Interview: OVER THE RHINE at Lincoln Theatre

Detweiler reflects on band's durability

By: Feb. 02, 2024
Interview: OVER THE RHINE at Lincoln Theatre
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If Linford Detweiler’s grandfather had his way, you wouldn’t have heard of the band Over the Rhine. The Detweiler patriarch was Amish and forbid musical instruments in their family. His father hid a guitar in a pile of hay … before his grandfather hit it with a pitchfork.

Over The Rhine, which is comprised of Detweiler and his wife Karin Bergquist, will celebrate their 30-year plus career with a special Valentine’s Day Concert, titled “Infamous Love Songs” 8 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Lincoln Theatre (769 E. Long Street in downtown Columbus).

BROADWAY WORLD: When you first started out as a band in 1989, which did you think would be the most unlikely thing to happen: that there would be a hit musical about the first U.S. Secretary of Treasury, the Rolling Stones would still be touring when Keith Richards reached 80, or that you would still be performing for over 30 years?

LINFORD DETWEILER: Haha, well, you never can tell, right? But yeah, we would have been surprised (to still be around after 30 years). Every young recording artist or songwriter secretly wonders if this is just something we have to “get out of our system.” We wonder if we will pick up the phone one day and call our parents and say, ‘Good news, we’re going to hang up our songwriting hats and get back to our real lives.’ We assume there would be a collective sigh of relief.

But in our case, as the years passed, we realized we were never going to pick up the phone and make that call. Making music was our real life.

BWW: What is the secret to your longevity as a band?

LD: Maybe the only mission statement that matters to an artist is, Keep going. You either do or you don’t. Begin again is another good one.

Or maybe it comes down to love. Maybe you have to love music enough that in the words of (American songwriter) Gillian Welch, we’re going to do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.

Writing and performing became meaningful to us on a deeper level. Making and sharing music completes something. Songs have become essential to our own spiritual journey and curiosity.

And thankfully we haven’t had to go it alone. A community has coalesced around our music. The people who were discovering our records and sharing the music with loved ones began to feel a little bit like extended family.

BWW: Is it ever difficult for you two to write and work together?

LD: It is not for the faint of heart. It’s not always easy, but it’s rewarding to have a creative partnership. We’ve come to trust each other. We value the fact we have a musical chemistry that is bigger than the two of us.

Some couples who know us and have observed us over the years have remarked, If I were together with my spouse as much as the two of you are, we would have killed each other a long time ago.

BWW: What was it like when you first heard Karin sing?

LD: I immediately felt something. Later I came to realize Karin was often singing from the place where her pain lived. Her voice gave me permission to acknowledge my own reservoir of sadness. And her voice also felt strangely reassuring.

BWW: Were you and Karin a couple when you formed the band? If not, when did your relationship change?

LD: No, we weren’t a couple when we began making music together. Eventually we realized our musical chemistry was spilling over into the rest of our lives. We got married about seven years after we started Over the Rhine.

Patti Smith said that as a girl she really wanted to be someone’s muse, but also to work alongside them. I’d like to think that Karin and I have played muse to each other over the years, and also worked alongside each other. I would say that’s a pretty good description of our relationship.

BWW: Is it ever difficult to share some of your experiences with each other on stage or is it cathartic?

LD: Someone asked Rodney Crowell if there was anything too personal for him to put into a song. He thought about it and said, ‘Not if it rhymes.’

Music by its very nature is deeply personal, and songs have a way of reminding us of interior worlds that maybe we lost touch with.

Songs are safe containers for pain, or for things that feel a bit unwieldy. Maybe songs help us all let go of things we don’t necessarily want to carry around forever.

Not all of our songs are strictly autobiographical. Hopefully a listener can find points of entry that are unique to their own experience. A song may mean something completely different to a listener than it does to us.

BWW: You have opened for Bob Dylan, John Prine, and Squeeze and worked with folks like Aimee Mann, Cowboy Junkies, and Lucinda Williams. How have those experiences shaped who you are as performers?

LD: It’s often like going to school to get to work with other songwriters we look up to. One of the rewarding things about recording songs and getting them out into the world is you never quite know where they’ll end up.

Opening a handful of Midwestern dates for Bob Dylan early in our career was a bit surreal. But sure enough, there he was standing ten feet from us side stage in Ames, Iowa, while we played songs from our first record. It’s like wading into a deep river that’s already flowing.

We toured for several years with Cowboy Junkies and got to record with them. It was huge just to observe and be part of somebody else’s process. Lucinda Williams and Aimee Mann came into the studio to sing with Karin in recent years. It was amazing to watch them bring something uniquely their own to a song. The room immediately begins to change.

BWW: You have talked about your father growing up in an Amish family where music was forbidden. How did his experience frame your own career?

LD: My father was undoubtedly a frustrated artist. Because musical instruments were mostly forbidden in the tradition he grew up in, it taught us that music was dangerous. Be careful.

My father was supportive of his kids pursuing art up to a point, but he was a little unsure what to make of the band, and Karin and I traveling around playing our music as a full-time career and living a bohemian lifestyle.

BWW: Describe your first gig.

LD: My Dad brought home an upright piano when I was 7 years old, and the piano quickly became my safe place as a child. A few years later, I got my first paid gig. I was hired to play “special music” in a neighboring church on a Sunday morning. The pastor handed me $5 after the service, and I never looked back.

BWW: One of your characteristics is being an Ohio band in all capital letters. Why are your Buckeye roots so important to you?

LD: Place has indeed always been important to our identity. We got our start in what was considered the bad part of town in Cincinnati, the neighborhood called Over the Rhine. Many of our songs reference Ohio, or that mystical place in our imaginations, the Ohio Ocean.

A friend of ours from Ireland said he’s been listening to our music for a few decades and has always thought of Ohio as a romantic place.

BWW: You have never left here, correct? Was there ever a temptation to head out to Nashville, LA, or New York?

LD: Oh yes, we were invited to move to all three of those cities on different occasions, by record labels or colleagues or collaborators. I’m sure we missed out on some things, and we probably gained some things by staying put where we had roots.

Even to this day, when I drive North out of Nashville, I always feel like a weight is lifting off my shoulders. I wrote a song called, “LA Never Fails to Make Me Blue.” Never quite finished it… couldn’t come up with an ending or the reason.

New York has always loomed like an alluring mistress. Part of me would still like to live in NYC for a few years. But yeah, we decided Ohio was home.

BWW: You had this description of your music as “Christ-haunted.” Describe what you meant there.

LD: Flannery O’Connor described the South as “Christ-haunted” and that immediately resonated with me and our music. It just means we’re haunted by our religious upbringings, biblical imagery, angels and the best ideas of Christ — the call to love an enemy, not returning evil for evil, the possibility of forgiveness as a way of life, working to break cycles of violence etc. Once you get those ideas in your head or your heart, it’s really hard to get them back out.

And it’s shocking sometimes to see how unpopular those ideas are with so many people who refer to themselves as Christian.

I grew up with old hymns and gospel songs that are part of the fabric of American music. There could have been no Johnny Cash or Elvis without their exposure to their mothers’ hymnals.

BWW: Which comes first: the lyrics or the music?

LD: Songs arrive in every imaginable way — a melody that you start humming while driving, an interesting bit of conversation you overhear in a grocery store line, a strange chord on the piano, some little picking pattern on the guitar that arrives out of nowhere. Think of us as drug addicts: we’re hooked. We’ll get a song any way we can.

Karin and I remember spending an evening with Lucinda Williams, and we can’t tell you how many times during the course of conversation she would say, Ooh, that’s good. Write that down.

BWW: What has been the biggest thing you have had to overcome? It could be in your career, life, marriage … whatever.

LD: I think for me, realizing that I wanted to be a person who could recklessly forgive and not carry around a bunch of unnecessary weight or resentment. Howard Thurman, a black minister and writer who Martin Luther King looked up to, said, “Anger turns everything to ash.”

I’m with John (Lennon) and Paul (McCartney). They didn’t write all those love songs because they had love figured out. They were aiming toward something. The songs were pointing the way.