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Austin Jewish country musician records CD as leader of Austin's oldest synagogue

The way back to Judaism for Brian Turner was his old love: music

Joshunda Sanders
Brian Turner has played in Austin bands since 1979. By day, he's a family law attorney. At night, he plays music or leads Congregation Beth Israel as the fourth in his family to serve as president. His ‘Shabbat on Shoal Creek' CD benefits the congregation.

A gray-haired couple held hands beneath a lush plant at Magnolia Cafe on South Congress Avenue, staring at each other with secret smiles as they sang in Hebrew. The woman wore a pixie cut that made her look younger than her silver hair suggested. The man, gripping her delicate hands, made his Texas A&M class ring bulge like a cuff from his ring finger. A pen's cap shaped like the silver arm of a guitar clutched the pocket of his country-style blue-and-white shirt. They sang a soft song in Hebrew for a few moments before a breakfast of omelets and fruit.

"It's basically the Jewish version of 'Thank you for the grub, now let's eat,'" Brian Turner, 53, explained. Turner is likely the only observant Jew in Austin who is also a well-regarded country music singer. The blend of his guitar playing and singing in bands like WhoDo and his deep Texas roots surprise even those who have played with him a long time.

In July, he became the fourth generation in his family to serve as president of Congregation Beth Israel. Before him, his mother served in that position, as did his grandfather and his great-grandfather.

Last month, before the High Holy Days, he released "Shabbat on Shoal Creek," a collection of traditional Jewish songs sung with his trademark country twang. During the past two years, as one of the Friday night cantoral soloists in the congregation, he contributed to one of the most significant elements of Jewish services — the liturgical music. Because Turner has been playing music for 30 years, he put together "Shabbat on Shoal Creek," which features Floyd Domino on piano, journalist John Burnett on harmonica and some other musicians Turner often sings with.

All the proceeds for the sale of the CD will go to the congregation, he said, peering stoically through his thick glasses. The grayish-black frames pay homage to one of his favorite musicians, Buddy Holly. The trucker-style baseball cap shielding his eyes would be at home on the head of pretty much any South Austin hipster.

Saying he has an easy smile would be a lie — but when a smile does break, it shows off the boy who grew up on Pecos Road in Austin in the 1970s and grew up to become an attorney with a passion for defending fathers in family law cases.

"Brian never breaks character," Domino said. Domino is best known for his work with the band Asleep at the Wheel and has known Turner for about 20 years. As a secular Jewish person from California who moved to Austin to reinvent himself like many others do, Domino said that he was fascinated by Turner being "an amalgam of a bunch of things you usually don't see in one place — Texas, Jewish country singer and Aggie. That is the real person; that's not a persona. Brian is who he is, he didn't become that."

His love for music started with the Beatles, when he was a kid at Casis Elementary School and the youngest of three children. He was about 5 years old when the Beatles came out, and seeing them on the Ed Sullivan Show intrigued him. He began his music career as a sixth-grader, and since 1979, he's nurtured his professional passion for music. He became a student of singers like Willis Alan Ramsey and B.W. Stevenson and his tastes leaned into progressive country as David Allan Coe, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson started to become better-known.

Larry Wright, 64, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, author of "The Looming Tower" and keyboardist for WhoDo, said that he met Turner before the band realized they needed the kind of magnetic performer he was. "He had a repertory of songs that were just terrific songs and perfect for our group," he said. "I didn't know about BT's Jewish heritage," he said, referring to Turner by the band's nickname for Turner. But it was that Jewish heritage that made Wright realize that he was looking at something of a rare bird. "He's got all these relatives from New York, the Jewish side of his family. They look at him like he's something out of a fairy tale, with the chaw in his mouth and the guitar and the hat. That's when I became acquainted with his Jewish roots, which I had no idea were as profound and deep as they actually are."

Margery Mendelson, 90, has known Turner since the day he was born. "I would use the word remarkable to describe him," she said. His parents had lived next door to her in Tarrytown for 45 years and she attended his bar mitzvah. "I still remember him as a young man standing on the bimah (a platform in the synagogue) at his bar mitzvah with the light shining behind him. He looked like an angel, and I still think of him that way to this day," Mendelson said.

Turner's great-grandfather, Joe Koen, was president of Congregation Beth Israel from 1899 until 1944. His grandfather, Big Bill Koen, served for two years from 1946 to 1948. His mother, Caroline Turner, was the first female president of the congregation, from 1984 to 1986. Now, Turner has taken the helm of tending to the 650 families at the congregation.

He says that he is not a micromanager. He meets weekly with the Rabbi Steve Folberg. "I hear about problems to make sure the problems don't happen again. I try to keep my ear to the ground, address problems before they become big problems."

When he's not doing that or practicing law, he travels with Haddy, to whom he's been married for six years. His loving attention to Haddy reveals a tender heart beneath a sort of gruff, enigmatic demeanor. "He's a romantic in a big way," Wright said. "His relationship with Haddy is a subject of wonder to his friends. He serenades her when she's taking a bath. He's the most smitten husband. He loves to coach his kids' athletic events; if he's not coaching, he's moving the chains for his football game. He's always very, very involved with his family and his community. And he's amazingly talented. You have no idea how many songs he knows."

Ten years ago, Congregation Beth Israel past president Deliana Garcia said, Turner wasn't heavily participatory in the congregation. But in the past four years, by lending his voice as a cantoral soloist, Turner found his way back to investing more in the faith and in the legacy of his forebears with the hobby that has become his passion.

"The music was a way back into Judaism that was only his own," she said.

jsanders@statesman.com; 445-3630