Ruth Ward and her son Madisen are the acoustic-blues duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. Keith Myers The Kansas City Star
Ruth Ward and her son Madisen are the acoustic-blues duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. Keith Myers The Kansas City Star

Music News & Reviews

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear: Mother-son duo creates a music tradition

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

September 27, 2014 07:00 PM

Beau Bledsoe has seen a lot in his illustrious music career, which has taken him around the world. But he was not prepared for what he heard after his classical Turkish music/American jazz ensemble, Alaturka, performed at RecordBar in June.

“I was having a beer with a friend at the bar in the back of the club,” Bledsoe said, “and when we heard them start performing we gave each other the ‘What is this?’ look and immediately sat down right in front of the stage, ordered a pizza and stayed for the duration.”

“Them” was Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a mother-son duo from Kansas City that performs original folk tunes.

Madisen Ward, 26, is the duo’s songwriter, primary vocalist and guitarist; his mother, Ruth Ward, 62, also applies guitar and vocals.

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The two have been performing under the radar at coffeehouses in Independence and Overland Park for more than five years. In the past year or so, they have been generating attention and praise in music circles in Kansas City and beyond.

A recent performance at the Americana Music Fest in Nashville drew a tide of praise from national media, including Rolling Stone and Bob Boilen of National Public Radio’s “Tiny Desk Concerts,” who posted a photo of the two online, calling them the festival’s “biggest surprise so far.”

Like so many who hear the two for the first time, Boilen was immediately enchanted by a sound that Bledsoe said was “highly traditional but unlike anything I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s as if they’ve taken a slice of the U.S. from Kansas City to New Orleans, mastered every regional feel and then made it their own,” he said.

It’s an unusual sound that is still evolving, born in the late 1960s and nurtured by a young woman in search of herself.

Search for depth, emotion

Ruth Ward was born Ruth Whitlock in South Bend, Ind. She grew up listening to lots of blues, Motown and ’60s soul and dreaming of being a singer or part of a band. During high school, an older brother introduced her to music that affected her deeply.

“That’s when I started listening to Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; James Taylor; Peter, Paul and Mary; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Laura Nyro,” she said. “When I first heard it, I was blown away. The music wasn’t just talking about somebody’s baby. It had depth and emotion. I started hanging around people who listened to that music, who played guitar and sang in coffeehouses.”

In 1970, she was 18 and just out of high school when she and three “hippie friends” left South Bend for Arizona.

“I needed to leave home and get away from bad things,” she said.

She spent time in Albuquerque and then Las Cruces, N.M., singing and learning to play guitar.

“I’d sit on the roof of this adobe house and sing to the birds and trees,” she said. “I’d go into coffeehouses, and between acts, I’d get up and sing a cappella, covers and hits. Once I learned guitar, everything changed. I started writing songs.”

She would spend about a year in New Mexico, then move to Kansas City with some friends, the start of a long period of itinerancy: three years in Kansas City, four years in Independence, then a move to Norman, Okla., where she met Kenneth Ward, a salesman and now her husband of 35 years.

Right before they married, she released an album of original spiritual songs, “Moment by Moment.”

They would move two more times, to Waukegan, Ill., where she recorded another album, and then back to Kansas City. Wherever she lived, Ward played her songs in coffeehouses, often with friends. She put her career on the back burner for several years to raise her three children, including her youngest, Madisen, born in 1988. Like his mother, he was raised in a house filled with music and instilled with the desire to perform and entertain.

Getting traction

In 2013, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear started getting some traction in Kansas City. In late spring, they released the five-song EP “We Burned the Cane Fields,” which helped them get some radio attention.

Joel Nanos, whose family is longtime friends with the Wards, produced “Cane Fields” at his studio, Element Recordings.

“As soon as they got in the studio and began to sing together I was blown away and was more than excited to take on the project,” he said. “Madisen’s songwriting is incredibly thoughtful and captivating.”

Nanos then set out to get the music into the hands of those who could promote it.

One of those people was Mark Manning, host of “Wednesday MidDay Medley” on KKFI (90.1 FM), who had the duo perform on his show twice in 2013, including the celebration of his 500th show in November.

“I was blown away,” he said. “Seeing them play together, the respect they give each other is beautiful.”

Betse Ellis was among the local musicians who performed on-air during that November show. It was her first exposure to the duo.

“I had to work hard to keep from shouting ‘Yeah!’ repeatedly,” she said. “It’s honest, clear, so real, the music they make. It hearkens back to the early country and country blues music of the ’20s and also is very much music of today.”

This summer, the Wards caught the attention of Neill Smith, who has booked bands in Kansas City for several venues, including the Riot Room, Czar Bar and the RecordBar, his employer since August. He first heard the duo in July, after Madisen Ward inquired about a show date. Smith checked out the duo’s video to the song “Silent Movies.”

“The first thought I had watching the video was, ‘that voice’; I didn’t expect it,” he said. “As a guitar player, I also really caught on to their chord layering, something that almost reminded me of … Paul Simon. I immediately contacted Madisen and asked him if he minded if I shared his material with some industry contacts. Once I found out more of their story — being a mother/son duo — and got to know them better, I was on a mission to get them out to the masses.”

That mission is in full swing and is succeeding, in Kansas City and beyond.

Guitar was his ticket

Growing up, Madisen Ward wanted to be a performer and an entertainer, maybe a professional actor, like his mother’s brother. Music was a side-thought.

“It was always there,” he said. “I didn’t really consider music a pursuit because it was such a part of my life, through my mom.”

In middle school, he tinkered with the guitar but mostly he focused on performing arts and on writing. When he got to high school, however, he realized the guitar was his ticket to both.

“That’s when I really started plucking away and making up songs,” he said. “I’d bring my guitar to high school and play these comical songs about my friends and make people laugh.

“Once I realized I could write songs and entertain people, that was a big moment.”

He was 20 when he and his mother first started performing together. She was singing regularly at coffeehouses in Independence as Ruth Ward and Friends. He would sit in with her and sing some of his songs, then she would sing some of hers. His songs quickly won her over.

“I knew right away there was something there,” she said. “I loved those songs then and I do to this day. He has such a great talent, and I had the platform to bring him along with me. I really wanted people to hear his music.”

So they started booking private house concerts in their home. Their repertoire included Madisen’s songs and his interpretations of others. Even then, he was doing the unexpected, re-imagining songs like the Raconteurs’ “Carolina Drama” (he’s a big Jack White fan) and Franz Ferdinand’s “No You Girl.”

Then they both began to notice something: People were requesting Madisen Ward’s songs. And singing along to them. So they decided they’d become an official duo. But Madisen Ward had a stipulation: No covers.

“I respect covers and people who do them,” he said. “But I always feel like I could write something just like that if I worked hard at it.… I want to do my songs. At first she was like, ‘Let’s do at least two covers.’ Then it became one cover, now it’s none. I like the challenge of entertaining people with something I’ve created. It’s more rewarding.”

His songs are cast in country blues, although, as Bledsoe said, their sound is hard to pin down.

“Their compositions often remind me of 19th-century popular song structures, and I love how simple and whimsical they can be,” he said. “Some of Madisen’s songs can also be very poetic and weighty in their content.”

It’s all melodic and instantly engaging but filled with twists and surprises. Lyrically, Madisen Ward shows some of his influences, starting with Tom Waits. As Bledsoe said, the subject matter is darker than the music’s sunny disposition. Madisen Ward cites lyrics from “Big Yellow Taxi” as an example.

“Last night I slept in a big yellow taxi / My imagination told me I was in a back seat of gold / That was the story I sold / Even though I had clothes / I froze / Even my jacket was cold.”

“Basically, it’s about busking and living in a taxi,” he said. “It sounds really happy.”

“But he’s homeless,” Ruth Ward said.

Even in conversation the two have a rapport that is natural and easy, springing from the telepathy and intuition that comes from a blood bond.

“Madisen is the only person I love singing with,” she said. “Because we are mother and son, when we’re on stage, he can go somewhere and he doesn’t have to tell me where. I just know it and follow right behind him. I never had that with anyone else.”

That connection is evident to most who see them, and it’s why they have been making big waves in big places.

Last-minute gig

In August, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear were invited to perform at an after-party for Shindig in the Shoals, an annual fashion event in Alabama organized by designer Billy Reid. Madisen Ward got the call on a Tuesday; the event was a Saturday.

At first, he tried to decline.

“It was so last minute,” he said. “They couldn’t really pay us much, and I didn’t think Dad would be up for us all driving down there. But (the event booker) kind of gave me a ‘Uh, really?’ and I knew we had to do it.”

They performed before about 150 people, including many record label executives and other industry people. Among those in the audience was film director and rock-star photographer Danny Clinch, who took photos and approached the duo after the show.

“He said, ‘If you’re ever in New York, I’m in a blues band; we can get on a bill together,’” Madisen Ward said. “I said, ‘Yeah, we’d love to open for you.’ And he said, ‘Or vice versa.’”

As momentous as the Muscle Shoals party was, the reaction at the Americana Music Fest was even bigger. The showcase was at Third Man Records, Jack White’s label.

The Rolling Stone writer called their show the festival’s “best family affair” and wrote: “Watching mother-and-son duo Ruth and Madisen Ward bring a-hundred-or-so tastemakers and industry insiders to collective awe-struck silence with a stunning set of soulful coffeehouse folk at an invite-only showcase in the Blue Room at Third Man Records, it was hard to believe this was one of the virtually unknown group’s first gigs outside its native Kansas City.”

Once it became evident that this project of theirs was getting bigger than they imagined, Madisen Ward had a talk with his mother.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do, since I was a kid,” he said. “Music is my passion now. But a lot of people, they have families or they get older and they’re not into it anymore. So we sat down and I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ And she looked me square in the eye and said, ‘Yes.’”

All this swift and widespread recognition and talk about labels and agents is the fulfillment of Ruth Ward’s girlhood dream.

“It’s been so sudden, it’s like somebody turned on a light,” she said. “It’s like a blind man who has never seen before, all of a sudden can see everything. And he has to wrap his head around what he’s seeing. Some of it gets a little overwhelming, but it’s not like I can’t do it.

Wednesday night, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear will perform before their biggest hometown audience when they open for B.B. King at the Midland theater. There they will present songs that Bledsoe said “have made their way into my DNA and I often find myself singing them. I’ve even learned a couple of them.”

According to Smith, it’s just the beginning of bigger things to come. For Ruth Ward, it represents the best of both worlds: music and parenting.

“After I got married, the children became my top priority,” she said. “As they got older, I played off and on, but the goal of making it work dissipated. But this is good timing. And the connection with Madisen is the best thing.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

WEDNESDAY

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear will open for B.B. King on Wednesday at the Midland theater, 1228 Main St. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $39 to $79.50.