The course, dry dirt is sensed below the sweet, blooming fields of this Ohio-grown duo. Karin and Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine, making music from bittersweet notes in life for more than 20 years, now, talk with PopMatters 20 Questions about what must go into the ground to make things grow. Their latest, The Long Surrender, released this month.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Karin: The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard by Erin McGraw. And David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames made both Linford and I laugh until we cried.
Linford: I’ll recommend two memoirs that went deep into our hearts last year:
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. This one got a lot of notice the last few years, but what can I say, it’s an incredible read, at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking. All of us who were raised in families that moved a lot, who shopped at Salvation Army stores, picked up pop bottles in the ditch to redeem at the grocery store and scraped a living out of the dirt in whatever new town we found ourselves in at the time can relate to Jeanette’s struggle to survive, forgive and ultimately flourish as she tries to find her true place in the world. This book kept both my wife and me up at night laughing and at times crying in disbelief. More than once it was the laugh of recognition.
All Over But the Shouting by Rick Bragg. Another beautiful tale of a scrappy Southern kid raised dirt poor who against all odds went on to win the Pulitzer for his journalism. And this one revolves around a son’s abiding love for his mother. Rick came under scrutiny later in his career for some practices that were considered by some to be less than ethical as a reporter and resigned from the New York Times, which I suppose raises the question of whether liberties were taken with his memoir. But honestly, if he made parts of this book up, I’m a little jealous. Anyone who can cook up the entertaining and moving chapters in this book is a damn fine writer any way you slice it. (In so doing, he would have invoked the spirit of Mark Twain for one.) But no, it rings true to me.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Karin: Well I’m certainly no Lisbeth Salander, bit I did read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Triology on the road, and I found myself identifying with many of her more curious qualities. It’s easy to appreciate her for her drive, her madness, and especially her brokenness. She’s a compelling character.
Linford: What an interesting question. I’ve spent so much time as a songwriter exploring what it means to be the protagonist and antagonist in my own story, that I don’t know if I’ve strongly identified with a fictional character recently. I tend to look more to real life for my heroes. These would include American artists and writers (both living and not) who resonate strongly with me, and who are immediately associated with a particular place: Robert Frost, Flannery O’Connor, the Wyeth family, Wendell Berry etc. I think I’ve had a dream of putting down roots on a small piece of earth, and using it as the home in which I work and love and try to give the world something beautiful in return for the gift of being alive in it.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Karin: Rumors – Fleetwood Mac
Linford: Well, tonight, I’m going to say Eddy Arnold’s Cattle Call, produced by Chet Atkins. One of the first albums I remember my father bringing home, a perfect record showcasing a young singer with an angelic tenor singing mostly old country and folk songs. I stared at this record cover for hours as a four- and five-year-old as it spun on the record player. It looks like it’s been reissued.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Linford: For me, definitely Star Wars. Especially the first two movies… America needed a good fairy tale in the ’70s, something heroic. I got to see it in the theater with my father and sister in Hamilton, Montana, in the Bitterroot Valley. And the special effects still amaze me even now.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Karin: I know the answer is not supposed to be edible but I can’t resist: salmon and spinach. I hear President Obama likes salmon and it seems to be working for him. He’s working so hard to try to have an intelligent conversation with the country. We have a leader who draws heavily from words like forgiveness, repair, recovery, sustainability, resilience, opportunity, humility, listening (more carefully) and even speaks of using a tragic occasion to “expand our moral imaginations.” Instead of talking about how great we are, he says, “I believe we can be better.”
Linford: I have a folder on my desktop called poems to save a life. I keep a handful of my favorite poems there: “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski, “Thanks” by W.S. Merwin (the current US Poet Laureate), a few by Mary Oliver, “Mysteries, Yes” and “The Journey” etc… I don’t know if it’s brain food, but it’s heart and soul food for me, and if I try to take care of my heart and soul, my brain willingly gets on board.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Karin: The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to help my mother recover from a hemorrhagic stroke. It was a crash course in all things medical, medicinal, legal, health care. And my mother was a nurse for almost 50 years, so I was no stranger to the terminology, to that world.
But this was unbelievable. So tragic and so stressful. I was the first of most of my friends to have to go through this. And because her stroke was so severe, her recovery, transition and residency had to take place in a full-time skilled nursing care facility – aka a nursing home. It took considerable time and effort to find her new ‘home” – with steady, professional and dependable staff (and state records to prove it)– but we did it. And with my partner Linford’s help, we made it through – as best as we all could really.
The Director of Nursing at the facility tells me that I’m a good daughter. I think that makes me more relieved than proud.
The song “Only God Can Save Us Now” on our new record The Long Surrender was written about my experiences over the last nine years with my mom and the other residents there at the nursing home. Each of these folks is a walking novel, and the temptation is to allow them to be reduced to little more than an illness or old age. We liken the world of the nursing home to a head-on collision between comedy and tragedy. The tragedy is obvious. The comedy is the grace we are given to handle the tragedy we would not otherwise be able to take.
Linford: I’m proud of the fact that my wife and I figured out how to get out of the city and make a new start on a piece of land in Southern Ohio, a farm on the fringe amid rolling tree-lined fields, an old pre-Civil War farmhouse, a back porch with an old wooden porch swing and a view. It’s something we both dreamed of, and I don’t know how long we’ll stay here (six years, so far) but it was good to realize this dream together.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Karin: I hope that when I’m long gone, I will be remembered for good writing and a good sense of humor. For singing my heart out every night. For fairness and tenacity. For being a good wife and partner, a good friend and a good dog mama.
Linford: I’d like to be remembered as a gentle man who was quick to laugh, who appreciated a good story, a tough-minded thinker who loved ideas but pursued beauty, a good husband, friend, son, a songwriter, a poet, gentleman farmer who often walked at night.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Karin: Lucinda Williams – she never stops writing. And it’s always great.
Linford: Those who found a way to do what they love.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Linford: The song, “Hallelujah”, by Leonard Cohen. I love the blend of sensuality and spirituality, his virtuoso facility with (utterly fresh) language, the danger and beauty that pervades every pore of the pulsing song.
10. Your hidden talents…?
Linford: I can clear a pretty nice path through the woods. If we walk together and you ask, I can call out all the names of the trees: the red maple, the hawthorn, the tupelo, the pin oak, the sweet gum, the persimmon, the box elder, the wild black cherry, the staghorn sumac, the ash, the white pine, the norway spruce, the American elm the Canadian hemlock, the beech, the honey locust, the shagbark hickory, the sugar maple, the silver maple etc.
My wife is skipping this one but let me tell you she makes a mean dirty martini, the world’s best bloody marys, and she makes an amazing kettle of chili with secret ingredients I cannot divulge.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Linford: My father told me when I was learning to play the piano – Don’t look down. I learned to trust my hands.
When Karin and I bought our small farm in Ohio, he encouraged us to leave the edges wild so that the songbirds could have thorny hidden places for their wild music. I was called upon to write my father’s obituary a few years back when he passed away. I miss him. But we followed his advice. I mostly play the piano now with my eyes closed. And a lone mockingbird often lingers along the wild edges of our land.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
Linford: Karin and I bought a 7’ Steinway grand piano. A couple of semi-starving songwriters… It was our way of saying, We ain’t goin’ back. We’re lifers. I’d like to think it’s paid for itself.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Karin: whatever goes with my Frye Boots.
Linford: Damn, they both have their place. It’s hard to beat a good pair of jeans, but an Armani suit at breakfast with a mimosa and some smoked salmon and goat cheese in an omelet? Sign me up.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Karin: My best girlfriends – Tracy, Kim, Marilyn, and Lisa… How many can I invite?
Linford: Probably my wife. Karin and I have a rule on the road where we have to eat at least one meal a day in a restaurant that serves wine. Keeps it civilized. We’re usually working together or playing together, so it would probably be her. We’re together a lot. Some of our friends wonder how we pull it off. Sometimes we wonder how we pull it off.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Karin: I’d go back to Arizona and catch some time in the early-’70s with my grandfather. I lost him way too soon to lung cancer and he was my first musical influence and my very best friend.
Linford: I’d probably go back a few years and have a sit down with my father who passed away the day after we played The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for the first time. The loss was totally unexpected, and in those cases one always feels like that last chapter is missing a few final pages. But we’ve had some good conversations after his passing – me speaking into the close and holy darkness.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Karin: Spa vacation in the Caribbean please… with the cute, tanned cabana boy in white shorts bringing me something with rum and a tiny umbrella. I’m no fool.
Linford: Spa vacation baby. With my baby… yeah. Violence will only spread like a disease until it all comes ‘round again. Prozac? I don’t trust any prescription medication they advertise on TV, and will avoid them all like the plague. My oldest brother and I still laugh at one commercial, I forget the drug now, but one of the side effects included, in rare cases, SUDDEN DEATH. And when they warn about an erection lasting for four hours, they’re just trying to move product. I don’t believe any of it.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Karin: Yep. I can do without the cigarettes though. (Oh, maybe the occasional Sherman.) Add to that a good canine companion or two and a quiet summer morning on the back porch with my Love and my hummingbirds. Perfect.
Linford: Yes! (That’s quite a list.) I had to quit smoking cigars after ten years though, because my voice kept getting lower, and I had a scratchiness in my throat that wouldn’t go away. I miss my Hemingway short stories. Only select one on very special occasions now…
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Karin: This season for me has been all about the country – quiet, rolling vistas, birds, bees, dogs. Late night fires – roaring fires! And the stars… Linford uncorks something deep and red, and we sit and talk until the bottle is empty.
Linford: We got out of the city six years ago and bought a little fixer-upper farm on the fringe in Southern Ohio. Pre-Civil War farmhouse built in the 1830s… It’s our refuge from the road. After we work city-to-city, we disappear for awhile here to hang out with the dogs. Write. Rejuvenate. We’ve decided to keep it close to home here in Ohio where we have roots and good friends. And each other.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Karin: Thank you, thank you, thank you, don’t lose heart and keep the faith.
Linford: WILL ROCK FOR BARACK.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Karin: Always, always some song, but this current one requires me to figure out how to play a four-string tenor guitar built in the 1930s.
Linford: We’re getting our new record, The Long Surrender, produced by the great Joe Henry out the door. We’re running our own record label, Great Speckled Dog, named after our Great Dane Elroy. Trying to grow as writers. Trying to love well the people that we care about. Keeping the dogs exercised and fed. Drinking red wine in the deep midwinter. Does anyone else crave a big red on these dark winter evenings when there’s snow on the ground?