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Spring 2006 | Volume 29, Number 2 | Books & Film

Soundtrack to Saving a Marriage

Over the Rhine captures the essence of enduring love with music

On the album cover of Drunkard’s Prayer, there’s a photograph of a powerful white horse. It’s a meaningful image for the husband-wife, singer-songwriter team of Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, otherwise known as Over the Rhine. The horse represents redemption, and not just as an abstract idea. The songs on Prayer tell a tale of a marriage — theirs — which nearly ended. Instead, by the grace of God, it continues.

Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist decided to record “a simple record that was deeply connected to this time in our lives.”

While these two talented Ohioans have composed 13 albums, with songs full of references to their relationship and their Christian faith, this is their most intimate, personal work yet. And, as fans have come to expect, they perform these confessions with soulful beauty. Bergquist sings the blues in a voice admired by artists such as Sarah McLachlan, suspended on sound waves surging from Detweiler’s piano and guitar.

This summer, Over the Rhine will visit the Glen Workshop — Image journal’s annual arts conference — in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the campus of St. John’s College. Detweiler describes the workshop as “a stunning setting, a special group of people, and a very nurturing environment.” There, they’ll perform for an assembly of artists that includes students in Seattle Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Over the Rhine’s music, a particularly poetic fusion of rock, country, folk, and gospel, fits perfectly with the workshop’s focus on the shared territory of faith and creative expression.

After all, faith and creativity helped save their marriage from disaster.

Detweiler, whose father was a minister, grew up with the conviction that what happens at home stays at home. But the idea of “home” got lost in the busyness of Over the Rhine, and their increasing relationship conflicts proved difficult to ignore and conceal.

“Trying to maintain a perfect facade creates a barrier that makes real connection with others very difficult,” he says. “People can’t relate to invincibility. They can only relate to something real and authentic, which will always involve a certain amount of struggle, confusion, doubt, failure, and, of course, tiny victories worthy of celebration.” Sure enough, faithful fans were caught off guard when Over the Rhine canceled their 2003 tour to promote Ohio, their acclaimed double-album, and posted a brief but revealing statement on their Web site.

“Announcing to our fans that we were canceling a tour because we were struggling with our relationship was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Detweiler, “not to mention picking up the phone and calling my family, my parents, etc.”

What went wrong? Bergquist told The Cincinnati Post, “We are fortunate we work together, but that is part of the problem. … [W]e thought we were feeding the relationship, but we were not.” She and Detweiler had drifted apart, their communication so strained that they moved into different places. As fans sent messages expressing concern, few guessed that divorce papers were on the table.

Giving up might have been the easier choice. But when Bergquist pressed the issue, they chose the tougher, more rewarding road: counseling. Over the following weeks, a counselor helped them identify key ingredients they were missing. “It was tempting,” says Bergquist, “to think that married artists could play by different rules than other married couples.” But they learned the importance of ritual, developing a discipline of intimate evening conversations. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” says Detweiler. “If your relationship lacks certain things, it will suffer. If anybody wants to have a garden, they’ve got to do certain things to get a garden to grow.”

This marital “gardening” bore fruit not just in their friendship, but also in songs such as “I Want You to Be My Love,” which plays out like a renewal of marriage vows. In “Born,” Bergquist sings about those late-night talks, and declares, “I was born to laugh / I’m gonna learn to laugh through my tears / I was born to love / I’m gonna learn to love without fear.”

Detweiler resonates with the words of a friend who said, “Songs are prayers we’re given for when our wounds are too deep to speak.” It’s not hard to see why — almost all of Over the Rhine’s music is based on internal conflicts. Their very first song began, “Eyes wide open / To the great train robbery of my soul.” (Detweiler scrawled those lines on the wrapper of a McDonald’s cheeseburger.)

Some of these lyrics express more anger and anxiety than encouragement. “Walking out in the freezing rain / I feel nothing ’cause I numbed the pain.” “Sleep with one ear close to the ground and wake up screaming.” Detweiler gives this analogy: “Think of it as Karin pummeling someone … but she’s wearing jasminescented gloves.”

After recording Drunkard’s Prayer in the living room of their Norwood, Ohio, home, Detweiler and Bergquist decided to start over in a new home. Dirt under their fingernails, they planted tomatoes, peppers, squash, and green beans. An herb garden and a grape arbor are on the agenda. The image on the cover of Ohio — two trees growing strong, side by side, looking out over Cincinnati — seems almost prophetic in retrospect.

And there might be even more significance to the cover of Drunkard’s Prayer. The title, Detweiler explains, sounds like the name of a race horse, one so promising that “you just might bet your future on it.” “We hope that some of the music is actually useful to others,” he adds.

“We’re going on record with the reality that any rewarding, enduring, monogamous relationship requires effort, energy, creativity, humor, and a dash of luck and prayer. That’s normal. That’s reality.”

— BY Jeffrey Overstreet
photo courtesy of over the rhine

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