Lights out for the territory
by Jordan Green
Linford Detweiler slips out the side door of Dana Auditorium after being excused from the sound check. Piano player and part of the songwriting and musical core of Over the Rhine with wife Karin Bergquist, Detweiler owns a lanky frame like Abraham Lincoln, heavy-framed glasses and an overgrown mop-top reminiscent of the Surrealistic Pillow-era Jefferson Airplane. He sets out on a vague mission to find a tulip tree in the woods on the campus of Guilford College.
“Karin just said Barack Obama did his first press conference, and did really well,” Detweiler reports. “I’m always paying attention to the news these days. I’m really dialed in.”
In the late eighties, Detweiler and Bergquist, two students from a Quaker college in northeast Ohio determined to make music, got a house in Over-the-Rhine, a gritty Cincinnati neighborhood built by German immigrants in the 1860s and lately overtaken by crack and prostitution. They named their band after the neighborhood, keeping it as a talisman of a singular folk sound forged in the era of grunge. The classically trained Bergquist and Detweiler, whose interest in music was nourished on his minister and ex-Amish father’s vinyl LPs, focused on songwriting from the start.
They’ve always maintained a sense of place. In 2003, they released a double album called Ohio, whose title both encapsulates the landscape around them and their attitude: plainspoken, Midwestern kindness and soul stripped of pretension. Next month, they’ll be celebrating their 20th anniversary as a band with a two-night run at the Taft Theater in Cincinnati.
And as the duo has progressed, Over the Rhine has begun to reach something that might be accurately described as American music: Yes, music that encapsulates the sorrow wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the weird instinct to light out for new territory, the music of itinerant honky-tonkers and jazz journeymen, the hymnal laid open to words of salvation, and an open-hearted invitation to shared enterprise.
Detweiler, for one, comes by his eclecticism honestly. His father grew up on an Amish farm where listening to music was discouraged, left home at 21, and made up for lost time by gorging himself on the forbidden fruit.
“He would bring home Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, a Mahalia Jackson record and Johnny Cash’s first record,” Detweiler says. “He played ’em all in the same afternoon. No one told him the rules. He didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that. He just played whatever made his heart beat faster.”
The duo’s songs contain spiritual underpinnings, but their spirit has always been too unruly for the insular and high-powered Christian music industry.
“I grew up with a lot of old hymns, and the language of the King James Bible,” Detweiler says. “There’s a little bit of a gospel influence in Over the Rhine from time to time, and also a willingness to mess around with deep questions.”
The Trumpet Child, released in 2007 and their most recent studio album, closes with the hopeful “If A Song Could Be President,” a tune featuring plain acoustic guitar strumming and angelic vocal harmonies reminiscent of Gram Parson’s work with Emmylou Harris.
“If a song could be president,” it goes, “we’d fly a jukebox to the moon, on our founding fathers’ 45s…. If a song could be president, we could all add another verse. Life would teach us to rehearse, until we found the key change.”
The song imagines Tom Waits as secretary of state, Neil Young as a senator and Steve Earle as a news anchor. It muses that “John Prine would head the FBI; all the criminals would laugh and cry.”
Over the Rhine’s lyrics are not overtly political, but they endorsed Democrat John Kerry for president in 2004 and organized a benefit for the candidate in Cincinnati, part of the conservative southwestern corner of the state that helped keep Ohio in Bush’s column.
“When they called Ohio for Barack Obama, everybody said they could hear Karin and I shouting for joy in the hotel room,” Detweiler says.
“It feels incredibly hopeful right now,” he continues. “I heard Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, and I thought, ‘I want to be a better songwriter. Sign me up. To hear somebody who has a facility with language in a position of leadership like that is really refreshing.”
The band gets going about an hour late due to the stage power shorting at Dana Auditorium. After all the trouble, Detweiler claps for the audience and Bergquist maintains a wicked sense of humor.
After the fourth song, she complains that the balcony section is bathed in light, implying that it might inhibit some stolen affection.
“You know, you really need to kill the lights up in the balcony,” she says. “They came on in the middle of the last song, and it’s really a buzz kill. They might be up there for a reason. Continue. I got your back.”
The band is tight, gritty and poetic, with drums, alternating stand-up and electric bass, a rotation of stringed instruments such as electric guitar, pedal steel, dobro and mandolin — the kind of group that should be backing Bob Dylan. Bergquist sings passionately, belting lyrics and curling the edges of the notes with both irony and grief. Detweiler plays cascading piles of chords on the piano that brim with the gospel truth.
“It’s an amazing, amazing time to be an American right now,” he tells the audience before introducing “If A Song Could Be President.” “Somebody told me there’s a massive tulip tree where the escaped slaves used to meet on the Underground Railroad. I couldn’t find it, but I did see lots of beautiful trees. Course, they were trying to get to where we’re at up in Ohio. Over the past two days it feels like we’ve come a long way. Wow.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.