On 2015’s Skeleton Crew, the unvarnished nature of mother and son earnestly performing anthemic Americana carried Madisen Ward and “Mama Bear” Ruth forward in a whirlwind of press. It was sort-of an unusual case, and that made it captivating to watch unfurl. After all, it isn’t often that a parent-and-child duo makes it past the “cute” cycle in viral news. Above all else, this could be credited to the fact that this was not a gimmick or a ploy of any sort—Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear were as genuine and passionate in striding forward as a musical act together as they are now.
More or less, this keeps the adorable factor on the backburner. It might still be there, because who doesn’t love a story of a mother and son bonding, let alone over music? Albeit, like with any other artists who take themselves seriously, the music is what matters most. They made good music then, if not imperfect. On Skeleton Crew, Madisen and Ruth had not yet mastered their harmonies, and the son’s vibrato often felt as unwieldy as it did spirited and empowering.
Fast forward a few years and they’ve honed their craft. Madisen’s vocals are much more pristine, offering a level of focus previously unheard in their past work, and the Mama Bear’s own voice emerges to harmonize with her son far more often. Production is much more polished, too. A part of this writer will always miss the more unpolished approach of earlier releases for many bands—from the Wards to the Avetts and beyond—but there’s something about a rich, full-bodied mastering that offers itself well to the roots movement, too. Make no mistake—The Radio Winners is a slam dunk for Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, marking clear signs of progression in proficiency for the duo that make them more captivating than they ever have been in the past.
It is so nice to hear Ruth’s vocals more prominently on this album. Her voice meshes, perhaps intrinsically, very well with unmistakable lead delivery of her son, offering up a gentle, assuring tone to each track she graces. Madisen’s vocals, meanwhile, are as expressive as ever, but he’s honed-in on just how to deliver them in a way that makes them that much more striking.
Each of the six tracks that make up The Radio Winners makes a case for the EP to live up to its name. Not only do the Wards deserve radio play across all roots station—they deserve to be a national acclaim in the folk-rock world the last of which we had seen with the Lumineers at the start of the decade. The only shame is that this is an EP, meaning, of course, that we get fewer songs to get lost in than on a full-album.
However, I’ll be resting well tonight knowing that The Radio Winners is the start of something much bigger for Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. It won’t be long before we get something else from them. In the meantime? The six new songs we are getting with this release are well worth the listen—a cohesive collection of inspiriting Americana music that should well be palatable to about any ear.