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Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear (photo by Danny Clinch, PR)

by

Skeleton Crew
Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear
Glassnote Records

From country music’s Carter Family to the Kings of Leon, music has certainly seen its share of family bands in all kinds of combinations. One unique pairing gaining attention is the mother-and-son duo of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. Guitarist and vocalist Ruth Ward, 63, and her singer, guitarist and songwriter son Madisen, 27, hail from Independence, Missouri, not far from Kansas City.

A native of northern Indiana, Ruth Whitlock was bitten by the music bug in her late teens. She learned to play guitar and embarked on a modest music career in the ‘70s until she choose to focus on her family rather than life on the road. But when her youngest son, Madisen, began pursuing a music career in his twenties, mother and son began collaborating, aware that they possessed a strong artistic chemistry together. Debuting in Missouri music venues for a handful of years, the pair broke through in a big way after appearing at Nashville’s Americana Music Fest, at SXSW (where they performed for Public Radio Rocks), and eventually on "The Late Show with David Letterman." The rest, as they say, is history.

Skeleton Crew is the first full-length album from Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear; all twelve songs were written by the pair. There is nothing particularly fancy about their songcraft and Madisen and Ruth don’t attempt to reinvent the wheel as performers. But what makes Skeleton Crew such a treat is the natural musical union of this dynamic mother-and-son team and the honesty of their material. The powerfully rich voice of Madisen Ward figures prominently and is warmly supported by the Mama Bear’s backing vocals. Both play dexterous acoustic guitar and weave the melodies together like a homemade quilt.

The songs on Skeleton Crew tap into folk, blues and gospel traditions, but all are modern tunes about everyday rural life, delivered in an old-time, atmospheric style. Tracks range from upbeat front porch stompers like “Silent Movies” to moving, bittersweet folk tales like “Dead Daffodils.” Some songs, like “Down in Mississippi,” possess a cinematic quality that wouldn’t be out of place in a film while the percussion on “Daisy Jane” imitates a train chugging along on a Midwest afternoon.

The light-hearted “Yellow Taxi” is countered by the more serious track “Fight On.” On “Whole Lotta Problems,” Madisen and the Mama Bear trade lines in a playful call-and-response that evokes smiles. “I’m a big spender,” sings Madisen Ward,”Now you’re being funny. I bought her a dinner. (The) eggs were kinda runny.” Skeleton Crew is lovingly produced by Jim Abbiss. He’s an interesting choice for producer being that he has worked with artists like Adele and Arctic Monkeys. Abbiss smartly steps back to give Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear plenty of room to shine. The duo’s acoustic guitars are accompanied by complimentary touches of cello, viola, violin, harmonium, pedal steel, organ, acoustic bass and percussion.

Madison Ward and the Mama Bear’s Skeleton Crew is not a history lesson, but a heartfelt expression of homemade artistry influenced by, but not tied to, American tradition. It is as pure, natural, and welcoming as a cold glass of lemonade on a warm summer afternoon.

More:

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear: SXSW 2015

Preview songs and/or buy them (all purchases benefit WFUV):