Spotlight: Over the Rhine
Photo by Michael Wilson
It took more than two decades of near constant recordings for Over the Rhine to finally make a record with Americana luminary Joe Henry. But when the acclaimed indie-folk musicians finally reached out to Henry about producing The Long Surrender a year ago, it turns out that they were already on his radar.
“Joe Henry’s records occupied a unique spot on the shelf—he was making records that only he could make,” says Over the Rhine’s cerebral multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler. “We reached out to him to see if he ever heard of our music and he said, ‘As a matter of fact, my parents have tickets to one of your upcoming shows.’ That began a long fruitful correspondence with Joe—we found a kindred spirit.”
The Long Surrender is something of an unintentional turning point for the members of the Cincinnati, Ohio-bred band, which first came together in 1989. The group’s name refers to the neighborhood where the band lived early in its career. “It was a very urban setting, very unlike anything we’d experienced,” says vocalist/guitarist Karin Bergquist. “Beside the fact that it had affordable rent for a poor musician, there was something really interesting about this old German neighborhood. We worked at a coffee shop so it just became our culture.”
Despite their backdrop, the members of Over the Rhine settled on a pastoral, classic form for American music that felt just current enough to earn the band acclaim in hipster circles. The band released its early albums through independent channels—including the influential I.R.S. label—before releasing Films for Radio on Virgin Records in 2001.
Originally a four-piece, Detweiler and Bergquist slimmed down Over the Rhine to a husband-and-wife duo by the late ‘90s. With the duo as its core, the band’s personnel now changes with each album or tour. “The songs lead the way, providing clues about which musicians should be involved,” Detweiler explains.
By the early 2000s, Detweiler and Bergquist grew tired of their urban lifestyle and moved in to a “little ramshackle, 200-year-old pre Civil War farmhouse” in Ohio. The compound blossomed into the perfect place for the couple to hunker down and churn out albums at almost a yearly rate. “It’s an hour away from anything and very, very rural,” Bergquist proudly boasts. “We can leave a tour and shut down—go back to finding out who we are and what matters to us. I wanted a place where I could get up in the morning, have my coffee and not hear any sounds but the birds. We found that it’s been a really great chapter for writing because it’s a good spot for reflection.”
By 2007, the band brought things in house once again and formed its own record label. Through years of hard touring and key collaborations, Over The Rhine has developed into an in-demand live act and has shared the stage with everyone from Bob Dylan, John Prine and Adrian Belew to Squeeze, Ani DiFranco, My Morning Jacket and Cowboy Junkies.
Shortly after celebrating Over the Rhine’s twentieth anniversary with a series of retrospective shows in 2009, the married musicians got the itch to make another record and eventually reached out to Henry in the spring of 2010. “We began sending him the songs we were working on and just marked our calendars,” Detweiler says. “We made the record at Joe’s house in Pasadena, Calif. with some great musicians that he assembled. We started on a Monday afternoon and wrapped the following Friday.”
Over the Rhine released The Long Surrender in early February 2011, a few months shy of its first album’s 20th anniversary. Though Detweiler shrugs off the timing as unintentional, the album captures a band entering its next stage as songwriters. “I’m at the phase of life where I’m burying loved ones,” he says of the album’s somber title. “It gives you the opportunity to think about the big picture. We keep coming back to the idea of letting go of certain expectations and trying to stay open and curious. The Long Surrender also refers to any creative journey where you’re continuing to work over an extended period of time with no guarantee that your work will be considered successful and coming back to the work itself.”
While the album’s lyrical themes are heavy and intense at times, the album’s recording sessions were quite the opposite. “We’ve done a lot of traditional tracking in the past but Joe felt strongly about putting the right people together in one room and seeing what would happen,” Bergquist says. “We let go of our preconceived notions and it was pretty incredible.” Henry also enlisted one of Bergquist’s vocal heroes, Lucinda Williams, to sing on a track—fulfilling yet another one of the band’s dreams.
“Instead of obsessing about what might be down the road, we’re more interested in fully embracing what’s in front of us,” Detweiler says of the band’s current outlook. “Even if it’s not all ideal, the present feels like the only guaranteed gift you’ll ever receive. I’d hate to miss out on what’s in front of me because I’m trying to guess what might be farther down the road.”
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