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How Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear Became Kansas City’s New Breakout Act

Danny Clinch
Sacks And Co.
Until recently, the up-and-coming singer-songwriter duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear were playing coffeehouses in Independence and Overland Park. Now, they have been on David Letterman and are planning to tour Europe.

This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was originally reported in April 2015.

One of the most intriguing musical acts in Kansas City these days is a duo whom most musicians and fans here had never heard of until about a year ago.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear — who is actually Madisen’s mom, Ruth Ward — started performing together off and on about six years ago in coffeehouses in Independence, Blue Springs and Overland Park. They played a lot of covers—Tracey Chapman, Adele, Fleetwood Mac — until Madisen started experimenting with songwriting and found he was getting a great reaction to his original songs.

“We weren’t trying to be overly different or overly unique,” Madisen says about the whole mother-son thing. “We both played with other musicians off and on, and every time we kind of came back to playing with each other was when it started to sound most electric.”

So, they thought, why don’t we just stick together?

Mama Bear's roots

Ruth Ward grew up in South Bend, Indiana, listening to a lot of R&B: Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke. But it was a revelation to her when she discovered some of the singer-songwriters of that time: Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

“I felt like I was on a journey and loved it,” Ruth says. “That was what motivated me to play guitar.”

It took her on a literal journey as well. As a young woman, Ruth Ward traveled the country. She says she was a hippy — not the drug-experience kind of hippy or the daisy-in-a-gun-barrel kind, but the sit-in-a-tree-and-strum-the-guitar kind.

After years of that life, she married a man from Oklahoma and eventually settled down in Independence to raise three children. Ruth says she didn’t push them to get into music; she just wanted them to be themselves.

And that’s just what Madisen Ward did.

Madisen's roots

He always enjoyed listening to music, from his mom’s hippy stuff to hip hop as a kid, and then Tom Waits and Elliot Smith, who inspired him to get into songwriting.

Madisen didn’t really start playing guitar until he had graduated from high school and decided that college wasn’t his thing. He wanted to be a performer, like his uncle Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. (who played State Senator Clay Davis on The Wire, known for his epic pronunciation of the s-bomb).

Hitting the national stage

They officially became Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear in October of 2012 and started performing in Kansas City. Pretty soon, they had a manager and were performing at festivals and music industry events, catching the attention of critics at media outlets such as Rolling Stoneand NPR.  In February, the performed on the Late Show with David Letterman.

WithMadisen’s slightly grainy vocals and inventive storytelling, the duo’s sound is both raw and fully realized, with elements of R&B, country, folk and the Great American Songbook. Ruth adds riffs and harmonies to give the melodies complexity.

The indie label Glassnote Records signed them last year and they recorded their first full-length album Skeleton Crew, which is due out in May.

“Once it went national, a lot of people in [Kansas City] were kind of turning their heads – do you know that dude? Do you know that lady?” Madisen says.

Kansas Citians can hear Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear plenty in the next couple of weeks at Mills Record Company this weekend and Thursday, April 23 at the Middle of the Map Fest

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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