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ruth ward

Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear celebrate a homecoming

(Photo by Todd Zimmer)
The last time Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear took the main stage at The Midland, they were opening up for B.B. King in one of his final performances. At this point, last October, the mother/son duo was just being introduced to listeners not just around the country, but in their hometown as well. They had recently been signed to Glassnote Records after wowing a roomful of record executives in Muscle Shoals and playing a secret showcase at Third Man Records in Nashville during the Americana Music Festival.
Not long before that, Ruth and Madisen Ward were playing to small but enthusiastic audiences in and around their hometown of Independence. Ruth has been a musician for most of her life, playing the Midwestern circuit as a folk songwriter in the early ‘70s. She returned to music after her three children had grown, and her youngest son Madisen began accompanying her to coffeehouse gigs, sometimes joining her for a few songs. Like his mother, Madisen began writing songs as a teenager, finding his footing as a musician while accompanying Ruth on these shows. “The style we play is different than what my mom was playing in the ‘70s, and I came to music later, so I see it differently,” says Madisen, who has since fallen into the role of chief songwriter. “Eventually, my mom gave me the reins and told me to write.” While Madisen constructs a song's general melody and lyrics, his mom helps with song development, bridges, and harmonies. The two have found major success with this formula, creating a unique, moving brand of Americana music.
All of this is why their performance this Thursday is a bit of a homecoming. This will be Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear’s first major headlining show in Kansas City, after a slew of achievements that include appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Later... With Jools Holland; opening slots for a broad scope of acts like The Pixies, Rodrigo y Gabriela, and The Tallest Man on Earth; and prestigious spots at events like Bonnaroo and Newport Folk Fest. They’ll also be bringing a full band with them this time, with Kansas City musicians Tom Hudson on drums and Brent Kastler on bass, as well as Larissa Maestro on cello.
But this sudden onslaught of triumphs—which also include a European tour (and another on the way, with Sufjan Stevens) and the acclaimed release of their debut LP Skeleton Crew in May—is not without its challenges. “Your creative routine has to be altered,”  mentions Madisen. “We used to be able to sit in the dining room and bounce ideas off each other. I still write when we’re on the road, but it’s a different dynamic that you have to learn to juggle.”
On the flip side, the two have found that success has great rewards. “The whole thing is the people,” says Madisen. “It’s a very personable career that really revolves around human interaction, and the energy of a room. All of these different people we get to meet have different stories.” Stories, perhaps, that will find their way into the duo’s music one day.
Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear will be playing at  Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland with special guests Luluc, an Australian folk duo, on Thursday night. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here.
--Michelle Bacon

Michelle is the editor of The Deli KC and plays in bands.
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Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear performs a secret show at recordBar

(Photos by Todd Zimmer)
Last night, Madisen Ward and his mother Ruth turned down the lights at recordBar to play their songs to around 50 friends, relatives, and members of the KC music community. A few short months ago, an intimate dinner performance to a moderate crowd would have been the norm for Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear. Now, one of the best-kept musical secrets in the region is being recognized around the country; last night’s performance was unannounced and mostly by invitation. It was the duo’s first Kansas City show since opening up for B.B. King at The Midland on October 1.
The two performed about 45 minutes of new and existing material; according to Madisen, the final song of the evening, "Little Barrel," was just written last Friday. This set captured every aspect of why MW&MB has become the object of so many musical affections. Madisen Ward can write tunes that sound more seasoned than someone of his age should be able to do. Along with it, his vocal styling demands attention, ranging from serenely soulful to ardent and impassioned. Ruth Ward plays guitar effortlessly, as though it’s an extension of herself, and sings each note from deep within. The connection they share—both musically and as mother and son—comes through with the genuine delivery of each song.
Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear were recently signed to Glassnote Records, adding their name to a professional caliber that includes Phoenix, Two Door Cinema Club, and Childish Gambino. The duo attracted attention from the likes of Rolling Stone, Paste, and NPR after playing an exclusive showcase at Third Man Records for the Americana Music Fest in September, only a couple weeks after performing to a capacity crowd at Crossroads Music Fest in Kansas City. They plan to record and release an album with Glassnote in 2015.
For more photos from last night’s performance, visit Zimmer’s Flickr album.
--Michelle Bacon
Michelle is editor of The Deli KC, a staff member for Midwest Music Foundation and Folk Alliance International, and plays in The Philistines, Dolls on Fire, and Drew Black & Dirty Electric.
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Spotlight on CMF artist: Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear

This week, we are highlighting some of the artists playing the 10th annual Crossroads Music Fest. For more info or ticketing information, please visit cmfkc.com.
Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear quietly released their first album, We Burned the Cane Field, in 2012 (recorded/produced by Joel Nanos at Element Recording). It was relatively unknown and received very little press (The Deli KC published a review in 2013). The mother/son duo of Ruth and Madisen Ward continued performing week to week in coffeehouses and smaller venues, gaining a reputation for its profound songwriting, having two intriguing powerhouse voices, and an earnest charm that connected with audiences.
Mostly by word of mouth, Madisen and Ruth’s music has captured the attention of many in the KC area and beyond. We talk a bit with Madisen Ward about how the band came to be and what they have planned.
The Deli: How would you describe your music in one sentence?
Madisen Ward: An organic tribute to imperfection.
The Deli: Give us some background on the band. Why did you and your mom decide you would play together?
Madisen: We have been a band for 4 years now. My mother started singing at the age of 19; living a semi-nomadic life, singing in coffeehouses throughout the US. I grew up listening to her sing in coffeehouses, never realizing the impact her music and inspirations would have on me in the future. I picked up the guitar in my later teens and started singing even later. After high school, we discovered how much we enjoyed performing together, so I began writing music for both of us to sing in coffeehouses. We've been playing wherever we can, and as much as we can ever since.
The Deli: Madisen, what’s it like to be in a band with your mom? And Ruth, what’s it like to work with your son?
Madisen: It's a very interesting and unique experience working with my mother. We were already connected as mother and son, so connecting as musicians was a very natural process.
Ruth: It's a great experience, and I'm learning a lot from my son while enjoying the process as well. I feel like we're tackling music in ways I never have before.
The Deli: Your first album, We Burned the Cane Field, came out in 2012. Do you have any new stuff in the works?
Madisen: We have lots of new material. Songs that we're real excited to share with everyone, but the actual recording date is undetermined at this time. We're looking forward to recording as soon as possible!
The Deli: What has been your biggest accomplishment as a band?
Madisen: We just recently announced that we'll be opening for the legendary B.B. King on October 1 at The Midland (Facebook event page). This is probably our greatest accomplishment so far. It is a humbling honor to share the evening with such an amazing blues icon!
The Deli: What does the future hold for Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear?
Madisen: Touring and recording is what we're wanting to accomplish for the upcoming months. We just recently signed on with the William Morris Endeavor Agency, and we couldn't be more excited to embark on this journey!
The Deli: Who are your favorite local and non-local musicians right now?
Madisen: A couple of Mama Bear's favorite musicians are Tracy Chapman and John Gorka. A couple of mine are Nick Drake and Tom Waits. Kansas City has a very unique and vibrant music scene; we'd rather not pick any one local musician as our favorite.
The Deli: Who are you looking forward to seeing at Crossroads Music Fest this year?
Madisen: I'm excited to see many bands, including The Philistines whom we're sharing a venue with. Me Like Bees is a band I'm excited to see as well.
The Deli: Where can we find you on the web?
The Deli: Always go out on a high note. Any last words of wisdom for the Deli audience?
Madisen: No matter what you pursue; respect others while pursuing it. With all due respect, We're all due respect.
Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear will be playing at The Tank Room for Crossroads Music Fest on Saturday. They will be playing at 10:00 pm, right after Maria the Mexican and right before The Philistines.
--Michelle Bacon
Michelle Bacon is editor of The Deli KC and plays in bands.

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Album review: Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear - We Burned the Cane Fields (EP)

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been asked to do a few reviews for The Deli KC, and when Michelle Bacon asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing another one, I was happy to oblige. She offered me a choice: a band that I’m familiar with, or a band I’ve never heard of. I decided that I wanted the challenge of reviewing music from an unknown source, so she assigned me the new EP by Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, We Burned the Cane Field. I knew nothing about them, had never heard of them, and put the freshly-burned CD in the computer with no idea what I was about to listen to.
After the music started on the very first track, the thought that leapt to my mind was: “Where has THIS been all my life?”
We Burned the Cane Field is an ode to a simpler time, when musicians were in no hurry to tell their stories (no song on this five-track effort is less than four minutes in length), and did so without musical pretense (the instrumentation is primarily acoustic guitar and violin, with the occasional cameo appearance of a Dobro or cello). The result is twenty-five minutes of audio art that borrows from field hollers and country blues/folk sounds of an era long gone, descendants of the same lineage as the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Leon Redbone.
There isn’t much info available on this newsome twosome so I asked Ward if he would fill me in on some of the history, and he was kind enough to share an exceptionally in-depth biography. I’ll let him share the entirety of it with you when he chooses, but to give you a little background: his mother (Mama Bear) started singing professionally in the early ‘70s and has recorded an album of her own. Ward began joining her onstage in his teen years, which inspired him to write his own music that he began singing at her shows. Eventually they decided to stop performing “her” music and “his” music and start focusing on “their” music. When they had enough material for an EP, they approached their good friend Joel Nanos of Element Recording, who was able to capture their sound just they way they wanted it to be captured. The title, We Burned the Cane Field, comes from a song that isn’t even on the record—just one of many qualities that make it a quirky and endearing effort.
Once the music begins on the opening track, “Silent Movies,” you’ll understand why this recording instantly struck a chord with me. The underlying senses of family and togetherness are unmistakable, as you can almost envision Ward and his mother sitting on the porch on a late-afternoon summer day, singing to each other and whoever else may happen to be there. The joy of music for music’s sake is what motivates this duo, simple as that.
They sing to each other in “Whole Lotta Problems,” with Ward playing the role of a man smitten with a woman and perhaps seeing her through rose-colored glasses, while his mother tries to talk some sense into him. The back-and-forth is a battle between his lovelorn lament and her maternal manner (“I bought her some flowers / she don't need your petal … a car that I gave her / it's just a piece of metal … I stole diamonds for her / she don't want a rebel”). Who ultimately wins? Does Mama Bear get through? Does Ward continue to hold dear his heart’s desire? Those are questions only the listener can answer.
The lightheartedness of the opening two tracks give way to more depth and sobriety in the two that follow: “Darling Moon” showcases the voice of a world-weary and wizened soul that belies Ward’s 24 years, and Mama Bear’s harmonies add a mournful, empathetic tone. If you give yourself the chance to listen and truly pay attention to the lyrics and the melody, you’ll find the emotional weight of the song sneaking up on you. Truly a work of depth that, again, seems out of place given the youth of its lead singer.
“Down in Mississippi” is the EP’s nearly-seven-minute opus that sounds as if it was born in post-Civil-War times. The sparse guitar/violin arrangement is sheer perfection, and though the words may paint a melancholy picture, the overall message is one of affection for a land that may not be perfect (“did you feel that heat today / the sores are on my feet today / the sour's not as sweet today”), but it’s theirs (“the cotton paints a field of white / you don't have to steal tonight / here you'll find a meal tonight”), and that’s alright.
The closing track, “Yellow Taxi,” offers a hint of vaudeville by telling the story of a busker singing songs for change from passersby on a sleepy street corner. He doesn’t want much, and it won’t take much to get what he does want, so even though his life may have a few hardships and he isn’t living in the lap of luxury, it’s the life he chose—and there doesn’t seem to be much regret in his message.
Returning one more time to the extemporaneous one-sheet that Ward created for me, I’d like to share his thoughts with you on how he approaches songwriting:
“There is a lot of fiction within our music, mostly because we love make-believe stories; but the emotion behind the music is where the true reality lies. I think there's a lot of truth to fiction. Everyone can relate to something, whether a story is true or false. At the end of the day, we simply hope to entertain; put a smile on a face, or make a baby dance.”
With We Burned the Cane Fields, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear will fulfill those modest wishes and more. This is a brilliant debut, one that came from seemingly nowhere to knock me over with its honesty and charm. I can think of many musicians in our area who will hear this and not only enjoy it—they just might want to join forces and work together on a few things. It may challenge them, it may inspire them, but ultimately it will result in more musical magic …
And that’s alright.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, Ruth Ward, will be appearing next at The Great Day Cafe in downtown Overland Park on Saturday, August 10, 7 to 9 p.m. You can purchase their music on iTunes at the link here and also check out a video below from a previous performance at the cafe. 

--Michael Byars

Michael Byars wrote most of this with one hand, as his other arm has gone numb from his editor’s constant punching—but he thinks she’s pretty cool anyway. [Editor's Note: She is currently telepunching.]


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