When Madisen Ward takes the stage, he holds his mother Ruth's arm. He walks with her around the small circular table, helps her into her chair, adjusts her microphone stand, and hands her her guitar. The stage at the Lincoln Center in Washington, D.C. looks much smaller during their set than I've ever seen it before. Cast in a blue light, Ruth Ward, 62, waits for her son Madisen, 26, to take a seat across from her at the table before they begin their first set.
Their band, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, performs songs rooted in blues and soul with the twang of folk for thirty minutes before The Tallest Man on Earth comes on stage, but their opening set resonates long after the headliner has finished. There's something intimate about the way this mother/son team plays their music at a small table with only the addition of a bassist and a drummer for a few songs.
Their show feels more like being invited into the Ward family kitchen than watching professional performers. No special effects — just ambient stage lighting that changes with every other song. There aren't any fancy stage settings, or microphone kicks. When the Wards talk to the audience, they speak simply; there aren't any canned stories or perfectly-timed jokes. Watching Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear is watching passion in its purest form.
A family history of music
Ruth Ward has been performing music since she was a teenager. "In the early years I was into Motown and R&B," Ruth told me over the phone. "When I got into high school I discovered folk singers. People weren’t just writing about their babies and their loves, they were writing about real things. That really appealed to me."
She performed with friends and travelled around for a few years before she met Kenneth Ward, now her husband of 35 years. Just before they got married, she released an album of original songs titled Moment by Moment. They settled down, and had three children together. Madisen was the third.
"I love playing music, and especially when the kids were younger, it was a way to relax," Ruth told me. "I would play out every now and then when they were young. I might take a 2 or 3 month break, but I always came back to music."
As her kids got older, Ruth started to play sets with her friends in Kansas City. Theirs was a house full of music. As Madisen grew he realized that he, too, wanted to create music and he began writing songs.
"I started writing and slid into this whole world of songwriting… It was really liberating and extreme to realize how much freedom you have," Madisen told me. "My mom was still playing and performing at that time. Sometimes, we’d play together. I found myself singing on her songs and her singing on my sound."
The two started playing together. Just covering songs by other bands at first. The way they clicked was undeniable.
"It’s called DNA or whatever," Ruth told me. "He writes just like my head is thinking and how he plays is exactly what I’m thinking. I’ve played with a lot of people, and I would say don’t overplay and then they would overplay! But Madisen, he doesn't overplay."
A flash of the spotlight
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear released their first recorded music in 2013. The five track EP, We Burned the Cane Fields, got them a little attention in their hometown of Kansas City, and even a little bit of radio play.
The EP didn't contain a single cover; instead, Madisen had moved the band on into original music. He wrote every word of their first EP, and created the sound that carries through all of the band's music. With gentle chord progressions, careful finger picking, and plenty of harmonious chanting, the songs sound like hits from the 1800s more than hits from today.
Songs like "Silent Movies," from the band's debut album, are filled with an exuberance and a joy — but also go deep. "When you talk they call you liar/ Sure don't know, join the choir," Madisen sings, in his warbling, slightly twanged voice — with Ruth joining him in harmonies at the end of every long drawn out "baaaaby."
"That was one that I really had to isolate myself in my room and it came out real organically," Madisen says about "Silent Movies." It's a brief song at just over 3 minutes with only a few repeated lyrics.
Their influences vary. Ruth tells me that she loves Janis Ian and Tracy Chapman — bold women with bold vocals. Madisen's interests run more modern: Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, and alternative rock. Together, they make an impact.
In August 2014, the two played a show at an after-party for Shindig in the Shoals, an annual fashion event in Alabama. With just 150 people watching, the duo left music circles buzzing, leading up to the Nashville Americana Music Fest. There, they were written up by Rolling Stone. Next they performed for NPR's Tiny Desk series, and on May 18, they released their debut album, Skeleton Crew. Madisen may be 26, but the songs feel much older.
At the show in Washington D.C., the crowd — initially restless for the show to begin, many wearing the T-shirts of the headliner — quieted into a kind of careful reverence. Every song concluded to thunderous applause and, for an opening band, the audience was enraptured with the two of them.
"It means a lot to me that people have a spiritual connection with our work," Ruth told me. "I just want people to enjoy our music and realize that Madisen is his own person, I’m my own person and we are just out here making music."
On stage it's obvious that they aren't creating for fame. Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear play music because they love it, and because it's obviously in their blood.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.