Tyler is something else. He's a writer who loves blue jeans, camping, hamburgers and rock and roll. He's also the managing editor at RELEVANT. You can read all about his fascinating life over at The Unbearable Lightness of Huckabeing, or read every dumb thought that comes into his brain on Twitter.
Over the Rhine
It’s early morning at a rustic old farmhouse on the outskirts of Cincinnati, and Linford Detweiler is sitting on the front porch. His wife and bandmate, Karin Bergquist, is inside. There’s coffee. Birds are singing. Detweiler is weary, but chipper, eyeing the lazy circles of a red-tailed hawk soaring over his front yard.
In every way, it’s an exact picture of what you’d expect life to look like for the members of Over the Rhine.
“I’m a little road weary,” he says. “Karin and I have been doing this for over two decades. We have never taken a year off completely. There have been years that have been lighter than others, but I have never had more fun on the road than I’m having right now.”
Detweiler comes across like a kindly uncle. He’s familiar and honest, with a way of being vulnerable without making everyone uncomfortable.
“I think we’ve had a little bit of an antagonistic relationship with touring,” he says. “We always saw it as something that would go away eventually.”
He laughs at that notion.
“Somewhere along the line, I realized that I really need that connection with an audience. It completes the circle. We’re not trying to write songs in a vacuum. We’re wanting our songs to connect people and us in some real way with the world around us. And it’s—well, maybe you can feel that on our new record. It feels like we have finally found our groove.”
Leaning in and Whispering
It might take a long and impossible discussion to determine who, exactly, is the country’s most underappreciated band, but Over the Rhine certainly belongs in any such conversation. For two decades, they have seemed ever on the verge of their big break. They have released 13 albums—all critically lauded. Entertainment Weekly said there was “no more soothing voice in music than Karin Bergquist’s.” A.V. Club said there was “no rhyme or reason” as to why the band wasn’t more famous. They have acquired one of indie music’s most fiercely devoted fan bases, toured with Bob Dylan and appeared on too many “Greatest Living Songwriter” lists to name.
And yet, they have been saddled with a low-flying career—forever praised as the “best kept secret” of folk music, even as the genre’s recent revival seems to have come just a few years too late to really bring them any of that long-deserved acclaim.
“I don’t really think about it,” Detweiler says. “I think when Karin turned 40, she got her first tattoo. She tattooed a beautiful watercolor of a female hummingbird on her left shoulder with the phrase, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ It’s something we like to keep handy because nothing will suck the life out of a creative journey faster than comparing yourself too much to what other people are doing. It’s best just to stay fiercely committed to your own standards of perfection. Stay committed to your own voice.”
Staying committed to that voice may seem like a no-brainer now, what with The Lumineers and The Civil Wars making millions on their brands of Americana-tinged folk, but Over the Rhine was churning out this stuff back in the early ’90s, when Nirvana had largely made acoustic music a thing of the past.
“Everybody was turning their guitars up to 10,” Detweiler recalls. “And for some reason, we had made a very personal, introspective record. The first song on the record was something like five and a half minutes long with no drums. Somehow, we found the courage to quit trying to scream along with everybody else and just to lean in and whisper something.
“My goodness,” he laughs. “That record outsold all three of our major label releases combined.”
Nirvana is gone now, and dozens of other bands have come and gone, but Over the Rhine has trusted their gut, and while their career may not have ever reached the highs of, say, My Morning Jacket (to whom they are frequently compared), it has never had any true lows, either.
“We just found permission to be ourselves and not worry about what people were going to think,” Detweiler says. “We didn’t expect everybody to love what we were doing. It sure makes it a whole lot more enjoyable to just try to make records that resonate.”
Leaving the Edges Wild
Over the Rhine is named after an iconic Cincinnati neighborhood that romanced the two in the early days of their relationship. Today, it’s a haven for Ohio’s bohemian set, populated with hipster bars and heavily tattooed kids with big glasses. But 20 years ago, OTR (as it’s known) was unequivocally the bad side of town.
This wouldn’t have struck many as a viable namesake for a young couple looking to make their mark in the folk music scene, but that was part of the appeal. “It was kind of beautiful and ragged and dangerous,” Detweiler says. “All of the things we hoped our songs could be.”
While the neighborhood might still be beautiful and ragged, it’s not terribly dangerous anymore. The band recently played for a crowd of 7,000 at the opening of a newly renovated park in the heart of OTR. If that felt like the band coming a little full circle, playing for a neighborhood that had come to realize the creative potential they saw in it two decades ago, it also felt like the end of an era.
Detweiler and Bergquist have found a new artistic muse—the aforementioned farmhouse—that has become as vital to their music as OTR.
“We always had a secret dream, I think, to eventually end up outside of the city,” Detweiler says. “We were also kind of curious about certain American writers and artists like Robert Frost or Flannery O’Connor or Wendell Berry or even a painter like Georgia O’Keeffe. When you think of these artists, you immediately think of a particular place where they lived and worked and a piece of unpaved earth. And Karin and I were increasingly haunted by this idea that we wanted to get out of the city.”
“What is this beautiful world asking of us? That’s the question that’s new every morning.”
“When we moved out here, we didn’t know the names of anything.” Detweiler says. “We didn’t know what these old trees were that the pioneers planted. We didn’t know the names of the birds that were singing over our shoulders. We didn’t know the amazing wildflowers that were growing and weeds that we had never seen before.”
Things fell together with the help of Detweiler’s father, an Amish farmer and avid birdwatcher. “When my dad came down on that first visit and heard all of the birds that were singing, he said he heard birds that he hadn’t heard since he was a boy. He encouraged Karin and me to leave the edges wild out here so the birds could have their secret hidden places for their untamed music.”
They took his advice to heart, and the phrase “leave the edges wild” has become a mantra of theirs, both in how they keep their farm and how they craft their music. It pops up repeatedly on their latest album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World, along with the new language of their home.
“We very much realized that we had a cycle of songs that was loosely revolving around this place that sometimes feels like the edge of the world to us,” Detweiler says.
“Leaving the edges wild has a lot to do with just accepting the fact that there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t know,” he explains. “There’s a lot of stuff we haven’t figured out, and leaning into those questions is what it’s about. Leaving room for mystery. Acknowledging our own mortality and the wildness of accepting the fact that we’re not going to be here forever, so what is this beautiful world asking of us? That’s the question that’s new every morning.
“I don’t know,” he confesses. “It’s something that we haven’t completely articulated.”
Looking at the Letters
“When we were a young band, I always assumed the day would come when I would pick up the phone and call home and tell my mom and dad that we had gotten it out of our systems and we were going to hang up our songwriting hats and get back to our real lives and get real jobs,” Detweiler says. “And I assumed everybody would just breathe a sigh of relief, you know? The years went by and I realized I was never going to pick up the phone and make that call.”
Some of that seems to be owing to the fact that Over the Rhine feels a sense of purpose in their music—a purpose that has been largely handed to them by their fans.
“I remember being haunted by a Scripture from childhood. If somebody’s naked and you clothe them or if somebody’s hungry and you feed them or if somebody is thirsty and you give them something to drink, it’s like you’re doing it for God,” Detweiler says. “That’s really overwhelming because there’s so much need in the world and where do you begin?
“But there’s something about handing somebody a song. It enables you to be present with them in some of those big moments, even if you can’t be there physically.”
This might sound a little melodramatic if Detweiler and Bergquist didn’t have proof. They took an afternoon to lay out all the letters they had received over their career, and it made a compelling case for their ongoing existence.
“The first one was something like, ‘Hey, we just wanted you to know that we met in college and fell in love and your music was the soundtrack to our relationship.’ And the next letter was, ‘We had one of your songs performed while we were walking down the aisle.’ And then there was a letter that was like, ‘I just wanted to let you know that we actually conceived our child listening to your music.’” He chuckles at that last one. “Uh, OK.”
This list goes on for ages. A soldier who brought their albums to Iraq. A man whose sister wanted to listen to them in the final few hours before cancer claimed her, even as a woman in Ireland listened to them as she started her first round of chemotherapy. A woman who played them when her first child was born.
“We were looking at these letters. It was the whole human experience, from the very beginning—excitement of somebody falling in love all the way through to burying somebody. And regardless of what’s happening with our career, if people are making that deep of a connection with what we’re doing, it feels like it’s worth doing.” Detweiler says.
“I can hang my hat on that,” he says. “As long as I believe the music is good and that we’re still doing our best work, that will get me out of bed in the morning.”