The husband-and-wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, commonly known as Over the Rhine, have reasons to celebrate. They released two albums to widespread acclaim in 2007—The Trumpet Child and the Christmas album Snow Angels—and their latest tour has been the most successful of their career. “We’ve had so many sold-out shows; the excitement has been contagious and palpable,” Detweiler says.
“We’ve had such a great reaction to the new album,” Bergquist adds. “We’ve been able to reach a new audience with this record that we haven’t been able to reach before.”
Though Over the Rhine has never reached mainstream success, they have been critical darlings and enjoy a devoted following. With the success of their latest album, however, that may be about to change. The track “I’m on a Roll,” off The Trumpet Child, could well be the theme song for this stage in the duo’s career and lives. Bergquist in particular seems to have a newfound confidence in her ability as a singer, and it’s the culmination of a journey in music that began when she was a child.
“I think it’s a blessing and a curse for me,” Bergquist says. “But when I was a small child and I was asked that inevitable question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I knew immediately that I never wanted to be anything other than a singer. I’m 40 years into this life, and I’ve not been able to leave it behind.”
That longstanding love affair with music also applies to Detweiler, whose earliest memory involves the sound of a trumpet. “My parents took us kids to a camp meeting revival, which I believe is a part of a vanishing America,” he says. “I remember [a] trumpet and a bright bass bell at the front of this tethered tent. I remember not being OK with sitting out listening to that—I wanted to be where the sound was coming from.”
The son of a minister, Detweiler grew up listening to hymns. “For me, gospel music and old hymns were always addressing the big questions—about God, redemption, sin and forgiveness,” he says. “So music is a way for me to throw out some of the big questions, think out loud about the big stuff.”
As a child, Bergquist began attending church when her agnostic grandfather found that he could not answer her questions about God. “He came down the stairs in a suit on Sunday morning, and my grandmother’s exact words to him were, ‘Where the h— are you going?’ He said, ‘I’m taking Karin to church. She asked what God was, and I don’t know what to tell her.’” As with many, Bergquist walked away from faith, only to find herself drawn back. “Every time I come back to [faith], I see it a little differently,” she says. “I think I see it with clearer eyes. What I’ve tried to leave behind is fear. I want to participate in a faith that doesn’t involve fear in an unhealthy way.”
Bergquist and Detweiler’s journey with each other and their music began 17 years ago in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a run-down neighborhood that gave the band its name. They started out as a four-piece band, with Bergquist and Detweiler sharing songwriting responsibilities and Bergquist’s powerful and haunting voice bringing life to songs about love, heartache, faith, loneliness, home and disappearing relics of the American experience.
“We started out working together as songwriters before we were a couple, so there was good chemistry there musically,” Detweiler says. “There was something undeniable that happened when we made music together.” This was evident in the way Over the Rhine developed a loyal, local fan base almost immediately. “After our first few performances, people would come up to us and say, ‘What happened? I felt something on my skin, and it was weird and it was powerful,’” Detweiler says. Eventually the group was whittled down to the pair, who later married and settled in an old farmhouse outside of Cincinnati, affectionately dubbed “Nowhere Farm,” where they spend their time when they aren’t touring.
However, the road has not always been smooth. In 2003, Over the Rhine released what many consider to be their best work to date, the double-album Ohio. Anchored in songs that echo their own Midwestern heritage, the duo embarked on a tour in support of the album. But after so many years of touring and pouring everything they had into their music, the pair suddenly found that their marriage was deteriorating and on the verge of breaking. “The biggest challenge for us was learning how to simultaneously take care of a marriage and this music that was ours,” Detweiler says. “It got confusing. We would be working hard on the music and things would be going really well, and we originally thought that meant we were obviously taking care of each other because we were working together all the time.”
“We had put everything we had into the band and into our music for so long that there wasn’t anything left for each other,” Bergquist adds. “We’d come to the realization that we didn’t have the tools to go any further as a married couple.”
Faced with the possibility of losing their marriage, the couple did what many would deem unthinkable: They announced they needed time away from the road to piece their marriage back together and promptly canceled the rest of their tour. The stark honesty of their announcement reflects the openness and vulnerability that has endeared them to their fans. With time and with the help of a Christian counselor, Bergquist and Detweiler were able to save their marriage.
During that time of rebuilding and healing, Bergquist and Detweiler continued writing, and the result was Drunkard’s Prayer, the intimate, personal chronicle of the saving of a marriage, and an album that deepened an already strong connection with their fans. “People have given birth to our music,” Bergquist says. “A lot of people have walked down the aisle to our music and played our music at a wake for a loved one.”
Drunkard’s Prayer also opened an opportunity for the duo. They were invited to a dinner at the White House with other artists to dialogue about the intersection of art and music and how it could potentially change the world. “I think what is happening is that people in our government are looking at artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers and songwriters, saying, ‘Wow, look at all this pull and influence they have,’ and so they wisely opened up a dialogue,” Bergquist says. Out of that meeting came the song “If a Song Could Be President,” a deceptively quirky song that imagines great musicians as world leaders. The song, according to the pair, is about the positive things—music, in particular—the United States has given the world. Now, with the upcoming election, the song stands as a hopeful statement in an election that is bound to bring change. “I’m really looking forward to the upcoming election,” Bergquist says. “There’s a lot at stake, and this election really matters.”
After the heaviness of Drunkard’s Prayer, the new album The Trumpet Child is in turns joyful, sassy and more than a little sexy; Bergquist describes it as “maybe a little cabaret feel; something a little burlesque, not so Midwestern.” For this album, they went back to pre-rock American music and found inspiration in the likes of Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, and, with the help of producer Brad Jones, added more diverse instrumentation like strings and horns.
The fact that Detweiler wrote the album’s title track is a victory in the ongoing, friendly contest between the couple that plays out in their music (Bergquist wrote the title tracks for Ohio and Drunkard’s Prayer). On being married to his songwriting partner, Detweiler quips, “It’s not for the faint of heart. When we became romantically interested in each other, I think we were a little concerned that we would lose our objectivity. But I am happy to report that we have not lost our objectivity. Karin has no problem telling me that a song is not my best work and I need to work harder on it.” Bergquist puts it slightly differently: “We play for blood. We fight over lyrics. It’s pretty funny.”
Recently, Paste magazine placed the pair on their list of Top 100 Living Songwriters, along with names such as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Patty Griffin. To Bergquist and Detweiler, this comes as both an affirmation of years of hard work and as a challenge. “The first part was owning it and [letting] it be part of this cocktail that I am,” Bergquist says. “I had to really drink that down and enjoy it for a bit.”
For both Bergquist and Detweiler, this season has been an intentional move toward light and celebration of where they are in their life, marriage and career. It is about acknowledging suffering and hurt while embracing the joy that has been found. “Linford and I tend to write more about melancholy issues with melancholy overtones,” Bergquist says. “I think joy is a lot harder for us to write about.” But this looks like it may be about to change, as the pair continues to reach deeper and learn to claim and celebrate the joys, both relationally and musically, that are theirs for the taking.
Originally published in RELEVANT Magazine issue 33. If you enjoyed this article, consider visiting your local newsstand to pick up the latest issue or subscribe online and save up to 71% off newsstand.