Searching for the Southern Sugar Man: Meet the Jew Who Put the Mystique in Country Music

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Daniel Antopolsky. For decades, his name hadn’t meant a thing to even the most ardent country music fans.
Daniel Antopolsky. For decades, his name hadn’t meant a thing to even the most ardent country music fans. Credit: Sheriff of Mars
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

In one of the beautiful scenes in “The Sheriff of Mars,” the new documentary about American Jewish country singer Daniel Antopolsky, viewers see the protagonist sitting in a Nashville studio listening to a young man recording the guitar track to Antopolsky’s song “Queen Anne’s Lace.” The guitarist, highly skilled despite his young years, had only heard the song for the first time a few minutes earlier, but he added all kinds of embellishments in the crystal-clear style of Chet Atkins.

In the decades since 1971 — until that recording session in Nashville — Antopolsky had written some 400 songs but never recorded one

Antopolsky, who was 65 when “The Sheriff of Mars” was shot four years ago, listens to the guitar, sings the song to himself, and when the guitarist adds a special pinch of the strings, Antopolsky breaks into tears, rubbing his eyes, sticking his thumb in his mouth like a baby and bawling. The film’s director approaches him, touches his shoulder and apparently asks why he’s crying. Antopolsky explains that the song is so beautiful that he doesn’t recognize it, as if to say he can’t believe he wrote it.

The right sound at the right time, such as the young guitarist’s playing, can of course move a person to tears, including the person who wrote the song. In Antopolsky’s case, the moment the song took shape with the guitar was that much more significant. He whole life led up to that moment. “Queen Anne’s Lace” was the first song that Antopolsky wrote (excluding the attempts in his youth).

In the decades since 1971 — until that recording session in Nashville — Antopolsky had written some 400 songs but never recorded one. He had also never performed them, other than at family events. The recording session was the first in his life.

After so many years of unseen creativity, most of which took place on a French farm near Bordeaux, he was about to make his songs available to the world. It was a source of great joy, but it was tempered by sorrow — not just the fulfillment of hopes but a sense of missed opportunities.

For decades, the name Daniel Antopolsky hadn’t meant a thing to even the most ardent country music fans. What could they say about a man who spent most of his adult life on a farm growing vegetables, raising chickens and writing songs that only his wife, daughters and a rare guest ever heard? And yet, Antopolsky had a special, vague presence in the world of country music over four and a half decades, in the form of a photo.

The 1972 photo has iconic status in the country music world, says Tomer Cooper, an Israeli expert on music with American roots who writes the wonderful Hebrew music blog Hamarmonia Dromit (Southern Harmony). The picture was taken by Al Clayton on the porch of the Nashville home of singer Guy Clark. It features Clark, his wife Susanna and Townes Van Zandt, the great country music troubadour.

Daniel Antopolsky, right, in a 1972 photo while country musicians do their thing.Credit: Al Clayton

In the photo, Clark is seen sitting and playing the guitar. Van Zandt is standing and playing the fiddle (an instrument he almost never played). Susanna Clark is sitting and singing. And one person is simply sitting while leaning against a porch post, in khaki jeans and looking at the camera. It’s Daniel Antopolsky.

After so many years of doubt and hesitation and a decision not to let the world hear his music, Daniel Antopolsky’s work has finally been made public

The photo is one of the most beautiful visual expressions of outlaw country, a subgenre that got its start in the late 1960s. “This movement was the answer to the soft obsequious country music of the period,” Cooper explains.

“These singers defined outlaw because they wrote what they wanted and not about what they were told to, creating everything by themselves, recording with whomever they wanted and performing their original music much more freely than commercial country singers. The major representatives of the subgenre are Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Steve Earle.”

As Cooper puts it, “The picture on Guy Clark’s porch is iconic because it captured the great representatives of the genre at a really beautiful moment.” When Clayton, the photographer, was asked about the unknown guy in the picture, he said he wasn’t playing at all.

It’s possible that some country music fanatics heard the story about how Antopolsky saved Van Zandt’s life after an overdose. Van Zandt, who had been addicted to heroin, eventually died in 1997 at 53. It’s also possible they were curious about the apparently false rumors that Van Zandt had based a character in his most famous song, “Pancho and Lefty,” on Antopolsky.

Those yearning to hear Antopolsky’s own music got their first chance with his debut album “Sweet Lovin’ Music,” which was released in 2015 when the singer was 67. A year later he released two other albums, “Acoustic Outlaw” volumes one and two.

Antopolsky’s first album, which was recorded in Nashville with studio musicians, is nothing spectacular, and the young guitarist playing in “Queen Anne’s Lace” is drowned out in the mix. The two “Acoustic Law” albums, which were recorded on Antopolsky’s farm in France, are another story. They are songs with a story line. They are happy and rough without an ounce of pretension. They are performed with joy and reflect the singer’s great love of nature, the simple person and America.

Daniel Antopolsky in Nashville in the documentary 'Sheriff of Mars.'Credit: 'Sheriff of Mars'

The singer’s biography simply adds another dimension of a late-blooming career to the beauty of the songs. After so many years of doubt and hesitation and a decision not to let the world hear his music, Daniel Antopolsky’s work has finally been made public.

Proud hick

The man who jump-started the process and also directed and produced the film about the singer is Jason Ressler, a filmmaker who lives and works in both France and Israel and who met Antopolsky and his family at a Tel Aviv hummus joint a few years ago. Antopolsky and his family were in Israel for a wedding, and Ressler and Antopolsky became friends.

During the first year and a half of their friendship, Ressler didn’t even know that Antopolsky wrote songs, but one day, when the filmmaker was visiting Antopolsky’s farm in France, by chance he heard the musician singing and playing in the dining room. Ressler said he sat by the door and listened to song after song, which he thought were among the most beautiful he had ever heard. It was if he was hearing the musical equivalent of the undiscovered work of Vincent van Gogh.

Ressler then contacted Gary Gold, a music producer in Nashville, who at one time had been up for a Grammy Award. Gold listened to demo recordings of Antopolsky, loved the songs and said he’d be happy to produce them.

“The Sheriff of Mars,” a reference to a character that Antopolsky has been drawing since he was a child, documents the trip from the farm in France to Gold’s Nashville studio, the crisis-filled recording sessions, the joy of the songs and Antopolsky’s preparations for his first-ever concert at the age of 65.

At the start of the film, when Antopolsky is seen working on his farm, jumping off tractors and feeding his beloved chickens, he points to his neck and says, “If that’s the meaning of redneck, then I’m a proud redneck.”

He was born and grew up in Augusta, Georgia. His mother died when he was a child. His father owned a hardware store, so as Antopolsky said in a phone interview, he learned the language he uses in his songs to this day. “You wouldn’t believe the characters who came in,” he says. “I learned the language of the Old South from them. The syntax was wrong, but the language was so picturesque, so joyful.”

A photo of Antopolsky, with Corn Guns in his pockets, taken in France in the 1990s.Credit: Sheriff of Mars

He also learned the language of the South, the authentic American tune, from the music he heard on the radio. “I was born in the right place at the right time,” he says. “I was a boy when Elvis, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry came onto the scene. I remember that Elvis had six songs in the top 10. And not only on the radio; you could see the first rock-and-roll singers in clubs, at frat parties.”

In an entirely different place, the synagogue, Antopolsky absorbed another important influence. “There was one guy who knew how to sing in harmony,” he says. “His name was Clarence. I always listened to him. I learned the melodies of the synagogue, and they intermingled with the blues and Southern rock.”

Antopolsky went to college in Athens, Georgia, and started writing songs that were “pretty crazy and stupid. I was looking for something, some meaning, like everyone,” he says. The counterculture of the late 1960s swept the American campuses, and the new freedom excited Antopolsky. “I became a hippie,” he says.

Van Zandt, who knew him in those days, said in a radio interview that appears in the documentary: Daniel isn’t a hippie, he’s a flower child. That’s an entirely different story. As Antopolsky puts it, “I was wild, rudderless, without my feet on the ground.”

His involvement in the outlaw country scene was short and intense. It stemmed from his friendship with Van Zandt. They met when the latter, who had already released his first albums, came to perform in Athens. Antopolsky would accompany him to concerts in the South, and in the end joined him for a nationwide tour.

One night in Houston, Antopolsky saved his heroin-addicted friend from death. Van Zandt said that before he injected the drug he said to Antopolsky, “I’m going to faint, but don’t worry.” When Van Zandt started to breathe heavily and his face turned blue, Antopolsky got worried all the same. He called an ambulance and performed artificial respiration. In the hospital the doctor told him that if he had waited a few more minutes, Van Zandt would have died.

On his trip with Van Zandt, Antopolsky made a few very hesitant attempts to present his songs to the audience and people in the country music industry. He tells about one concert that went wrong because he had eaten too many hashish cookies and his head dropped while he was playing. At another concert he ran around the stage in hysteria, “and suddenly two people grabbed me, one on each side, and took me off the stage.”

“There were people my age, 20-somethings, who were very famous,” he says. “Maybe I didn’t want to be like them. Maybe I couldn’t. It was hard for me to deal with an audience. I was too nervous. Sometimes I’m ashamed that I didn’t pay the price demanded of someone who wants to succeed as a singer. All the other musicians went out and banged their heads against the wall week after week after week. They became good, learned a lot of guitar chords. I didn’t do that, and I regret it.”

Misbegotten competition

Antopolsky also had deep reservations about the competition on which the music industry was based. “I remember that in the late '60s, at all the music festivals, people would say things like ‘Did you see how the second band wiped out the first band?’ It really caused me pain. It shouldn’t be like that. Then I wrote the song ‘Sweet Lovin’ Music’ in which I say that everyone is playing important music.”

There was something else that made Antopolsky stay away from the country music scene: drugs. “If I didn’t leave America when I did, I might not have stayed alive,” he says.

“There was heroin everywhere. I’ll tell you a terrifying thing: The musicians had a blackboard in which they would stick their needles. They treated it as a joke, but it’s people’s lives. I remember one musician who was very, very thin. He ate but he looked like a skeleton. Nobody understood what was wrong with him. After the fact it turned out that he had AIDS because of the infected needles.”

Antopolsky adds: “I also did drugs. I smoked, I sniffed and I swallowed things, but I never shot up. I was afraid of needles. That was my good luck. If I wasn’t afraid of needles, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Crazy times.”

U.S. country singer-songwriter Daniel AntopolskyCredit: 'Sheriff of Mars'

In the mid-’70s, after he had left the country scene, Antopolsky traveled to the Far East (“the way young Israelis do after the army,” he says). Then he returned to Georgia and secluded himself from the world, or to be more precise, he stayed away from people. He didn’t want to meet with friends, not even Van Zandt. “When you’re not really yourself, you don’t want other people to see you,” he says.

In the early ‘80s, Antopolsky met Sylvia, a medical student from France. He was about 35 at the time. He looks young compared to an old man and very, very old compared to a boy, he wrote in “There’s Chameleons on the Screen,” the last song he penned before leaving America and settling down with Sylvia on a farm near Bordeaux, where their two daughters were born.

“It was hard for me to leave my home in America, it was in the middle of nature, a perfect place, but Sylvia was the first Jewish girl I had dated in 15 years, and I loved her, and I decided to go,” he says.

In the 30 years since he has been raising animals and growing vegetables during the day, and sitting down to write at night. “It’s always been the only thing that I really know how to do,” he says about his writing. “I live on a farm, I love nature, I don’t get along in noisy places. I’m a country Jew. So I grow vegetables and fruit trees and I get on and off the tractor, but I’m not a strong man, I’m a little Jewish guy. I’m joking a little, but what I do best is writing songs.”

Was he frustrated all those years when his songs weren’t published? Did he dream of recording and performing?

“There was frustration and there were dreams. During the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta, I wrote a song about it and I wanted people to hear it,” he says.

“When a movie about Wyatt Earp came out [probably the 1994 Kevin Costner film], I wrote a song that I wanted to be used on the soundtrack, a good song, I think. So those things frustrated me. And I was always hesitant. Are my songs good? What will happen if I fail? What will happen if I succeed? I think I was afraid of both things, both failure and success.”

As a writer whose songs have a deep basis in American history and nature, did the distance from the United States for so many years bother Antopolsky as a person and as a writer? He never felt far away, he says.

“And we also used to visit America once a year. As far as the writing is concerned, I think the distance was good for it. If I stayed in America, I might have tried to write the songs that I thought could succeed. I’ve never written such songs. My songs could never succeed.”

After he makes this fatalistic statement he thinks for a few seconds and adds: “Unless people like them.”

The albums that Antopolsky released in 2015 and 2016 didn’t make him famous. His new career as a recording and performing artist is simmering on a low flame. He has performed several times, like at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. A heart operation a few months ago slowed his activity more.

“I never thought people in France would like my songs, but the young people speak English and some like the music,” he says, adding that he’s happy to perform and record in Israel. His two daughters studied there, and he has visited the country several times.

“I think that Tel Aviv is the only big city in the world that I like,” he says. “It’s both fun and Jewish.”

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