They say a boy's best friend is his mother, but Madisen Ward knows she can also be a good person to make music with. Ward and his mother, Ruth Ward, unexpectedly became the talk of the roots-music scene in 2014 when the mother-and-son duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear gained a bundle of media attention for their music, a low-key but powerful blend of acoustic guitars and vocals that melds elements of folks, blues, and gospel, creating a sound that draws on the past and the present.
Born in Gary, Indiana in 1952, Ruth Whitlock grew up with a love of music, and as a teenager she was fascinated by many of the rock and folk artists of the '60s, especially Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Laura Nyro. After leaving home and travelling to the Southwest with some friends, Ruth was 19 she bought an acoustic guitar and learned how to play. Ruth began playing coffeehouses and toured through the Midwest, playing and singing her songs for a growing audience, and cut a pair of independent albums. While living in Norman, Oklahoma for a spell, Ruth fell in love with Kenneth Ward, and the two settled down in Independence, Missouri. While Ruth Ward continued to perform occasionally, she put her career on the back burner when she and Kenneth welcomed their first child; the Wards would have three children, but only their youngest, Madisen Ward, born in 1988, shared his mother's enthusiasm for making music. Like his mother, Madisen picked up the guitar at age 19, and within a few years he started playing coffeehouses and acoustic venues in Independence and St. Louis, three hours down the road. Like his mother, Madisen had a strong voice and a gift for songwriting, and Ruth would often sit at the kitchen table with Madisen, playing guitars together, harmonizing, and swapping ideas for songs. After a spell, Ruth began sitting in at Madisen's coffee house performances, and vice versa.
The duo began playing together as Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, and by 2013 had earned a following in Kansas City, recording an independent EP, We Burned the Cane Fields, which picked up airplay on local roots music radio shows. In 2014, Madisen and Ruth were invited to perform at the Americana Music Association's annual Americana Fest, held in September in Nashville, Tennessee; they played a show at the offices of Jack White's Third Man Records that impressed journalists and tastemakers, one of whom was Adam Gold, a writer for Rolling Stone. The noted rock magazine declared the performance one of the "20 Best Things We Saw at Americana Music Fest," and Gold added, "the duo's raw, inscrutable chemistry was in full effect as they handily made a case as an inevitable force to be reckoned with in the days to come." The rave review helped win the duo a guest appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, and by the end of 2014, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear landed a record contract with Glassnote Records. Their debut album, Skeleton Key, arrived in May 2015. ~ Mark Deming