Arts/Entertainment

Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear

Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear emerged out of obscurity and are now nearly a household name. Their new album “The Skeleton Crew” promises to keep building the mystery surrounding this Kansas City folk duo.

Story by Andrew Schiller  |  Photos by Todd Zimmer

While not a hotbed like Nashville, Los Angeles or New York City, Kansas City has always had a steady output of musical acts that play on the national stage. But the sudden emergence of mother-and-son folk duo Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear, hailing from Kansas City, Kansas, has created a unique kind of buzz in the music industry.

In fact, it’s a rare kind of buzz that isn’t constructed on an artifice of pure hype.

The songs bringing the pair so much attention appear on the album “The Skeleton Crew,” produced by Brit Jimmy Abbiss released on May 18th on the Glassnote label. Ian Dowling recorded the album, which to the casual fan might not mean much. But Dowling has done work on some of modern music’s biggest albums—perhaps you’ve heard of a charming songbird from England named Adele?

Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear’s popularity isn’t created with some kind of studio wizardry using a vast library of digital tricks—rather, they have built their reputation on delivering stirring performances in venues as modest as an Overland Park coffee house to the raucous Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City for David Letterman’s show. Each time, there isn’t a hint of false sentiment or manufactured emotion, and it’s why this KC duo continues moving forward with barely a stumbling block in their way.

Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear have played headlining slots on folk festival stages but also appeal to fans sporting indie rock tour shirts and shouldering MacBooks. The answer as to why they appeal to different fans from vastly different backgrounds and music tastes might not be so mysterious.

Influences are important, but true craft usually connects with listeners who have little use for style cues in this age of the constant playlist. The band understands the importance of creating music free of frills, finding elegance in true sentiment and simple arrangements. Some of their tunes employ the classic call-and-response of soul duets from the 50s and 60s, but with an entirely different dynamic. It’s part bravado, but part introspection. The sleepy interplay between their modest acoustic guitars create an immediate sense of realism as the pair weaves tales of emotional dilemmas, yet there’s always a backdrop of hope and strength. You can see which lyrical lines resonate the deepest with Ruth “Mama Bear” Ward as she shifts in her chair and shakes her head, sometimes singing out just a word or two, many times just closing her eyes as if savoring the seconds before Madisen’s next verse.

Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear at a recent live appearance hosted by Mills Record Company.

The duo’s relatively quick rise in popularity has made for some interesting appearances, as outside promoters try to get a grasp on how to showcase their brand of soul-infused folk. Earlier in the year during a private industry showcase they were stuck between bubblegum-punk prodigies Fall Out Boy and glitzy country music king Keith Urban. A bill like that could, at best, be awkward and at worst, intimidating. For Madisen, it’s hard to worry about what new crowds will think of you, when your number one fan is sitting right beside you for every performance.

But what about when the crowds leave and the stage lights go dark at the end of a performance—and you’re left to your thoughts? Where do the songs come from? For Madisen, sometimes he needs to force things into place, but he’s more prone to patience.

“When searching for a song to write, I’m usually locked away in my apartment; complete isolation seems to work best for me,” he says. “However, sometimes the song finds you, and that could be at any moment of any day. Those are my favorite songs to create—the ones you weren’t looking for.”

Although Madisen exudes the confidence of a player who has honed his craft on stages since his childhood, he didn’t begin playing until his senior year in high school. Mama Bear Ruth is a seasoned folk singer, working the coffee house circuit since she was a teenager. Once they decided to play together, they still worked separately—even playing the same bills—yet only became a duo just six years ago.

The new arrangement made things better than ever for both. It allowed ideas to spring swiftly. Lyrics and melodies became more refined and clear. While the duo earns praise from fans and critics, some words continue to appear in print: “endearing,” “humble” and “uplifting.”

Madisen describes the chemistry during their songwriting process as a much different beast.

“My mother adds so many textures to whatever I come up with,” he says. That’s when I feel the song becomes electric; when she flips the switch on the Frankenstein monster, bringing it to life.”

“Electric” is as good a place to start as any when describing their performance. Although the music emanates from a stage setup that is sparse—just a couple of armchairs, a woven rug and some lit candles on a small table—the cumulative effect on audiences is potent. Madisen’s voice glides between a roaring tenor into nasally cracks, recalling Tom Waits (a confessed musical hero of his), all the while peppering his bridges with rhythmic bursts of wups, woots and hog calls as Mama Bear keeps a rock-steady metronome with her strumming hand.

Many audience members find the music quiets the soul while rousing the spirit. It’s obvious to music critics that their influences come from a wide and varied catalog. Their music is familiar, yet sounds eccentric alongside the auto-tuned landscape of country, pop and neo-soul. Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear concoct melodies with no sounds of machinery, only organic charm complete with little imperfections—a sign of the confidence in their art, not one of laziness or lack of skill.

Watch the video of the Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear song “Live By Water.” Video shot and edited by Hydraulic Pictures.

When asked if the lineup will change as new performances and recordings come, it’s clear Madisen has the immediate future well planned.

“We’ve actually just begun playing with a bassist and percussionist on some of our live shows, but if we were to venture out even further, I would say [we would like to add] a cello,” he says. I’ve always had a love for the classical string instruments.”

The future for the duo looks bright. They performed the headline show at Kansas City’s Middle Of the Map music festival on the Uptown Theater stage alongside Iron & Wine. Soon they will begin an international tour behind indie folk phenomenon Sufjan Stevens. Upcoming, they have dates with Rodrigo y Gabriela, and the Avett Brothers, along with slots at high-profile festivals like Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival.

And then? Set up residence in Nashville, Los Angeles or New York? Not so fast.

“I definitely believe we’ll stay in Kansas City,” Madisen says. “This city has its own unique vibe, and it’s a great home to come back to. As long as it’s possible for us to work while we live here, we will.”

And we’ll be waiting for the return of the Wards with open arms.

Find out more about Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear on tour from their official website.