Why Folksy Mother-Son Duo Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear Are 'Musicians First, Family Second'

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Ruth (left) and Madisen Ward.

While raising three kids in Independence, Mo., Ruth Ward would play folk music at local coffee shops. During set breaks, her son Madisen, then in high school, would hop onstage to play an original. “Eventually it became, ‘Let’s share the whole night,’” says Madisen, 29. They made the mother-son duo official in 2009, forming Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear, and in 2015 released their debut album, Skeleton Crew, which peaked at No. 6 on the Americana/Folk Albums chart. Ahead of their rollicking new EP, The Radio Winners, out July 27, Ruth, 66, says: “I would’ve never dreamt this in a million years.”

You’ve both always played music, but how did you originally come together?
Madisen Ward:
My mom played music for many years in coffee shops and I later on started writing music in my late high school years. She was still playing in the coffee shops and just did it recreationally and people loved it. I would write a song that she really liked and she would ask me to go and play during a break. Like, she would just take a break during night and say, "Will you please come and share that song?" I would share a song or a cover or two and that was it, but I kept writing more and she became a fan of what I was writing, and we slowly just realized that we were developing an entire set together. It started to become a whole repertoire. [Eventually], it was no more, "Come up during a break," it was, "Let's share the whole night." It became a duo really organically. Nothing was planned at all. It sort of got to a moment where we were just like, "Do we wanna just try and see if we can get some sort of career doing this," and we both said yeah and we've been going from there.
Ruth Ward: It was a real collaboration being able to sing with Madisen and I really enjoyed the songs that he wrote. We were getting a lot of really good feedback from friends and family and people who didn't know us, and so we just decided, "Hey, let's do it for real," and Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear was born.

What stood out about Madisen’s songwriting?
Ruth: I liked the way that he would put words together. He talked about life. He talked about people's emotions, the human condition, and I hate to say this, but he wasn't your stereotypical songwriter. The songs had depth. It's like reading short stories.

Why are you both drawn to Americana music?
Madisen: I think it might have something to do with you learn the guitar just to accompany yourself singing, you sing just to accompany yourself playing guitar, and at its roots, what your style leans towards is basically what folk music is -- that roots music. I feel like we've always played music that's just not 100 percent trying to emulate a style, but really just trying to be a very stripped down, at its core, basic root melody. For me, it was just the best way to be very free whenever it came to songwriting. Like, if I had to write a blues song, then I would be a slave to the blues music, or if I was doing it with country, I would be a slave to country, so with a more folky Americana, there's really no path that you have to go down. I think there's a real freedom to it.
Ruth: Being brought up in the '60s and '70s with the Janis Ians and the Joni Mitchells, those people made a huge impact on my life and I wanted to try to emulate some of that. So, what you really hear is who we are, and whether it's bluesy, soulful, country, whatever, it's just whatever comes out at the time, and I love that. We're not hooked into one style.
Madisen: It also feels like there's an honesty to it. I never wanted to sing music or write music. That was never an early passion of mine, but then I told myself, "If I'm going to do this, this is the only style I can even see myself doing," because there is an honesty to it and just a pure creativity. Not that there isn't honesty in other genres, it just felt like it's as raw as it can be.

Why do you think it’s important that Americana music persists today?
Madisen: [When] you come into this world from the moment you're a baby, you've got lullabies being sung to you, and that's just melody. You don’t necessarily have Lynyrd Skynyrd or Jimi Hendrix singing to you. I feel like deep down everybody can relate to basic root melodies, and I think this organic style of songwriting of folk music, it's always been a tribute to that, an ode to root melody. It's a great platform for songwriting and the easiest way to get your story or message across. I think that's really why it's important that it sticks around and it stays around because it's where all of this stuff comes from. It's where all the music, all of the genres come back to: these basic root melodies.

Your new EP The Radio Winners is out this July. What about making this EP was different than the debut album, Skeleton Crew?
Madisen: We worked with only one producer on the debut album, [Jim Abbiss]. On this one, we worked with a couple different ones. And on the first album, it was all in Nashville and a little bit in Franklin. This one was half Nashville, half Seattle, and we worked with a guy named Ryan Hadlock out in this random studio/barn in the woods, sort of like a bed and breakfast sort of thing, and it was really interesting. Also, just sort of growing beyond what our sound was on that first [record], finding a way to evolve a little bit, take another step forward, and try to bring songs up to another level, but still trying to just remain true to our own creative instincts and not get too swayed off the path that we already felt that we were on.

Your latest singles “Everybody’s Got Problems” and “Childhood Goodbye” feel like a much bigger production than your debut. Was it a conscious decision to make your sound even bigger?
Madisen: Most definitely. It was seeing what it would sound like if we took the music to that next level -- one that had a bigger sound -- and it was definitely a journey for us. It could be known as a departure from what we were doing, but also remaining true to those creative instincts that we have ultimately, especially in the melody, and the melody is really just coming from us.
Ruth: I think that it shows you we're eclectic people and you can't just put us in a box. And then working with two great producers, Ryan Hadlock and Nathan Chapman, they were great guys to work with and they kind of stretched us a little bit and it was great.

What is your dynamic like? Are there any challenges in working together because you're so close, or is it better because you can just be honest with one another?
Madisen: There is an honesty. We are not beating around the bush. We're too honest with each other.
Ruth: "Mom, you messed up!"
Madisen: Or, "Son, I don't love you," no, I'm just kidding!
Ruth: You need to go home! You can take an Uber home. 
Madisen: There's a lot of honesty there and it's nothing we could have planned. … I don’t really feel any challenge because she’s a musician. At the end of the day, she's your mom, but she also comes from a different place and she's not like your stereotypical mom. … For whoever is listening to us, I think sometimes [our relationship is] all they see, but for us, all we see is the music.
Ruth: We're musicians first, family second.
Madisen: When we go home, obviously, it's family first again and musician second, but we're not just walking around talking about tour schedules! The family dynamic is still strong. I think why we can do what we do now is that there was already a strong family dynamic to begin with. I think if it didn't come from that, then we would be musicians out here finding ourselves and finding out why we love each other in the first place, but we don't have to find that out because of where we come from.

What might be the biggest misconception of being a mother-son duo?
Madisen: The biggest misconception is that that I've been playing with my mom since I was three years old. They imagine us on a porch, drinking lemonade, playing. Like, "Oh, man! He must've just followed you!" Also, they imagine that we must have the sweetest relationship in the world. It's like no! We have a very warts and all sort of relationship. We are very honest with each other, but it's not just my mom and I, it's my brother, my sister, we all really dish it out when it comes to the way we interact with each other. I mean people can come over for a family dinner and be like, "Wow! You guys are very blunt with each other," but it's just how we communicate and it's still how we show love at the same time. … I think that's a big misconception that we are just every two seconds a real lovey dovey sort of dynamic, but we love each other, but it's very much goes without saying love. Ultimately, we just want to get to work.
Ruth: And another thing, too, people think with Madisen, "You're around your mom? What can you say? What can you do?" All that stuff. They gotta watch me! I don't watch them, they watch me!

What has been the biggest joy in working together and seeing success for one another?
Ruth: I would've never dreamt this in a million years. When we were on the David Letterman Show, I thought, "What in the world am I doing here?" Coming from the kitchen to the David Letterman Show! But the biggest joy is to see him succeed, as well. I'm glad that I can be a part of it and that people enjoy his songs like I do, and I can hear them over and over again and feel like they were just yesterday.

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 21 issue of Billboard.