Twenty-seven-year-old Madisen Ward has one of the most compelling voices in contemporary folk music: big, deep and rich, with a waver and wobble that stretch around lyrics with the warmth of pulled taffy.
He comes by his talent genetically, at least in part. His mother, Ruth Ward, a guitarist, played her own original songs for years around the West and Midwest. In Kansas City, Missouri, where she eventually settled, Ward continued to gig locally on the coffeehouse and house-concert circuit while she and her husband raised Madisen and his two siblings.
It’s not unusual for a young artist — particularly one whose sound, like Madisen Ward’s, channels older roots traditions — to draw from the well of a musical family, and his background is serving him well.
His band, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, has garnered significant buzz from the national music press, including an NPR Tiny Desk Concert and a preview stream for its debut album, “Skeleton Crew,” on Rolling Stone’s website
What is perhaps a bit unusual, though, is that the younger Ward’s upbringing isn’t just a biographical note; the Mama Bear of the band name is, in fact, Ruth Ward, his mother.
The mother-and-son duo’s breakout show was a private appearance during the 2014 Americana Music Festival, held at Jack White’s Third Man Records complex in Nashville. The venue in which they performed, the Blue Room, was a fine setting for an act whose press is always peppered with descriptors like “cryptic,” “haunted” and “strange.” The show felt surreal and a little bit magical.
Part of it was the eerie blue light that gives the intimate jewel-box space its name, but most of it was the quiet intensity of the show: Madisen’s mournful baritone harmonizing with his mother’s lighter, ethereal voice, two acoustic guitars and, most of all, whimsical lyrics infused with a quirky, almost-fairy-tale quality that stick in your head like the half-nonsense poetry of nursery rhymes. The words linger like a particularly vivid and colorful dream. “All I need is a sip of cherry cola and pie,” they sing, “When I die, you’re gonna know the reason why.” “Pie” stretches out to five syllables, each one a sort of sob, delivering a strange nursery rhyme.
“Skeleton Crew” came out in May 2015 on the Glassnote label, the launching pad for folk monsters Mumford & Sons. As the album picked up speed, it brought the mother and son festival slots at Bonnaroo and Newport Folk, as well as appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman, NPR’s All Things Considered and Later with Jools Holland.
It earned copious praise for its simplicity: American Songwriter called it “uncluttered,” “unvarnished” and “unadorned,” all in the same review (which also proclaimed the album “delightful”).
Rolling Stone applauded producer Jim Abbiss — who has worked with Adele and the Mercury Prize-winning Arctic Monkeys — for “staying out of the music’s way.”
There was “a certain organic rawness I wanted to maintain,” Madisen Ward told Rolling Stone in May. “I just wanted to capture the music in its most raw, natural state.”