“Come on, boys!” Karin Bergquist shouted, her three dogs running through the snowy fields beyond the fence of the Ohio farm where she lives with husband/Over the Rhine bandmate Linford Detweiler. There was Porter, the cattledog she rescued from the cold two years ago; Shakey, the athletic Weimaraner named after Neil Young; and Elroy, the Harlequin Great Dane who recently passed but lives on as the namesake of the band’s label, Great Speckled Dog.
In the middle of recording demos for the duo’s new album, The Long Surrender, Bergquist was taking a break, letting her pets “run amok and hunt and be dogs,” she says. “After a while, I called them back in again and, of course, that always takes a little bit of doing. And I said, ‘Come on, boys,’ and for the first time in my life, I heard the line, the sentence, the command in a way I hadn’t heard it before. And I realized a song was coming, much like a labor pain, I would imagine. So I got the dogs in, ran into the house, got the record and pencil and guitar, and the song came.”
“Come on, boys” became the first line of “The Laugh of Recognition,” the album’s opening track. It’s a rallying cry to keep going when things get tough. For Bergquist, writing is usually a more deliberate activity, but not this time.
“I think the real writing happens in the editing,” she says, “but this song didn’t seem to call for too much of that anyway. I think it’s because I had been thinking so much about my own resignation, and my own potential for resiliency, but also that of people that I knew who were losing their jobs and losing their investments and finding out at 50 that they were having to start over again.”
Despite flirting with stardom at different points during the last 20 years and putting out a half-dozen albums on I.R.S. Records and major label Virgin in the ’90s and early ’00s, Over the Rhine is that rare, enduring middle-class band, now releasing music on its own to a sizable, devoted fanbase. Originally a quartet, the two chief songwriters got married in 1996, relocated to the pre-Civil War farm and began bringing in a revolving cast of guest musicians to fill out their sound.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to give this a good 10 years, a good solid decade,’” Bergquist says of the band’s beginning back in 1989. “That’s a really fair amount of time to give something. And I think I was wrong, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m stubborn or because I’m stupid or because intuitively I know something that you can’t name. It may be the latter—I hope. But here we are 20 years down the road. Some people would say, ‘Why on earth are you still making music?’ And some people would say, ‘Don’t stop.’ And I tend to agree with the latter, I guess, for a number of reasons, the first being primal. I don’t know what else I would do. It’s what I was born to do.
“The other reason is because we do receive this quiet undercurrent of encouragement that you’re not gonna see on Entertainment Tonight, and you’re not gonna read in any print magazine or you’re not gonna hear on the radio. We get these letters, these emails, and these people invite us to be a part of the really special, significant moment of their lives. And I couldn’t have predicted that, and I wouldn’t have had the audacity to ask for that.”
But playing music together for so long has also made the band a bit restless. Detweiler wanted to make a record he couldn’t imagine in advance, and to do that, he and Bergquist felt like they needed a new collaborator—someone to push them out of their comfort zone and take them in a different direction. Their first choice was Joe Henry.
“We’ve long admired his songwriting, and obviously began paying attention to his gifts as a producer,” says Detweiler. “But Joe has a very specific way of working, and he’s a big believer in gathering musicians together in his house. We cut the entire record in five days, everybody gathered around, playing together. I think Joe puts most of his energy as a producer into deciding which musicians need to be in the room. It’s very much about capturing something in real time. So, on the one hand, its just musicians gathering around in a house. On the other hand, with Joe Henry at the helm, it felt like the house lifted off the ground, drifted out over a stormy sea and blew apart and Joe got us all safely back to shore.”
Detweiler and Bergquist usually share songwriting duties, but added co-writers this time, including B.H. Fairchild, whose poem Bergquist adapted into the song “There’s a Bluebird in My Heart,” and Henry, who wrote the lyrics for “Sharpest Blade” and “Soon.” When Henry sent the couple the words to “Sharpest Blade,” they each created a different melody for the song and presented them anonymously to the producer. “Joe picked mine, so I was over the moon,” says Bergquist. “And Linford was a true sportsman about it. His melody, however, I love, and I want to use it for something else later. So it wasn’t wasted effort at all.”
The album is filled with sentiments that go beyond the typical pop song. Over the Rhine has always dug a little deeper with its lyrics, but The Long Surrender addresses the complex range of emotions of topics like marriage, friendship and ambition. On “Infamous Love Song,” Bergquist sings, “There’s days when we lose our appetite / And days when we’re bruised and losing the fight / Of a lifetime, days when we’re looking inside / Wondering if we’re half dead or alive / But the slow honey drip of those young nights long gone / The memory’s whip urging us on / My mouth on your lips is just trying to revive / Baby our love song must survive.”
“At some point you write songs about infatuation and love, and it’s the early phase,” says Bergquist. “But after a while, you get kind of bored with that, and I think where we are in our relationship, obviously, having had a relationship for about 20 years now, a marriage coming on 15, we write about what happens later in that relationship: the realities of commitment, the issues that arise day-to-day that either draw you closer or push you farther apart. And I think it does come down to making a choice, inevitably about those issues. You decide, ‘Well, am I going to let this be bigger than me, bigger than us?’ or ‘Can we handle this?’ And I think that’s where the line ‘Baby, this love song must survive’ tends to mean a little bit more than it sounds like it means; I think it implies we have to make a decision, every day, to be who we are and to make a commitment to what’s important to us, whether that’s our relationship or work or purpose in life.”
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief.