'We Grow Songs': Over The Rhine On Making Untamed Music
Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have been making music together for more than two decades in the band Over the Rhine, and have been married nearly as long. The duo got its name from a historic neighborhood in downtown Cincinnati. But in recent years, the two musicians have left city life behind and settled into an old farmhouse in rural Ohio.
Their band's latest release, Meet Me at the Edge of the World, is out next week; it's Over the Rhine's 15th studio album, a two-disc set. The couple says the music they've made of late has grown from their deep roots in their home state — be it a tree on their property that often provides flashes of songwriting inspiration, or memories of Detweiler's late father, who learned to love music after growing up in a household where it was forbidden.
Detweiler and Bergquist recently spoke with NPR's David Greene about keeping a measured relationship with religion, the cursed blessing of making art with one's life partner and the "untamed music" to be found in the rough edges of the land around their home. Click the audio link to hear the radio version and read more of their conversation below.
DAVID GREENE: So, Meet Me at the Edge of the World . Where exactly are we meeting you?
LINFORD DETWEILER:That would be our little farm — our little hideaway farm in southern Ohio, our refuge from the road. All the songs on this new project kind of loosely revolve around this place that we call home.
GREENE: Tell me about that place. It sounds like it's really important to you.
KARIN BERGQUIST:Well, it became important. We lived in the city for a long time and we loved it. It just became more and more obvious to us that we needed a change when we would get home from tour, traveling city to city; we started craving something else. And so, this last chapter, the last eight years of our lives, have been centered around this farm. It's about an hour outside of the city. I wanted coffee and birds and dogs and silence; I just needed that for a change. And my loving husband said "OK" and found this little fixer-upper. It's an old pre-Civil War farmhouse. It's definitely a ...
DETWEILER:A labor of love.
BERGQUIST:A labor of love, yes.
GREENE: Are you actually farming? I mean, is it a working farm?
DETWEILER:We grow songs.
GREENE: Oh, that's nice.
DETWEILER:We have a few flower beds and a vegetable garden and some big trees.
BERGQUIST:And some dogs.
DETWEILER:And some paths. We've resisted the urge to own anything that produces manure while we're still traveling.
GREENE: Well, I know you both are from Appalachia and that region of the world. Does living on this farm kind of take you both back there, in a way?
DETWEILER:Yeah, it feels like we have roots here in Ohio. I was born in Ohio. Karin grew up in Barnesville, Ohio, near Wheeling, W.Va. And I guess we maybe thought, you know, as young aspiring songwriters, that we would eventually relocate to Nashville or New York. That would have been great, but we were always kind of haunted by the idea of staying here, staying put where we had some roots. I think some of these other American writers that we immediately associate with place — people like Robert Frost or Flannery O'Connor or Wendell Berry or whoever, there's sort of a particular piece of earth associated with their work. I guess for us, that's Ohio. And we've stayed here.
GREENE: Linford, I love this line that I've read from you: You said you grew up in a place where "Elvis was king and Jesus was lord."
DETWEILER: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, both Karin and I grew up around a lot of gospel music and we're grateful for that. I have been known to say there could have been no Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley without the music they were exposed to in their mother's hymnals. Those old hymns are just a part of the American musical tapestry; they get in your bones and they never leave.
BERGQUIST:My first two musical influences were Hee Haw and gospel music.
GREENE: There's a combination!
DETWEILER:That's where Karin fine-tuned her comic genius.
BERGQUIST:Yes, yes. Linford likes to take credit for helping edit my comic genius, but we'll see.
GREENE: Your sound really is this crossover — I mean, to me — between indie music and Christian music. I wonder, how do you two find that balance?
DETWEILER: I think it's fair to say that our records have been Christ-haunted. My father was a minister for part of his life, and certainly, the big questions show up in our music. Somebody said that there are only three subjects available to the writer: God, love and death. And we try to write about all three.
GREENE: Do you kind of draw a line anywhere to not get too religious because you don't want to alienate some people? How do you deal with that?
BERGQUIST:Well, you don't choose your audience — they choose you. And the more diverse our audience is, the better. Many different people have found our music, and I think part of that is because they are sort of landing where we are. I can summarize it best by the Rainer Maria Rilke quote that he wrote in Letters to a Young Poetwhere he says, "Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." And I love that quote; I embraced it in my 20s. It really does explain where I live and, I think, where a lot of our listeners live, as well.
GREENE: I've read that the two of you make sure to just do one or two religious or Christian festivals each year, but you don't want to do too many, because you don't want to get boxed in.
DETWEILER:[ Laughs.] Yeah, we always wanted to take our music into the general marketplace. And, you know, songs are great conversation starters. We here in the U.S. are a little bit obsessed with dividing everyone into our different camps. Songs are just a great way to get different people back in the same room together again and sort of get them talking.
GREENE: Well, I want to talk about the journey that the two of you have been on that brought you to this farm in Ohio that you love so much. You went through a difficult time in your marriage, which you write about in many of your songs.
DETWEILER:You've done your research, David!
GREENE: You know, we do a little reading. But Karin, I was struck by something you said once. It was, "We are fortunate we work together, but that is part of the problem." What does that mean? Because musically, you two work together so well.
BERGQUIST:We do. We do work together well. I think what we had to learn was that our career path and our relationship were like two separate gardens: We were very good at watering and tending to the career garden and not so good about taking care of the relationship garden. We had to learn how to do both, and that they were very separate — intertwined, but separate things, and both needing attention and nurturing and time.
GREENE: And does this new farm — I mean, it sort of sounds like a garden to me — fit into your life in some important way when you talk about those things?
DETWEILER:It's a nurturing place for the two of us to be together and sort of to get away from, you know, our other life. But, yeah, it's not for the faint of heart, this working together and living and being together. But we're up for it.
BERGQUIST: You need a good sense of humor, too.
GREENE: What song on this new album could we point to as one that the two of you turn to, you know, in moments when things get a little tough?
BERGQUIST:I love the song "I'd Want You." I wrote that, actually, thinking about other people who had gone through some storms, because you don't live a day without hearing about someone that's struggling. And I feel very fortunate to look across the table at my partner and know, no matter what life throws at me, he's the person that I would want to spend all of it with.
GREENE: Linford, what do you think about when you hear this song?
DETWEILER:Well, I hear the sound of Karin's little 1932 Epiphone tenor guitar. It's just a very simple song and kind of a classic-sounding song. Our producer, Joe Henry, paid Karin quite a compliment when he said it sounded like a song that Roy Orbison might have sung. Karin has a knack for writing these little simple songs that sort of run into the big ideas, I suppose.
GREENE: I want to hear a little bit about your background. Linford, your parents were Amish — is that right?
My mother grew up on an Amish farm and she always wanted a piano, and that was not allowed. One of her schoolteachers helped her cut out a cardboard keyboard and paint the keys. And she brought that cardboard keyboard home into her bedroom, and would play the music that was only inside of her.
DETWEILER:That's right; how's that for an only-in-America tale? My dad grew up on an Amish farm. He was a bit of a misfit child. I think he had artistic inclinations and he was known for sketching faces with a piece of charcoal on their whitewashed barn wall. And people would sort of gather around and look at his sketches. Musical instruments were forbidden in the home, but my dad and his brother had a secret guitar that they had buried in the hay mound in the barn.
DETWEILER:And one day one of the other brothers, not knowing it was there, accidentally ran a pitchfork through it and that was the end of the secret guitar. Same with my mother; she grew up on an Amish farm and she always wanted a piano, and that was not allowed. One of her school teachers helped her cut out a cardboard keyboard and paint the keys. And she brought that cardboard keyboard home into her bedroom, and would play the music that was only inside of her. And so this idea of, "Music can be dangerous; be careful" was sort of in the water in my family history. I feel like I stepped into a story — you know, as a songwriter – that was already in progress. And being on the farm feels like a part of that chapter somehow.
GREENE: I don't even know what to say after those stories about your parents. I mean, where were you during these times? Were you born on one of these Amish farms?
DETWEILER:No; when my father turned 21, my grandfather offered him the farm. It would have made him a wealthy man.
BERGQUIST: Two hundred pristine acres.
BERGQUIST:Which I wrote about in the song "Against the Grain." He turned it down.
DETWEILER:He said the only thing he knew for sure when he was 21 was that he wasn't a farmer. And so he met my mom and they began exploring, and I think he decided that the music should be heard — and we bought a piano. When he realized I was interested in music, he found the classified ads and circled all the pianos for sale. I was probably in about the third grade. We went around and played all the used pianos, and I helped pick out the one that I thought sounded right. We paid $10 for it, brought the upright piano home and put it right in the living room.
BERGQUIST:In front of God and everybody.
DETWEILER: [Laughs.] Yeah. My sister was so concerned that we had this forbidden instrument that she kept looking at it. She knew our grandmother would be visiting and she took me aside and said, "Linford, I think if we cover it up just right, they'll think it's a furnace."
GREENE: And did she?
DETWEILER:No, we owned up to it. I actually played some old hymns for her and she seemed intrigued.
GREENE: So did your parents end up playing music? Or did they sort of live the music through their son?
DETWEILER:They loved music. My dad bought a record player and didn't know it was against the rules to play Eddy Arnold and Beethoven and Mahalia Jackson all in the same evening. But he had very diverse tastes and he encouraged all of us kids to sort of pursue our artistic dreams. And my dad played his harmonica all his life, but not too much beyond that.
GREENE: Have they followed your career?
DETWEILER:They have. They were a little curious, I think, about this songwriting path that we chose. But in a wonderful full-circle moment, when my dad came down and saw this little farm that we bought, he said he heard birds singing that he hadn't heard since growing up on that farm as a boy. He was a bit of a birdwatcher and he encouraged us, now that we had this place, to "leave the edges wild and let the birds have their hidden places for their untamed music." And that phrase became such a wonderful metaphor for Karin and I, and showed up in about three songs on this project.
GREENE: "Leave the edges wild." Why do you feel like that's so powerful when it comes to the two of you?
DETWEILER:I don't know. It just feels like a bit of a mission statement. You know, we hope there are wild moments in the songs, and we hope that we're willing to sort of lean in and take the big risks.
BERGQUIST:Linford and I both have a pretty high tolerance for risk — and I think we both have struggled, as well, with things like perfectionism and some things that can really sort of stifle you creatively. Which is one thing I loved about the way we recorded this record. ... Most of these takes are first takes and it's all live off the floor; it's everybody leaning into the moment and capturing that moment. There are definitely some wild edges, and I love that.
GREENE: Karin, you said you wrote "Against the Grain" about Linford's grandfather's Amish farm. Why did you call it that?
BERGQUIST:Well, it was really for his dad — Linford's dad, John. He passed away a couple years ago, but he's still with us in many ways. And I think oftentimes when you lay someone to rest, you continue in a relationship with that person, and we certainly have felt that in the family, that dad is still with us.
GREENE: I'm imagining the hidden guitar, and that making the phrase "Against the Grain" make a bit more sense.
BERGQUIST:Yeah, you know, he was a bit of a rebel in his own way. Any time you step out against the norm or something that you are expected to be, it's very hard to do that. And I think that was really tough for Dad, but he also set an example for some of his children to do the same.
GREENE: I know that there are Amish communities in Ohio. Do you two ever see the horses and buggies going by, and does it sort of conjure up some thoughts, images?
DETWEILER:Oh, yeah. My mother lives up in Holmes County; lots of Amish folk up there. In fact, when we buried my father, we were all driving to the cemetery, which was high on the ridge sort of overlooking Amish country there in Holmes County. Sure enough, there was a horse and buggy going up the hill as we all got there, and we all just went slowly behind the horse and buggy up the hill.
BERGQUIST:It was full circle.
DETWEILER:Such a bookend.
GREENE: Do you see some good in that community? Does part of you wish that you could be back there?
DETWEILER:I can appreciate parts of it. I have lots of family that are still Amish and, you know, they have their struggles just like everybody else. Sometimes, [despite] that emphasis on the beautiful exterior of the farm, there are dark things, just like any family, that have to be worked through.
GREENE: When it comes to taking risks, you sort of took a risk in creating this album. It's not unusual for artists to crowd-fund projects, but you funded this new album just with contributions from your fans — no Kickstarter campaign, nothing. How did you do it?
DETWEILER: We've done this a couple of times now. We have a wonderful listening audience that still listens to records, and we just invited everybody to sort of come along on this creative journey and tried to make it fun. One thing we did this time, which was a first, is we actually had a couple of gatherings on our little farm. We put up a big tent and had some evenings of music out there. It was really great to let people who had helped us make the record hear the songs that had grown out of that dirt and see the dogs running around and see our little place.
GREENE: Is there a song on this album that you feel wouldn't be there if it had been funded in the traditional way?
BERGQUIST:Oh, well, many of them, but probably the title track for sure. "Meet Me at the Edge of the World" was a song that I wrote when I was walking the dogs. There's a path around our little property, and there's one tupelo tree on the path. And up against it stands some beautiful ironweed — which, I don't know if you know what that looks like, but it's blooming right now in Ohio.
GREENE: What does it look like?
BERGQUIST:A deep plum color, and it's very tall. It's just a gorgeous color. And then the goldenrod, of course, against that. Whenever I get to this spot where this tupelo tree stands, I get some kind of signal. I can't explain it, but I pay attention, because I know something's gonna happen; I'm gonna get some words or a song or something. And one day, this song just poured out, and I happened to have my phone with me and a way to write down the words. There's a line in there about [how] we're standing on this cold concrete, we're performing on this stage and we're so, so grateful for the audience that is here — but there's still that calling, that craving to be alone and to be someplace where we can sort of collect ourselves and plug in and rejuvenate and recover. That's where the songs come from, that moment of recovery.
GREENE: It feels like there's less pain in this album than in your previous albums. Is that fair?
BERGQUIST:That is fair. That is fair.
DETWEILER:Yeah, I think this is a record about finding a place, finding a home. I think we're still aware that loved ones are moving on, and there's joy and sorrow on the record. But there is a sense of, "We're gonna be okay."
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