I’ve always considered Susan Werner to be a musical chameleon. Her wide range of musical styles is mind boggling. She cruises effortlessly from sensitive singer-songwriter ballads to classic rock wedded to string quartet accompaniment to gospel-tinged politically charged anthems. You never know what to expect from Susan Werner…and that’s why I think she’s absolutely brilliant. Her latest CD, Hayseed, is thematic and as you may guess from the title, it has something and everything to do with farming. Susan’s first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live on a farm puts her firmly in the tractor seat and her songs are filled with truth, hope, cynicism and humor.
Learn more about Susan Werner on her website.
Here’s Susan singing her song “Egg Money” from Hayseed.
It’s been said that you’re one of the most bold and creative forces on the acoustic music scene today. When you start a new project, do you set out to do something entirely different than anything else you’ve ever done before?
Well, the fact that you’re even asking this question makes me happy – makes me think I have some kind of reputation for this. Let’s call it artistic “promiscuity” or “restlessness” — and that’s a reputation I like very much.
By changing up your musical genres and subject matters, are you challenging yourself to move outside your safety zone?
Safety? Why would anyone get up off their couch to see someone play it safe? This is the circus, here’s the trapeze. Net? What net?
Having grown up in Iowa, we can assume that you have a lot of background knowledge about the subject matter of your latest CD, Hayseed. Did you live on a working farm? Did you have regular chores? Did you enjoy it or were you one of those kids who couldn’t wait to get off the farm?
My folks own 140 acres an hour west of Dubuque, and that’s where I grew up. We had hogs, dairy, corn, soybeans, and chickens, and farming was and is and always will be a beautiful way of life. But I was also “restless” as we discussed a moment ago – so – yeah I couldn’t wait to get to the big city. I hated all the chores except driving the machinery — tractors are like very big slow sports cars — all the power — none of the speed – but the view is pure poetry, amidst all the dirt and grain flying around, it’s just you and miles and miles of prairie.
Has your opinion about farms and farming changed over the years?
My folks were self-sufficient farmers – ate what they grew and sold the surplus – until around 1975, when everything went industrial and chemical. The recent movement to restore sustainable farming and to secure the safety and purity of our food supply is so thrilling to me on so many levels, personal, political, artistic – and HAYSEED is my way of cheering that movement on.
I love the fact that your fans were incentivized to help make your recording with unique gifts like signed ears of corn (how did that work? Were they dried ears? Did you write on the husk or the kernels?) and by donations to farm charities?
I signed index cards and then punched holes in the index cards, then tied the index cards to the ears of corn with twine from the barn. Tried writing on the corn and the husks but those didn’t work out. The big mistake was going back by the creek to pick the largest ears, wanting to impress everybody with what was dad’s best year ever with corn – but shipping a half pound ear of corn costs a LOT at the post office. i shoulda picked smaller ears.
The nonprofit organizations – Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), Practical Farmers of Iowa, and The Land Institute – i could go on and on and on about the quality of what they do and the integrity of their vision and efforts on behalf of agriculture. The short story is – anyone reading this should take comfort that there are many, many good people fully committed to innovative and healthy agriculture across the nation, and especially out here in the nation’s breadbasket, which might be where we need it the most.
Tell us about working with Crit Harmon on this CD. Was this your first time working with him? Why did you think he’d be a good fit for you and for this particular project?
Crit is a songwriter himself, and always puts the storytelling first. And Hayseed is stories and characters from rural America. Crit, having lived on a farm in Missouri himself, i just knew he’d get it. Plus he said right away, “I know the business end of a honey wagon,” honey wagon being farm slang for manure spreader, and there you have it. That’s your guy.
If you had to choose one song from each of your CDs to represent your musical legacy, what would they be?
“I Can’t Be New” from same CD, “Kicking the Beehive” from same CD, “Why is Your Heaven So Small” from The Gospel Truth, “City Kids” from Hayseed – something like that.
When you’re not writing songs, playing music, or touring, what do you like to do?
I swim. I walk. I bike. I go to the gym. That artistic restlessness is probably part of my general inability to sit still – which I’ve come to see as a kind of gift. Trying to make it into a gift, anyway.
Can you tell us anything about your work on the Bull Durham musical? How did that come about for you?
The lead producers heard the songs from I Can’t Be New, songs I wrote to sound like theater songs from the 1920s, and they asked if I’d ever considered writing a musical. I said, “no,” which was the total truth. Then they mentioned the possibility of me writing the music and lyrics for Bull Durham and I about fell out of my chair. What a great story, what great characters, with sports and sex and humor…It’s a thrill, the whole thing. And as a songwriter, I have to say, to see your songs choreographed – thats IT, i never want to write another song again that ISNT choreographed. Mind-blowing.
Are you a big baseball fan?
Yes but unfortunately I’m a Cubs fan, which is just, just tragic. We Cubs fans have become like Czech playwrights: we wax philosophical about our misery, but that doesn’t relieve the misery.
What’s the timeframe for the production of the play? When can we expect to be able to see it and hear the songs?
It goes up at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta this September for five weeks. After that, eyes are on New York.