Although many a youngster may rebel against their parents with sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and other juvenile cliches, Madisen Ward made a far more daring, and far less hip, foray: he formed a singer/songwriter duo with his mother, Ruth Ward. Their offbeat pairing is free of the awkwardness and angst that plague so many public parent-child narratives. Instead Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear—as the familial troubadours have dubbed themselves—were buzzed as one of the must-see acts at SXSW this year, performed the song “Silent Movies,” on the Late Show with David Letterman, released their debut album, Skeleton Crew to critical acclaim on May 18, and embarked on a tour that will take them across Europe and America before the summer’s done.
Much of the pair’s growing fan base have praised Madisen’s shrilly hoarse baritone, which is as folky as it is bluesy. But, as startlingly distinct as Madisen’s singing can be, Ruth has always been more compelled by another aspect of her son’s artistry.
“More than his voice, I knew his songwriting was special,” she says during a joint phone interview with her son for Paste, before elaborating: “I love the depth of Madisen’s lyrics. He doesn’t just sing about love and breakups. If you listen to the words, they say a lot. It makes you think. It’s real.”
What sets Madisen’s lyricism apart is its piercing, needlepoint simplicity. On the downtempo midway Skeleton Crew cut “Dead Daffodils,” he sings about a protagonist who “needed a coffin (and) handmade his own.” The junior Ward’s narrative on “Down In Mississippi,” draws listeners in with lines like “Did you feel the heat today? The sores were on my feet today.” And even his more elaborate, lengthier verses are still unfussy, especially the standout line on “Live By the Water,” on which he sings: “Set sail, crack a bell, call it liberty/ Live on the land, and better not forget my sea.”
When asked about the influences on his no frills, impactful style, Madisen cites Tom Waits, Nick Drake, and “obviously Bob Dylan,” before adding: “They were real songwriters that went for their own paths, rather than just recreating other sounds.”
Ruth’s musical heroes, meanwhile, weren’t so coarse or idiosyncratic. She mentions Fleetwood Mac as a key influence that she would frequently cover as a 19-year-old aspiring songstress at open mics in Kansas City’s coffee house scene. Ruth continued to cover her favorite singer/songwriter fare at those intimate venues even as a mother, attaining more success through her deft acoustic strumming and soaring, gospel-inflected voice. She widened her circuit of gigs, leaving an immeasurable impression on her son that nevertheless was all but unnoticeable, at least at first.
“One of my earliest memories is seeing Mom play in the winter at a coffee house in Chicago, when I was three,” Madisen says, adding: “I would see her play all the time. And I almost wouldn’t think anything of it. It became so natural and normal, just a part of the household. We’d think: ‘Mom’s going off to do more shows.’ The whole family would go to see her all the time.”
Madisen was a devoted attendee of his mother’s gigs well into his adolescence. By then, Ruth had noticed the distinctness of his songwriting and invited him onstage to play a few of his originals during her breaks at those coffee-house gigs. Madisen’s performances went over so well that the elder Ward felt compelled to perform with her promising junior, in order to see what they could learn from each other. Her airy, soothing voice proved to be an apt foil for his raspy drawl, and their guitar parts meshed with equal ease.
“I’ve played with a lot of musicians, but I enjoyed playing with Madisen the most,” she says, adding: “He naturally knew, right away, how to play a song the way I would interpret it. The partnership happened really naturally. People really liked it, and I thought we could do even more.”
They began gigging regularly as Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, first at the coffee shops where Ruth had cut her teeth as a troubadour, then at a few local bars, steadily building a buzz all the while. As one of their recent press releases put it: “For years, though, they kept a low profile. This was honest music, performed by a band of blood relatives with no record label, no manager, no budget. Still, it was hard not to notice Madisen Ward and his mother. Onstage, they were solemn one minute and electrifying the next, able to command an audience’s attention with little more than two acoustic guitars and Madisen’s super-sized baritone vocals.”
Madisen says that gradual approach was deliberate, adding: “We were staying undercover for awhile, sticking to the coffeehouses and staying local, because we wanted to be sure our music was ready to be shared. After five years it felt like it was evolving and taking shape, and we started going to bigger venues and bars.”
After that deliberate buildup, the pair are now breaking through in 2015. They recorded Skeleton Crew with star producer Jimmy Abbiss of Adele and Artic Monkeys fame. The Letterman performance drew social media accolades from stars such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who called Madisen a “beautiful musician.” Meanwhile CBS news called the duo the “hottest thing out of … Missouri since President Harry Truman.” Letterman himself exclaimed that their performance was “lovely,” before quipping: “My mother and I used to do the same thing,” leaving Ruth and Madisen laughing as the studio audience continued to clap for them.
Both mother and son agree that such experiences have drawn them closer together, and make for a musical partnership unlike any other. When asked how he reacts to jokes by Letterman and others about the family dynamic his duo, and the fact that performing with your Mom is more than a bit unhip, Madisen laughs and says: “I never cared about that. I was past my rebellious stage by the time I was 19 and performing with my mom for the first time. By then it was really about the music. I never cared what people considered to be cool. I just respected my mom as a great musician, and that was that.”