience gave her the push to collect the “country Jewish” songs she had written, which she dubbed “Jewgrass” — “religious-based good old, good-time music” — and get to work on her album Refuge Rock Sublime. “In bluegrass you don’t have minor chords, and who can play Jewish music without minor chords? It’s the sound for our people,” she said, offering her definition of country vs. bluegrass.
“Our people.” A simple statement on her spiritual awakening.
Deliver song and self
Winningham was born into a Roman Catholic family. Like many adolescents, she began to question the concepts of her religion and faith. Her curious nature led to studying Judaism and, after some years of deliberation, the conversion process. Refuge took her only two days to record, a marked contrast to working in film or television.
“Acting and singing are completely different forms of expression,” she said. “The singing thing is about trying to deliver the song and deliver yourself.”
On the other hand, “I have a love/hate relationship with TV work,” said Winningham, who recently portrayed the stepmother of Dr. Meredith Grey on the hit show Grey’s Anatomy. “Some of the work was really inspiring, but a lot of it is just frustrating. There are so many factors; you have to give over to this unspoken ‘Big Daddy’ that controls everything…. You just have to show up and do the best you can.”
Winningham is already thinking about a follow-up album. “I remember after the first one I said, ‘We have to make another one next year,’ because a couple of tracks didn’t make it onto the first one. But now I see the way it goes. It takes awhile to gather up these songs.”
While the veteran performer hasn’t noticed any difference in how fellow performers perceive her since her conversion, there has been a change in a portion of her fandom.
“The Jewish community, when they find out you have any measure of celebrity, really want to make use of you. It’s been great, it’s a way to meet people. I’ve been a part of lot of benefits. I’m not good at the speaking engagements, but I love to sing, so anytime they want me to come in to do a song here or there, I’m good for that.”
Winningham gets a charge out of a live audience. She called her first performance in a synagogue the highlight of her career. An audience of 100 people was expected for a show in Memphis; 600 showed up. “It was thrilling.”
She said she expects the same feeling when she performs in West Orange.