Personnel: Madisen Ward (vocals, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass); Mama Bear (vocals, nylon-string guitar); Zach Casebolt (violin, viola); Larissa Maestro (cello); Jim Abbiss (piano, organ, percussion); Micah Hulscher (Fender Rhodes piano, harmonium); Jon Estes (acoustic bass, upright bass); John Radford (drums, percussion).
Audio Mixer: Ian Dowling.
Recording information: 1979, Nashville; Blackbird, Nashville; OceanWay Studios, Nashville; Readymade Studios, Nashville; Sound Kitchen Studios, Franklin.
Photographer: Mike Savage.
To say Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear have a great gimmick stretches the boundaries of understatement -- a guy in his late twenties harmonizing and switching back and forth on lead guitar with his mother in her early sixties is likely to get press even if their music was little more than adequate. However, the debut album from the duo, 2015's Skeleton Crew, confirms that this pair get over honestly on their talent, showing impressive skills as vocalists, instrumentalists, and songwriters. Madisen Ward gets top billing here for good reason: his rich but flexible voice boasts a wealth of dramatic power, and he absolutely knows how to sell these songs, spinning his literate stories of Southern life with the skill of a gifted actor. But if Madisen Ward is the star of the show, Ruth Ward (aka Mama Bear) is a more than worthy collaborator: her high, sweet, supporting vocals complement her son's very well, and while the guitar work here is subtle, the two players weave their instrumental lines around one another with artful intelligence, giving the melodies a strength that doesn't get in the way of their folkie simplicity. And while the duo are clearly informed by blues, folk, and gospel sounds, they don't land comfortably in any particular camp. These melodies may be elemental, but they're hardly simple; they're a fine match for lyrics which deal with the stuff of ordinary lives with compassion and perception, ranging from love and war to pie and Cherry Coke. Jimmy Abbiss' production captures the interplay between the musicians very well, focusing on the acoustic space of the voices and guitars, and providing accompaniment that enhances the songs rather than weighing them down. If it takes the family band angle to get Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear into the marketplace, let it be said that far more intrusive gimmicks have been used in the service of far less satisfying music, and Skeleton Crew is a debut with heart, soul, and fine songs to spare. ~ Mark Deming