Over the Rhine

Courtney Wittekind

Despite their humble origins in rural Ohio, Over the Rhine, made up of Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, has garnered national attention. Over the Rhine has been ranked 74th on Paste Magazine's list of "100 Best Living Songwriters", while its 2004 release Ohio nabbed the 26th slot on the magazine's "Top Albums of the Decade." Over its 20-year career, the band has shared the stage with a number of musicians - including Bob Dylan, John Prine, Adrian Belew, Squeeze and Ani DiFranco - and has toured as "honorary" members of Cowboy Junkies.

Over the Rhine was founded in 1990 by Detweiler and Bergquist, along with guitarist Ric Hordinski and drummer Brian Kelley, both of whom left the band to pursue their own music in 1996 and 1997 respectively. The band adopted its name from the Cincinnati neighborhood, "Over-the-Rhine," a gritty and impoverished inner-city neighborhood where the foursome found both roots and early recognition.

Currently, Over the Rhine is celebrating its 20-year anniversary. Over the Rhine's first album, Till We Have Faces, was released in 1991 and was recorded using an Akai 12 track, purchased secondhand with pooled and limited resources.

Since then, the band has released 20 albums, including 5 live and 2 holiday recordings entitled The Darkest Night of the Year (1996) and Snow Angels (2006).

Over the Rhine's 2004 album Ohio was released to critical acclaim and has been considered the group's magnum opus. Paste Magazine gave the album one of its first five-star reviews and called it "gritty and real, unpolished and perfect... Ohio is more than just a dense, rich, vulnerable collection of songs; it's a dirt road companion on that difficult journey inward, upward. Homeward."

The band's most recent release, 2007's The Trumpet Child is almost unrecognizable in comparison to the early albums, recorded with a full band and produced by Nashville's Brad Jones (Matthew Sweet, Josh Rouse, Ron Sexsmith, Richard Julian). The album, according to the band's website, "unfolds like an unforgettable evening of blissful underground cabaret - an all-night performance at a private party, jovial friends passing around instruments together into the wee hours."

The duo creates a medley of sound that is not so much genre-less as genre-inclusive. Described as "a mash-up of spirituality, whimsy and sensuality," Over the Rhine's music skitters among Folk, Jazz, and Rock and Roll - a characteristic the band attributes to its regional roots.

"It really is all over the map with us - maybe that's a little bit of the Midwestern thing, where it's kind of about a melting pot of a lot of different kinds of people. You just sort of throw them all together and see what happens," explains Detweiler. "I think it's just that we try to find stuff that makes our hearts beat faster. It doesn't really matter what it is as long as you feel something on your skin, or something starts resonating within you."

In the liner notes accompanying Over the Rhine's highly acclaimed two-disc Ohio, Detweiler writes that he and Bergquist "grew up in small coal mining towns in the Ohio Valley, listening to music that could have only been unearthed in America… this music fertilized the soil of our early lives. We sit down at the upright piano these days with dirt under our fingernails."

And so it seems that, today, the dirt has remained. Detweiler and Bergquist have built a home on the same southwestern Ohio soil they once wandered in their youth - a Civil War-era farm they have lovingly coined "Nowhere Farm," and where they grow, as Detweiler puts it, "songs, mostly."

Often, it seems that as musicians find success, they migrate. However for a rare few, region becomes a defining characteristic, a detail that equates individual with place.

"There are certain American artists that you think of and you immediately think of a place - whether that's someone like Thoreau or Georgia O'Keefe or the Wyatt Family up in New England - that's always been interesting to us - this idea of an artist connected to a specific place. And so, Ohio was that place for Karin and I," explained Detweiler. "We have thought a lot about relocating to New York or Nashville or LA, but every time we think about it we end up just staying here where we have roots. We have good friends and mentors here and it feels like a good home base for our music."

The band's music certainly has found a good home in both the record players and the lives of Midwesterners. Over the Rhine seems to attract a wide array of people, spanning all ages and all phases of life. Fans, whom the band considers "an extended musical family," have come to be a major inspiration in the creation of new work.

"Several years into our career we began looking closely at the letters people were writing to us," recalls Detweiler, "It seems like they were connecting the music with the most important moments of their life: falling in love, walking down the aisle, dancing their first dance, taking the CD to the hospital and putting it on repeat when they were giving birth to their first daughter."

But the duo's music was not only becoming the soundtrack to the highlights of life; the music also seemed to be a comfort to the hurting.

"It was also people who were going through difficult things - burying someone, or undergoing chemotherapy, or whatever - and somehow our music was showing up in these very big moments. I guess that became the satisfying thing for us about being songwriters - the realization that this music can really get tangled up in the stories that people are writing with their lives," says Detweiler.

And after reading these letters, Detweiler's conclusion? "That's honestly more important at the end of the day than having a top forty single."

Creating music that has the ability to intertwine itself within the lives of listeners is as much about the life of the listener as it is the life of the artist. For Over the Rhine, this idea reverberates through its music with a single phrase that the duo has repeated in song and story: "Only broken hearts can sing." Detweiler writes that "when a girl sings because her heart is broken, because she's calling someone back home, the voice doesn't come from the vocal chords, it comes from some place deeper down that we cannot name.' For Detweiler and Bergquist, music is a chance to get at this deeper place, and while their songs may be blissfully tipsy or intimately heart wrenching - their music is, most often, a cry for restoration and redemption.

In the 2009 article that named Over the Rhine's Ohio one of the top albums of the decade, Paste Magazine affirms the band's constant search for truth, writing that "Karin Bergquist's voice has never felt as undressed and painfully honest as it does in these songs, as if she's opened her gut and tugged the melodies out like a breach baby. This process is partly masochistic, partly exhibitionist, entirely self-consuming: but such is true art."

For Detweiler and Bergquist, the act is less about true art, and more about revelation.

"I think any artist, at the end of the day, has an obligation to try to tell the truth. That's tricky, but we try to take a picture frame and try to put it around something in the world and show it in a fresh way that makes people actually pay attention," explains Detweiler. "In terms of that vulnerability, I would much rather just tell the truth and hope that it resonated with people... as soon as someone risks being honest and says 'Wow, I'm so far from perfect,' it seems like everyone in the room can just relax and take a deep breath and say, 'Wow, I'm not where I want to be either, I've got a lot of room to grow to get where I want to be.' So I am really interested in people who are willing to be honest and the messiness that comes along with that. I hope some of that messiness is in our music."

Over the Rhine's 20th anniversary has given them an occasion to look back at what has made the music such a success. The occasion will be marked by a two-night 20th anniversary concert at Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio, as well as an upcoming five-day train tour titled "Over the Rhine Across the West" that will take travelers on a journey of song from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, across the Mojave Desert. However, for Bergquist and Detweiler, the 20 years they've spent on the road has been marked by much more than celebrations.

"I don't think I spend a lot of time looking back or trying to conjure up some sort of nostalgia, but we hit year 20 and I think we did think back and ask ourselves: what has all this meant? You know, living the life of a touring musician is kind of crazy, and the music industry has been unpredictable and all over the map, but we're still here," Detweiler said. "We've been blessed with people who really do care about the music and people who really do give it a good life. It's been fun to look back and think about what's next."

What's next for a band that has amassed 20 years into 20 albums? According to Detweiler, the duo is "trying to write the next batch of songs."

For long-time Over the Rhine fans, news that the symbolic "record" button has been pressed means an addition to an already stunning summation of musical work. However, for the band, the creation of this album stands in stark contrast to all of the albums that have previously marked off the years of the band's history. With this album, explains Detweiler, "there's been a big shift in our thinking."

"During the last 20 years we sort of grabbed time to write when we could, it was very sporadic and sort of seasonal. We would write very hard for a while then put it away, then come back to it - it could be months later after a tour. And when we could, we would try to write on the road, try to catch up here and there, and stay fairly consistent - but it was a little all over the map."

However, with this album, the duo tries to cultivate what it seems to be a songwriting "ritual."

"When I'm home I get up, I walk the dogs, I get some coffee, I sit down, and I work until a certain time of day and really build it into the rhythm of my life where it becomes something that happens every day. So that's the approach we've been experimenting with this year, and it's been a change where it's a little bit more slow and steady, less intense, but more rhythmic."

However, there is one aspect of Over the Rhine's music that listeners can expect to remain permanent, regardless of time or temperament.

"One thing that we always talk about, in terms of the music that we're drawn to, is whether or not the writer of the song is risking anything," says Detweiler. "If there's nothing on the line, I think listeners tend to move onto the next thing. If somebody's willing to risk something in their writing I think that's compelling and it keeps people paying attention. For us, that risk means a song should teach us about what we care about and help us to figure out what we think is important…So we get in there and keep it pretty close to home."

That much isn't a surprise. Home - with its peeling photo albums, ghost-filled closets and dusty attics heaving with eras of uniquely American music - is the place Over the Rhine knows best.