For me, it was love at first sight. Or rather, love at first sound. When I first heard Over the Rhine’s eloquently constructed, exquisitely executed songs at a performance on the UCLA campus back in the summer of 1998, I was floored. And in the two decades since that day of discovery, my affection for Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist’s music has remained unwavering and unconditional.
But I am certainly not alone or unique in my loyalty. Indeed, for thirty years now, the husband-and-wife duo have cultivated one of the most ardently devoted legion of listeners you’ll find, and they’ve done so on their own terms, without the benefit—or burden, as is sometimes the case—of a major-label machine behind them. Their prolific output of studio and live recordings, their commitment to curating the most memorable of live experiences including their annual Nowhere Else Festival (celebrating its fourth year this May), and their steady cadence of candid, personable outreach via email, their website and social media—all of these elements have played a vital role in Over the Rhine’s enduring connection with their fans.
And this Friday, March 15th, our connection with Over the Rhine will grow even stronger, as their fifteenth studio album Love & Revelation officially arrives. I’ve been listening to the record for a few weeks now and my review will surface as Friday approaches. But in the meantime, Karin and Linford have graciously taken time out of their busy schedule to delve deeper into the album, song by song.
I was already looking forward to seeing them perform these songs on tour in New York City next month, but now April 19th really can’t come soon enough.
1. “Los Lunas” [Karin Bergquist]
Los Lunas was started years ago on a lonely stretch of Southwest highway.
I cried all the way
from Los Lunas to Santa Fe…
We came to realize that loss is one of the undeniable themes on this record. We are grieving. And I think a lot of people are.
We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve seen our friends struggling with loss—the loss of a child, or partner. We’ve stood with friends and family members as they struggled with chronic illness, or a scary-as-hell cancer diagnosis. And as Willie Nelson recently said in one of his new songs, It’s not something you get over, it’s just something you get through.
A lot of these new songs are coming to terms with our realization that certain losses will be carried with us for the rest of our lives. Loss can be cumulative. (But so is healing.)
And then we know a lot of people turn on the news and are in shock at what they are seeing. Beneath that shock is grief. We are grieving the fact that we aren’t quite sure who we are anymore as Americans. Things are shifting and being revealed. Maybe we are grieving the fact that we thought we were better than this.
The writer Frederick Buechner said, This is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
We still believe in love and revelation. We still believe in meaningful work. We keep going and with the darkness surely falling, we still find plenty of reason to dance.
2. “Given Road” [Karin]
Given Road is a real place. I drive alone often and because we live about an hour outside the city, I often come to this intersection and there is that road sign waiting:
There is an old curved stone wall there too, which always makes me curious. Who built it?
It sparked something in me. There is so much talk of walls these days. We think we need walls as self-imposed safe places. But are they?
Songs have always been my safe containers for pain.
And on one particular drive in the car, I was thinking about the grief I was carrying. Loved ones I’d lost or am in the process of losing. Grief can live with you for years. Someone said, grief is just love with no place to go.
Sometimes we wish we could travel a road different than the one we’ve been given. In the oft-quoted words of John Lennon: Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.
We wrote in an earlier song, As for your tender heart, this world’s gonna rip it wide open. It ain’t gonna be pretty, but you’re not alone.
Maybe that’s the stretch of any Given Road that’s a gift: the part where we discover we are not meant to travel alone.
Maybe we already have enough walls. Maybe we need to learn how to take care of each other.
3. “Let You Down” [Linford Detweiler]
“Let You Down” is a simple song. I think of it as a post-it note reminder that one might put on the refrigerator. If you’re like me, when someone is struggling, my first inclination is often to put on my thinking cap. I usually want to try to figure out how to fix things. As the years have passed, I’ve slowly learned that what’s so much more important is to show up, be present and listen. Here again, the greater gift is just to let someone know they’re not alone.
And the Cree, a native tribe in Canada, have a saying they’ve passed down through the generations: A song is worth a thousand prayers.
Some days, in lieu of an angel, a song will have to do.
4. “Broken Angels” [Karin]
When it comes to writing songs, people often ask us what comes first: the words, a melody, a few chords on the piano or guitar? The answer is usually all of the above. Our songs arrive in every imaginable way, and we’ll take them any way we can get them.
“Broken Angels” started with just a melody and a simple guitar part years ago. Bones waiting for flesh and blood.
And then I was sitting with a friend sharing a glass of wine, and we ended up talking about what happens to those of us left behind after someone you love either attempts to take their own life or succeeds.
What are we left with here on this side of the veil? We carry them and that act with us for the rest of our lives. We process. We hurt. We wonder, What if and Why?
If depression is a river, suicide is the sea.
And it’s dangerous trying to save someone who is drowning. If you don’t know what you are doing, aren’t strong enough, don’t know the tools for survival, they can inadvertently take you under with them.
My friend suffered a tremendous loss when he lost his partner to suicide. I shared with him that someone very close to me in my family had attempted to take her own life multiple times as she struggled with a then-undiagnosed disorder.
This song was born out of an honest moment: two survivors sharing their experiences, processing together.
The chorus for “Broken Angels” came to me during my drive home. I had to pull over and record it on my phone. It became the first song we finished for Love & Revelation.
5. “Love & Revelation” [Karin]
Our friend Joe Henry signs off at the end of his always beautiful letters with the words, “love & revelation.” It’s a blessing he offers, the hope being that we all still have the capacity to be surprised by something true and good.
The phrase “love & revelation” became important to us, and we asked Joe if we could borrow it for this record. He quickly agreed.
It’s so easy (and often feels necessary) to stand against something these days. To feel the need to resist some daily tide of deception and cruelty. It’s harder sometimes to remember and articulate what exactly it is that we are for.
When I started this song with my acoustic guitar, accompanied solely by the stripped down righteous parade laid down by drummer and percussionist, Jay Bellerose, sparks flew immediately. The band quickly and intuitively agreed: this was all that was needed to see the song fully realized.
So here it is: vocal, acoustic guitar and drums. Unplanned and maybe that’s the point: When most everything gets stripped away, what remains?
Let the truth be revealed.
6. “Making Pictures” [Linford]
Karin was thinking about some of our friends who are photographers and how their vocations have been turned upside down with the arrival of the digital revolution. How they’ve adapted and continue to reinvent themselves.
The same thing has happened with music, and we’re all trying to figure it out. Some days we all wonder if we’re obsolete.
Joe Henry said that T-Bone Burnett told him years ago, “Don’t stop working, just stop worrying.”
Hopefully we return to the work itself. The craft of what we do. The long traditions we are part of. And maybe that’s the only business plan that matters to an artist: keep going.
You either do or you don’t.
7. “Betting On The Muse” [Linford]
“Betting On The Muse” was inspired by a Charles Bukowski poem of the same name. He was thinking out loud about baseball players peaking relatively early in their lives, and then their careers fade and they have to come up with Plan B. He was contrasting that with the vocation of a writer: a writer has a rare opportunity to practice a craft and grow over the course of an entire lifetime.
I loved the poem and wanted to continue the conversation.
Each record we have released is authentic to a particular time in our lives. They are all mile markers on a long road that beckoned to us in our youth.
2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of Over the Rhine—thirty years of Karin and I writing, recording and touring together. (We have been married for the last 22 years.)
Priorities change as the years pass. There’s a line in “Betting On The Muse”:
“…the fact that you still make me laugh
is what I’m most proud of.”
Thank God we’re still laughing. That’s probably the best definition of success we can come up with at the moment.
8. “Leavin’ Days” [Karin]
I was probably listening to Townes [Van Zandt]. I’ve rarely seen a critic positively review a song about life on the road. So of course I wanted to try my own bittersweet take.
At the time I wrote this song, the working title of the record was Gravity, Lift and Drag, in reference to a documentary I saw on bird migration. Hummingbirds hover to feed and feed to hover. Much like the touring musician, flight always involves gravity, lift and drag.
9. “Rocking Chair” [Linford]
This is another song that was unfinished and had to render for a number of years. Karin opened for Shawn Colvin years ago, and Shawn played a chord progression and said it was one of the most overused progressions in pop music. (She sang a handful of different pop songs over the chords.) I don’t remember the songs anymore, but I always remembered the chord progression and knew that I wanted to try to pile on.
I hadn’t thought of “Rocking Chair” in quite a while, but Karin had a feeling it belonged on the record, and helped me finish it around the kitchen table. I’m glad we included it.
10. “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved)” [Linford]
The last song written for the project. I’m not quite sure what it means or where it came from. Sometimes the writer has to live with a song for a while, right along with any other listener, in order to more fully absorb it.
Intuitively this one feels significant and somewhat timely but again, much of it remains a mystery. Ask us again in 3 or 4 years.
11. “An American In Belfast” [Linford]
In 1995, I bought my first real acoustic guitar. It was made by George Lowden in Belfast, and he signed and numbered the label. We had seen lots of folk singer-songwriters in the UK sitting around after hours with their Lowden guitars, trading songs. I thought these particular acoustic guitars were quite romantic, and when I finally had the spare change I bought one of my own.
The guitar has been played on almost all of our records beginning with Good Dog Bad Dog all the way to Love & Revelation. It is a key part of our sound. Thankfully, by some miracle, when most of our touring gear was stolen in 2004, we didn’t have it on the road with us. (I think that was the only time in the last few decades that it didn’t travel with us.)
A few years ago, we got to perform in Belfast and my Lowden finally returned to the city where it was made. I was sitting upstairs in an old hotel room on University Square shortly after our arrival, and I pulled the Lowden out of its case and intuitively began playing a simple melody I had never played before. Karin came over with her cell phone and recorded it. I ended up calling the tune, “An American in Belfast.”
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