Like all the true believers I am truly skeptical of all that I have said. — “The World Can Wait,” Over the Rhine
If you went to Cedarville, the place to see Over the Rhine was Canal Street Tavern, a little listening room just outside Dayton’s Oregon District, a collection of nightclubs along East Fifth Street, the sort of place I’d been taught to avoid. We’d drive thirty miles from the cornfields of Greene County into downtown Dayton. We’d park in a nearby lot and join the line that had formed outside the bar by 6 p.m. though the doors wouldn’t open for two more hours.
Canal Street wasn’t a big place — there wasn’t a bad seat in the house — but you wanted to sit up close because there was love on that stage, not just in the songs, but in a subtle banter often missed by those sitting back by the bar, separated from the stage by a roomful of shadowy heads. Husband-and-wife songwriting team Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist had developed a hospitality that gave them the right to talk about things a little more deeply than most people would allow on a Saturday night. When you listened to Over the Rhine, the closer you sat, the more it felt like you were sitting around with friends rather than watching a performance. It was like they’d never played those songs for anyone else, like the music belonged as much to you as it did to them. The musical mastery never overshadowed OTR’s ability to connect with an audience, making new friends and gathering with old ones in a tavern that became their living room, if only for two or three nights a year. This wasn’tlost on Linford, who once wrote, “We hope anyone who hears these songs will find some fresh language and maybe a soundtrack of sorts for the stories we’re all writing everyday with our lives, whether or not we ever pick up a pen.”
Karin could take Linford’s lyrics, lasso my neck and lift me right out of my seat, hovering on a cloud of relentless passion on “Faithfully Dangerous.” When I should crash to the floor under the weight of her sadness in “Poughkeepsie,” I’d ride to safety on her angel chorus. The intimate chemistry of the couple always came through on the Besides tune “Bothered” as Linford’s rhythmic keyboard threatened to take center stage, only to give way to Karin’s mesquite melody: Your fire burns me like a favorite song, a song I should have known all along / I feel you move like smoke in my eyes, and that is why — don’t be bothered by the fears. This give-and-take was at its playful best in “Jack’s Valentine,” as Linford, the occasional beat poet, spoke his lyrics, which never quite matched the CD jacket, while Karin skat-sang in between, showing just what a vocal gymnast she could be.
OTR had a way of phrasing things, forcing me to reconsider what I took for granted. At first I heard “I’m Happy with Myself,” the first track on their early album Eve, as an arrogant anthem of American individualism, like Karin was asserting her independence from social constraints, prizing her own self-esteem above peace with others. I judged a book by its cover, as though the title signified a self-absorbed sort of subversion, one that flew in the face of the OTR I knew. Eventually, though, I heard the song differently: It invited me to freedom from people-pleasing. Karin reminded me to be humble enough to be whoever I turned out to be. I’m happy with myself / And I don’t have what it takes to please you.
In college, we were still learning how to be ourselves: Christians, unafraid of the world, thinking we might have some good news to offer it and yet still curious about what it might teach us, as though Christ our Incarnate Redeemer and Christ the Creator of this world of beauty and violence were one and the same. Linford and Karin were role models. It was funny to hear people compare Over the Rhine to 10,000 Maniacs, in the way that evangelicals would often link a Christian band to a successful secular band, to show how relevant they were. For all we knew, 10,000 Maniacs might as well have been a literal legion of headbangers, smashing guitars, starting riots and orgies, and getting kids hooked on crack. (Someone should really calm that Natalie Merchant down).
That’s how we had learned to imagine bar bands. OTR threw off our categories, by playing in tiny bars instead of churches. They weren’t really CCM, but they weren’t roaring lambs either. They weren’t feeding us simple biblical truth, but they weren’t making the Gospel palatable for mass media either. They expressed thoughts about God in fear and trembling, inviting believers and nonbelievers into a conversation — one that struck fear into those who thought they already had all the answers. For a band to play at a place like Canal Street, in the fundamentalist imagination, they must be up to no good. But when I listened to OTR’s song “All I Need Is Everything,” I heard an artful message about grace that wouldn’t have been out of place in our daily college chapel services.
Slow down. Hold still. It’s not as if it’s a matter of will.
Someone’s circling. Someone’s moving
a little lower than the angels.
This voice calling me to you: It’s just barely coming through.
Still, I clearly hear my name. I’ve been fingering the flame
like tomorrow’s martyr. It gets harder to believe.
All I need is everything. Inside, outside, feel new skin.
All I need is everything. Feel the slip and the grip of grace again.
In a very real sense, we went to Canal Street Tavern to worship, and the repurposed pew seating only magnified the metaphor. We could transcend our terrestrial toil through the gift of music, a music whose beauty pointed the way to something beyond ourselves and beyond even the musicians who created it.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. He’s posting a series of music videos that go along with excerpts from his spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. This pairing is part of a sub-series drawn from his chapter, “I Will Sing for the Meek,” which explores what he learned from Christian musicians Caedmon’s Call, Rich Mullins and Over the Rhine about how to live out faith in a public vocation. These excerpts will appear each Monday in August.