Linford Detweiler and his wife Karin Berquist have 20 years of music and 12 albums under their belt, along with a fiercely devoted fan base.
Their band, Over the Rhine, has played in all sorts of venues from church services to sharing the stage with Bob Dylan. They now live on a farm outside of Cincinnati and record their music in their living room.
Detweiler is the son of a preacher, and his faith is apparent in much of their music’s imagery, with titles like “New Redemption Song,” “Latter Days,” and “Drunkard’s Prayer.” But Over the Rhine does not hesitate to celebrate the conjugal aspects of marriage in songs like “Let’s Spend the Day in Bed” and “Snowed in With You.” In this interview I conducted during Easter 2009, Detweiler answers thoughtfully, carefully weighing his words, looking for the best means of expression. We covered questions concerning worship and the communicative power of music.
Chuck Burge (CB): Would you call yourself a Christian or a Christ-follower?
Linford Detweiler (LD): Hmm a Christ-follower. I aspire to that. My friend describes himself as a Christ-fumbler. But I do aspire to follow Christ.
CB: Christian music tends to get put into its own distinct box. I wouldn’t call Over the Rhine a Christian band, but rather a band that is comprised of Christians.
LD: We actually had a lot of interest from Christian record labels. … However, I had to be honest at the outset. I didn’t want to be limited to traveling around entertaining youth groups. I wanted to set out into the marketplace. … I feel like my instincts were honored beyond my wildest imagination. Two years later, we were opening shows for Bob Dylan. I was thrilled and honored to be part of that kind of conversation, where my songs could rub shoulders with the songs of my heroes.
CB: What motivates you to write?
LD: It would be tough for me to be a Christ-follower if I didn’t write. Writing helps me figure out what I believe is true. Writing helps me confess my sins. Writing helps me dream about where I want to be. … To me, it has a lot to do with being awake and alive, paying attention, listening. All songs are forms of prayer – many good songs anyway.
CB: What makes a song work?
LD: First, it should have some fresh language. If I’ve heard it a thousand times already, I’m probably not that interested. It has to have a strong focal point. Think of Nick Lowe’s song, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” That song can kind of wash over you, but when you get to that line, everything sort of comes into focus. The same with “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” by U2. … Second, I like to think that the writer is risking something by being vulnerable. This can be tough for church musicians, but I like to feel like someone is going out on a limb and admitting something that’s a little dangerous that may not make them look particularly good, you know?
CB: You mean a confessional element?
LD: Yes, that’s right. I like that. And third, I like a song that has something bigger than the sum of its parts. You can call that the “X-factor.” If you break a song down, the language and melody can be simple, but you feel this little chemical reaction on your skin. That’s the kind of stuff that we shoot for.
CB: Let’s discuss prophetic songwriting. You mentioned Bob Dylan. Some of his songs can be pretty pointed and critical. Is there room for that in the church today?
LD: … The dilemma is when these church structures become big and powerful. The prophet is the agitator who comes in and says, “Now wait a minute. This looks great on the outside, but what is really going on? How do we instead go deeper? How do we tell the truth?” So, is that welcome in some of the larger religious structure? Probably not at times.
CB: How would sum up your definition of worship music?
LD: Worship music is something that accesses the inner ache, that cries out to God to show up and be present. At the same time, it utters this messy, amazing gratitude for the gifts that are recklessly bestowed on all of us.
CB: That’s a big order to get that into a song of four or five minutes.
LD: (Laughs) Well, that’s the beautiful thing about art. You can just show one tiny detail of it, and the rest of it begins to come into focus.
CB: Is there an Over the Rhine song you consider prophetic?
LD: There’s a song on “Ohio” – actually a hidden track. We wrote it when it became clear that we were going to invade Iraq. To us, that was a pregnant moment where the whole world was watching, and it was an opportunity to say maybe we should take a step back. … There’s a song on “Drunkard’s Prayer” that documented Karin and I re-evaluating and saving our marriage. A couple of lines in a song that says: “What you think you’ll solve with violence will only spread like a disease until it comes around again.” Somebody sent us a picture where someone had spray painted that on a retaining wall dividing Israel from the Gaza Strip, right near Bethlehem.
LD: Yeah so if excerpts from the songs are showing up in unlikely places like that, then, God-willing, some of it is prophetic.
CB: Any advice to church music directors and worship leaders on songwriting?
LD: … God’s creation is untamed and wild. It’s full of what I call “reckless grace” – the idea that the sun shines on the righteous as well as everybody else. Try to find ways to get caught up in that wild creativity of God. Make the music a little unpredictable or dangerous at times. Open people’s eyes. Don’t just do what they are expecting. Surround yourself with great songwriters, and swing for the fences.
For more information, visit OvertheRhine.com. Charles Burge is the director of Harmony of Hearts, a program of Cross International that offers free worship music and materials for churches focusing on God’s work among the poorest of the poor. For more information on Harmony of Hearts, call 1-800-391-8545 ext. 174 or visit HarmonyofHearts.org.