After crafting a brand of thoughtful, homespun Americana over the past 20-plus years, Ohio’s Over The Rhine continue to make a name for themselves, stepping back every release to reinvent their sound in a way that maintains current fans and wins new ones. Debuting in 1991 with Till We Have Faces, the songwriting of Karen Bergquist and Linford Detweiler continued into the 21st century with records such as Films For Radio, the double-album Ohio and 2011’s The Long Surrender.
The band got the unique name from a neighborhood in Ohio. “That’s where we got our start in our initial writing and recording,” Detweiler said. “It was considered the bad part of town. It looks like someone picked up the neighborhood from an old European city, brought it across the Atlantic and dropped it in Ohio. When you see this place, it’s just unbelievable. It’s the largest intact neighborhood in the world from the 1800s. Just row after row of three-story buildings. It’s separated from Cincinnati by the Erie Canal and people say that when you cross the Canal, you were going ‘over the rhine’ because it was very much German at one time. It was just a timeless, beautiful neighborhood. We hoped that our songs could live up to some of those characteristics.”
Though they have largely resided on independent labels for most of their career, Over The Rhine initially started on IRS, the original home of the late and iconic alternative rock band, R.E.M. After three records on IRS, the home recordings of Good Dog, Bad Dog would change a lot of things for the band.
“Good Dog, Bad Dog was a really personal record for us,” Detweiler reflected. “We recorded most of that in my bedroom and we had lost our major label record deal before making that record. It’s just a really melancholy sense of starting over. I think we found our groove as songwriters on Good Dog, Bad Dog…This homespun collection of home recordings that we did outsold all three major label releases that we did just by word of mouth and people passing that record around. We did our first bus tour with Cowboy Junkies all across the U.S., Canada and Europe.”
Though the band originally began as a quartet, the outfit now consists of mainly Bergquist and Detweiler, who were married seven years after the band started writing and recording. The husband and wife dynamic helps keep the music fresh, though Detweiler says they are not afraid to tell each other the truth about whatever song is being written.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Detweiler explained. “Some of our friends joke with us and say that if they were with their spouses as much as Karen and I are together, they’d kill each other inside of a week. It’s something that we had to experiment with. We had a good musical chemistry from the beginning and that grew into a relationship and we were married seven years after we started the band.”
“I think we were a little concerned that we would lose our objectivity if we tied the knot, but I can assure you that hasn’t happened,” he continued. “Neither of us are afraid to chime in with an opinion that the song on the table needs to be better. We are able to set the work apart from ourselves and look at the work as if someone else had written it, so when it comes to the writing, we really try to push each other. I think we’ve learned how to take care of both parts of our relationship. I think we see the music and our marriage as two separate gardens and both gardens require care and attention. It’s been a good journey.”
While most artists on the radio often experience instant success, many find that this attention does not last past a few releases. Though Over The Rhine is not a household name, they still have managed to release a new record every few years and have steadily built a reputation of being a band to watch.
“I heard Tony Bennett being interviewed recently and it was surprisingly profound,” Detweiler said. “He talks about how he encourages young artists not to focus on fame, which he describes as a fast track to bankruptcy. Rather, he encourages young artists to focus on longevity. He’s of the opinion that anything we do that makes it impossible to continue over the long haul is ‘sinning against our talent.’ He came to a point in his life that he believed he was sinning against his talent and he wasn’t going to be able to do it long-term unless he made some changes. He had a bit of an epiphany and quit living hard and abusing certain substances and started focusing on what it would mean to be a singer for his entire life.”
“So longevity is where we try to focus and how we continue to grow as writers and performers,” he continued. “If we don’t believe that we’re doing the best work of our career, why would we want to subject people to something that we did not believe was our best work? When people shell out real money for a concert ticket, I want to believe that we’re putting something on the line of real value and it’s a relationship of trust that you develop with the listener. Twenty five years is something that we aspire to for the long haul.”
Over 20 years and with a number of releases in the double digits, Over The Rhine’s discography is quite extensive.
“It’s part of the journey after you’ve written several dozen songs,” Detweiler revealed. “You realize that when you sit down with a blank page, you sometimes realize that you’ve already written that song. All the ideas that came naturally have already been used up. We try to see each record that we make as a different chapter of our lives. We’re thinking about different stuff now in our 40s than we were in our mid-20s. Both Karen and I have buried parents at this point, and that’s a different place to be in life. I think musically that we’ve tried to give ourselves creative rough elbows and tried to get ourselves out of our comfort zones.”
Later this year, Over The Rhine will release a new record for its loyal fan base. Detweiler and Bergquist drew a good portion of their inspiration from their recent move to a new home in Ohio.
“All of the songs are revolving around this ramshackle farm that Karen and I call home,” Detweiler explained. “About eight years ago, we moved 45 miles outside of the city in kind of the middle of nowhere in southern Ohio. We bought an old farmhouse that was built in the 1830s. We met the person whose grandparents owned this house. You can feel the ghosts in this pre-Civil War house. We realize now that John Quincy Adams granted this land to a family whose father was killed in the Revolutionary War. Their son came up and built this house in this frontier country. It’s been home for us and it’s been a place to disappear to when we come off the road. A bunch of songs have come out of this chapter.”
The future is looking bright for Over The Rhine and fans can be assured that the next twenty years will look just as good, if not better, as the last.
Over The Rhine will play at Workplay Theatre on Saturday, April 6th. Doors open for this 18-and-up show open at 8 p.m. and tickets are $22. For more information on the band, visit www.overtherhine.com.