Family ties are hardly a new phenomenon in popular music. But as combinations go, mother and son duos reside towards the rarer end of the spectrum.
That might be one reason why Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear – 26-year-old singer-songwriter Madisen Ward and his mother Ruth Ward, 63 – have created such a buzz. But beyond that novelty aspect, they’ve got something more important going for them – great songs delivered with soul, gravitas and originality.
“He writes songs that make people think,” is how Ruth Ward sums up her youngest son’s talent, and it’s more than just a proud mum talking. Madisen’s bittersweet tales of doomed romance and quiet desperation take the traditions of blues, folk and Americana and populate them with vivid characters, from the lonely neighbour of Dead Daffodils to the soldier in Fight On.
“There’s a bluesy thing going on, and people also call us Americana,” says Madisen.
“We opened up for the late BB King last year,” adds Ruth, “and we were scared it wouldn’t work, but people really loved it.”
That’s been true of most of the audiences set before the Wards in their six years gigging together. But up until last year, their reputation hadn’t spread past their Kansas City base. That was when a local radio DJ tipped off Daniel Glass, who signed them to his label Glassnote. Festival appearances created more buzz, and by the time they appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman in May, they were the most talked about new band in the US.
Their debut, Skeleton Crew, looks set to justify the hype. It may be recorded in a simple, stripped-down style, but it rewards repeated listens thanks to subtly captivating arrangements and stories full of intrigue and evocative suggestion.
One highlight is Big Yellow Taxi’s portrait of a man sleeping rough in a cab, dreaming of a day he can afford to ride in one.
You certainly can’t take Madisen’s songs at face value. For instance, Whole Lotta Problems sees Madisen singing about his romantic issues, while Ruth keeps chipping in with tough-love advice. But don’t imagine it’s a case of mother knows best.
“Nah,” Madisen laughs. “We’re playing characters. But that would be an interesting thing – I’m running after this girl and my mom’s saying, ‘She clearly doesn’t want you.’ My mom would be more like my wingman. She’d be like, ‘Keep trying!’”
That said, according to Madisen, when the pair are on the road, it isn’t him who’s likely to get up to mischief.
“My mom is the rock’n’roller. I gotta watch out for her and make sure she gets home by 3am.”
Madisen Ward: “I love acoustic blues, but a big influence on me was actually blues rock. One of my favourite rock groups is The White Stripes. I loved the simplicity and rawness of their music, and that’s one of the things I think people relate to in our music now.”