The Backroom Gallery in Independence is about the size of a modest living room. It boasts a smattering of mismatched tables and chairs, and a pewlike bench against one wall that faces a small, square platform functioning as a stage. There's room enough for about 20 people inside, and early on a Friday night, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear are entertaining less than half that number.
Ward, 26, is the youngest person in the room by at least two decades — save for his 6-year-old niece, Gabrielle, who is cheerfully doodling at her spot on the bench next to Ward's father, Kenneth. The sleepy turnout doesn't seem to bother Ward, who is seated next to his mother, Ruth, onstage. He welcomes the cozy audience as though he's among old friends.
In fact, most of the audience seems to know Ruth and Madisen Ward. They should. The mother-and-son duo have been gigging around Independence for nearly five years, and it's hard to keep talent a secret here. What is surprising is that Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear are not more widely known.
The stage setup is simple — two voices and two acoustic guitars — but Madisen Ward has a voice as deep and sturdy as a storied oak tree. When he sings, it's a bighearted burst that hits you square in the chest. His voice plummets and soars on the harrowing "Dead Daffodils," and he warbles, scats and howls on "Silent Movies." It's the same immense instrument that he commands on the duo's 2012 debut EP, We Burned the Cane Field.
A half-hour before the show begins, Madisen leads Ruth and me across the street to another coffee shop. As he sips black coffee, he reveals the roots of his singing style: "I think the way that I sing came from whenever I was first starting to try to call myself a musician, and I figured I had to do something that was going to get attention. I think I was just shouting all the time to get someone to listen, and that shouting has just become more seasoned over time."
He continues: "A lot of artists that we really like are people like Jack White and Tom Waits — people that aren't the norm, that really get your attention."
"We like being different," Ruth Ward agrees.
Though Madisen Ward takes the lead on most of the singing, 62-year-old Ruth Ward is elemental in all of their music. Her harmonies contain a pristine control. Where Madisen's voice comes in swinging, Ruth's follows closely as the duo's sweet, strong backbone.
"I have been singing all my life, really," Ruth Ward says. "I'm from South Bend, Indiana, which is near Detroit, and Sam Cooke was my idol. My background is in the '60s — Motown, R&B, Aretha Franklin. I loved his [Cooke's] music. Then my brother turned me on to Peter, Paul and Mary; Simon and Garfunkel; James Taylor. It was like I had discovered a whole new world."
In the early 1970s, Ruth Ward taught herself to play guitar and she began performing her original songs in coffeehouses. Pieces of that time period — folksy rhythms, spare blues notes, unadorned melodies — mark much of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear's music.
"He remembers me dragging him to coffeehouses in Illinois," Ruth Ward says as she smiles at her son. The Ward family lived in Chicago in the late '80s, before moving to Kansas City in 1991. "It's just been a part of who we are. Music just comes out."
Music has always been a staple of the Ward family's, but for Ruth and Madisen, the collaborative process is still relatively fresh. Asked how creating music together has affected their relationship, the two bust out laughing and share a look.
"Me and my mom, we're kind of alike," Madisen Ward says, "and we tend to butt heads."
"What I've learned in this relationship is that there's a time to be the mama, and there's a time just to be the musician," Ruth Ward adds. "Madisen has a vision, and I didn't understand it at first, but I understand it now. He's helped me say things that I never thought about before. He's taught me things, and it's been really good."
"And she's taught me my whole life," Madisen Ward adds with a smile.
Madisen is the youngest of three children. He's the principal songwriter for the duo, and most of his songs stand outside time and place. He refrains from specifics in his lyrics. Songs like "Live by the Water" and "Down in Mississippi" could easily pass for decades-old standards.
"I like talking about things that have always been or will always be," Madisen Ward says. "And I think that if you can get to the basic melody of a song, there's not a lot of people that will hate that."