With a penchant for wildly original songs drawing from timeless American genres such as roots, folk, Americana, and blues, the duo of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear has risen from the coffeehouse circuit of their Midwest hometown of Independence, Missouri to international and festival sensation, releasing two albums and an EP in the five short years of its existence.
Ruth ‘Mama Bear’ Ward was a guitarist and singer who first got her taste of performing busking in the coffeehouse scene of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then in the dustbowl of Oklahoma, inspired by bedrock influences that included such American folk staples as Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Her move to Missouri and her newborn family delayed her stage career temporarily, yet her self-produced cassette of old Christmas standards found overwhelming favor among her son Madisen's elementary schoolteachers begging for copies. Madisen leaned more towards hip-hop and R&B genres, eventually taking up electric guitar as a pre-teen. He found the instrument limiting as a tool for writing and playing on his own. Switching to acoustic, he started writing and singing, and his burgeoning original material caught his mother’s ear. Soon Madisen was performing his songs between Ruth’s sets, and then eventually joining her during hers. “I don’t think that I really started appreciating what my mother did as a singer and guitarist until I started writing music,” Madisen says. Despite no formal training or perhaps because of, Madisen created and developed an idiosyncratic vocal style that referenced years of listening to artists such as Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Tom Waits; the latter, a favorite of his father's- with the avant garde crooner’s more bizarre, off-the-wall pieces finding repeat on the playlist. Ruth encouraged her son’s craft, and the duo was soon a standout in the vibrant coffeehouse community of Independence, developing their repertoire and gradually eliminating all covers from their set. “We never saw the mother/son thing as unique,” Madisen says. “We thought the most unique thing we were doing was writing unusual songs; writing and singing unconventionally.” Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear released their debut album, Skeleton Crew, in May of 2015 on the Glassnote Records imprint. Produced by Jim Abbiss in Nashville, TN, the album peaked at #50 on the UK’s Albums chart a month later. The duo made the rounds on national and international television with appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman, the UK’s Later… with Jools Holland, and BBC Breakfast News, as well as CBS News’ Sunday Morning and NBC’s Today. Live, they delivered stirring performances at such renowned festivals as Bonnaroo and Newport Folk, and supported artists from Rodrigo y Gabriela, and the Pixies, to Sufjan Stevens, and Old Crow Medicine Show. After releasing The Radio Winners EP in July of 2018, the pair returned to the studio for their next full-length, unveiling Started With A Family on September 6, 2019. Tracked at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, and produced by Nathan Chapman, the 10-song set features a bare, stripped-back approach, with just the two and their guitars; what Madisen calls “unpainted music.” And while the pair will continue to augment their live performances and future recordings with accompaniment that ranging from a single cello to a full band, they are simply, in the words of Mama Bear, “a couple of American folk artists out on the road.”