After more than 15 years making music, it's obvious Ohio duo Over The Rhine is in it for the long haul, and for keeps. Their commitment is underscored by their latest, The Trumpet Child, and its opening track, "I Don't Wanna Waste Your Time," a manifesto of sorts for the artists recently named to Paste magazine's list of 100 Best Living Songwriters. Look no further than the lyrics to this track for what animates Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, the married couple at the heart of Over The Rhine: "I hope this night puts down deep roots / I hope we plant a seed / 'Cause I don't wanna waste your time / With music you don't need."
"Believe me, we don't want to waste anybody's time," elaborates Detweiler. "When we stop believing we're doing our best work, we're done. Every song has to be good, every record has to be great, every concert has to have some spiritual significance"something that we can't quantify, something bigger than all of us."
Over The Rhine may not be a household name, but to call the act's followers "fanatical" would understate the point, and they're not shy about converting the curious. Why? For starters, there's Bergquist's torchy, devil-may-care voice, brimming with Midwestern soul, unafraid to lay bare every emotional resonance. And again, there's the life-and-death commitment dripping from her every word. "I'm either into it or I'm not, because there's no faking it with me," Bergquist notes. "Life's way too short for that."
Detweiler and Bergquist's evocative, earthy songwriting and impassioned delivery is at its finest in The Trumpet Child. The new record is a collaboration with ultra-talented Nashville producer/arranger Brad Jones (Matthew Sweet, Josh Rouse, Ron Sexsmith, Richard Julian, et. al) and celebrates American music in the most richly imaginative ways.
Over The Rhine began in 1990 as a more conventional four-piece rock band, albeit one far more in tune with the nuances of songcraft than its three-chord, grunge-era contemporaries. "I was continuing my education, considering my masters degree, when this tall, lanky fella approached me about singing lead for some rock band in Cincinnati," recalls the classically trained Bergquist. "I didn't just jump at the chance. I lunged."
Adopting the name of the gritty neighborhood Over-The-Rhine, where the foursome found fertile soil, the group quickly became a local sensation and graduated from sold-out weekend club dates to opening tours for Adrian Belew and Bob Dylan. Two lavishly packaged independent records later, the young group signed to IRS, which re-released second record Patience with its original artwork, a first for the label (and a tribute to the vision and attention to detail which has always marked the band).
Seeking artistic autonomy, the band returned to independence for Good Dog Bad Dog, a collection of glorified demos and home recordings that nonetheless eventually outsold the band's three previous IRS releases combined and knit the band tightly to its fanbase, which, by then, had come to hang on the group's every move. (A collection of recordings"live, and otherwise"offered exclusively to fans bears witness to the band's ardent, enduring cult.)
The next few years found the band pared to its core duo of Detweiler and Bergquist, as the two locked arms with likeminded fellow travelers Cowboy Junkies, touring as "honorary members" of the group, and released their Virgin/Backporch debut, Films For Radio. Next came Over The Rhine's magnum opus, the double album Ohio, "a deeply moving, maddening, and redemptive work of art, and necessary, ambitious pop," as All Music Guide's Thom Jurek put it in a 4.5-star review. The intimate, living-room record Drunkard's Prayer followed"recorded, literally, in the duo's Cincinnati living room"as the sound continued to expand beyond rock to encompass elements of country and jazz, punctuated by Drunkard's Prayer's final track, a moody, late-night reading of "My Funny Valentine."
In terms of album The Trumpet Child's themes, Detweiler says, "On this project, I think we returned to the quintessential stuff that's always interested us in our writing: spirituality, sexuality, living vividly, challenging the status quo and subtly taking power away from those who have too much and transferring it to people who have too little."
Encouragement can come from many sources, and for Over The Rhine, a vote of confidence from Dave Foreman, their sound engineer, has put fire in their bellies. Foreman, a childhood friend of John Hiatt's from Indiana who's served many great songwriters on the road, came out of retirement"and the baggage of a heroin addiction that landed him in Cincinnati to clean up and start a family"to tour with the band.
"We ran into Dave at a concert in Kentucky a few years ago and got to talking about the possibility of him coming out of retirement to tour with Over the Rhine as our sound engineer," Detweiler says. "Part of our conversation consisted of Dave saying, 'The thing is, I don't want to leave my wife Sharon behind; I don't want to leave my daughter Emmy behind and go back out on the great American highway"unless we're going to go deep.'"
Go deep? That's the only place Over The Rhine has ever gone.