RR LogoSinger and Songwriter Susan Werner Says Watch Out For Those Herbicides!!

Susan Werner Photo OneWhen singer-songwriter-musician Susan Werner puts on her advocacy hat for farmers, talks about reeducating farmers and about more organic ways of doing things she does so with a great deal of credibility. Susan Werner grew up on a farm in Iowa and her family has been farmers for several generations. When she sings “herbicides done made me gay,” she takes a playful poke at the ultra-conservative element in farming who are homophobic. Werner who is gay felt this was an effective way to get those farmers to reconsider their position on continuing the use herbicides. All of which leads us to Susan Werner’s new Folk album Hayseed on which the song “Herbicides,” appears.

Speaking of the new album, she says, “This project is part appreciation of a way of life that raised me, which is farming. That’s my family, my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my great-great grandparents and all of the way back. Our generation is the one that is not continuing the tradition in my immediate family. I feel such appreciation for the way our parents raised us. They love their relationship with the land and they both have green thumbs and sense of place. When they announced three years ago that they were moving to town it was such an emotional event that all of these songs began springing forth.  That is part of the genesis of Hayseed. It also became apparent to me that there was a larger discussion going on in the country about agriculture, about how we are doing things and about the value that we attach to the land. I began to expect that maybe this was more than a memoir and that has turned out to be so true and so thrilling. When you see ads like the Super Bowl ad for the Dodge Ram Truck narrated by Paul Harvey and everybody has an opinion about this ad. People think it is pandering. People think it is patriotic, deeply moving and cynical. It is incredible the feelings that have gathered around farming. This record is now part of that conversation about what farming has been and what it can be going forward.

(About the ad) You will hear Paul Harvey saying God made a farmer. His voice was the voice of rural integrity. What does this mean, farm values, and the family farm? What do these things mean? I wanted to stir the pot and see what came up. I also wanted to celebrate what is true about it. I was really fortunate to be raised that way and I want to encourage new farmers starting out.

It is a way of life, just like the arts are for those of us who participate in this world and who express ourselves through the art. It has that same sense of mission, a calling about it and identity. I am doing a lot of farmers markets on this tour and I just sent a CD out to this guy named Dan from Lincoln, Nebraska. He said I love what you do. I’m Dan and I am a farmer. They use that word in a sentence about themselves, I’m a farmer. It is inspiring and moving and something to be preserved and even in this day and age, to be defended.

All of us know now that we are wise to ask where our food is coming from. You are wise to ask and you are wise to know the man or woman who grows your food and who brings your food to you. That is why I love farmers markets, because in the world of business people talk about, I stand behind my product. Farmers at farmers markets literally stand behind their products. There’s Ed, there’s Jessica, she’s working on the farm and she’s standing right there behind the food. Yesterday she picked those radishes. Yesterday she picked those peas and beans. I love that aspect of the farmers markets and the contact with the growers themselves, who are my people and who dig their hands in the dirt.”

As for the song “Herbicides,” she says, “One of the goals of this song is to make an argument with the most conservative, traditional farmers who will stick with the old MO when it comes to what they will do with their farm. If you can frighten some conservative farmer who is happy with his corn on corn, on corn year after year and applying plenty of farm chemicals, if this would even cross his mind, I’d be thrilled, that the worst thing that could happen would be…this guy might not be so concerned about what happens in the Gulf of Mexico, but God forbid that his kid turned out to be gay. I think in that way there is a little political grenade loaded into the song. Maybe it is like the bacon wrapped fig. There is the fig in the middle, you just wrap something inside it or like when you feed dogs vitamins you put it in a little piece of bacon. There is a message wrapped in the ha ha ha…Oh! (she laughs)

I played in Nebraska recently and there was an older woman and man sitting right in front of me and I said, what did you think of that? They said we’re not engaging. That’s their way of saying, we don’t like this. We don’t agree with this. You would be surprised at how far a song like that can go into the more conservative corners of the nation. I hope this song finds its way into all sort of nooks and crannies and (with those) much more traditional and unwilling to change or less receptive to change.”

If you are a singer-songwriter and you are going to speak out concerning environmental concerns and in support of farmers who better to turn to then iconic Folk singer-songwriter and activist Pete Seeger.

“I had the good fortune to talk to Pete Seger at the Clearwater Folk Festival a few weeks ago and Pete is now ninety-four or so. I said to him, Pete it is nice to see you. If I wanted to do something like the advocacy work that you did here with Clearwater, if I wanted to do that in the world of agriculture. Clearwater is an effort to restore the Hudson River and the Hudson Valley (New York State) for recreational use after so many pollutants were dumped into it. I said to Pete, if I wanted to do something in the world of Agriculture like you did with Clearwater, how do I do that? He said, start small, find a farm organization that agrees with what you are up to and this is what he said lastly, show them that farms are better than speeches,” she recalls.

“To go back to the idea of what this album is about, there is music and then there’s the mission behind it and the mission is to argue for sustainable agriculture. It is about preserving the top soil and preserving that resource, which my home state of Iowa has in abundance. It is some of the world’s best soil and we have lost so much of it down the Mississippi River and down the Missouri. You don’t get it back and this is something to be hung onto.  Hang onto it and replenish it. It is so potent. When I play around the country people say to me you grew up on a farm in Iowa. When I grew up in Iowa we would just put seeds in the ground and they just came up. I hear that from people. Other people have to throw crap in the soil and they throw stuff in their pots, but in Iowa you don’t have to do any such thing, you just put it in the ground and it comes up. It grows and there it is. It’s miraculous. There are only three spots in the world that have this quality of top soil, one is Argentina, one is the Ukraine and one is the American Midwest. What we have is precious and rare and worth preserving,” she says.  

Humor has always been a common thread in Susan Werner’s life and once again it is in the forefront with the music of Hayseed.

“My family is a funny family and a good joke is much appreciated (she laughs). The highest achievement of any human being is to be truly funny. I have one brother who is a standup comic and I have another brother who is a performing drag queen. It is part of our family’s identity to be funny. I wanted to capture some of that in these songs. I wanted to celebrate that and to preserve it like my mom’s raspberry jam. Here is the other aspect of it, if you can make somebody laugh you got ‘em. Politically you got ‘em and then they are ready for the ballad that follows. You are funny and then there is heartbreak and then there is funny and then there is heartbreak. To me (when you have) all of one or all of the other that’s not a very interesting show. A show that I want to see and has music that I want to hear has both. It is like when you talk to your best friend, your best friend is funny. I always want my performances to have that same character,” Susan Werner notes.  Susan Werner Photo Two

Susan Werner’s skills as a storyteller and her sense of humor both come into play with her song “The Egg Money,” from the new album.

“Of course my mother and my grandmothers did have egg money and we had chickens on the farm. That was understood as the farm wife’s income to spend as she chose. She could buy herself a dress or she could do something nice for herself or for the house. That’s what egg money traditionally was. I read in a book about saving egg money and I thought Oh My God, it is more than just I know. It is more than something just my family knows. The farm wife gets this money for herself. I didn’t know if I had a song or not until the character decided to kill her husband. Then I knew I had a song (we share a lot of laughter about the song). It is really a theater song. I like songs that develop with some revelation or realization in the middle of the song. I don’t find Pop songs very compelling I have to say. I like songs where there is a character, a story and something develops. The songs of Randy Newman or Richard Thompson, these songs interest me and they inspire me. I admire the hell out of those songs. They have a character and a trajectory and you can’t stop listening. How’s it going to turn out? Those are my favorites,” she says.

Susan Werner’s first memory of singing in front of someone else occurred when her parents were playing cards with some friends and her father said, ‘Susie sing that beer commercial,’ and she sang, ‘Here’s to the man who drinks beer cold. He likes the taste of…’  She wrote her first song at the tender age of seven and it was about a frog coming down the road, telling this writer “I was already environmentally minded (she laughs).”

Going to school in Iowa with city kids, gave birth years later to her humorous song “Snooty Kids.”

When asked about whether the city kids were really snooty she laughs and says, “It could be the perception of those of us who grew up on farms. There was this divide between the people who lived in town and (on a farm). The kids who lived in town would wear the same set of clothes to school and then the rest of the day, the afternoon and evening. We came home to the farm and we had to change. There were school clothes and then there were clothes that you wore at home. They had dogs that were actually recognizable breeds in town. We never had anything but mutts. They had schnauzers and stuff, actual schnauzers. They had giant schnauzers. Clothes should be preserved for a special occasion. You come home and you might get dirty. We (would come home) and we might have to do some chores. You didn’t want to wear your school clothes, because you would ruin them.”

When it came time to record Hayseed, Susan Werner turned to producer Crit Harmon who also engineered the music.  “Crit is great. First he grew up on a farm in Missouri, so I didn’t have to explain anything to him. He immediately got all of the jokes. I told him that I only wanted him to hire guys who could do physical labor. Those are the only guys I want to play on this record. Find me guys who can tote a bale of hay (she laughs). We hired all of these big, hulking guys to play on the record, which was great, because I wanted the physicality on the record. He knew all of these guys in Boston. That’s what I wanted. I wanted that feeling of sweat. I wanted sweat in the studio, hairy knuckles and grunting. If you listen you can hear Steve Sadler the dobro player actually grunting. Sweat and grunting.”

Susan Werner collaborated with Pledge Music to raise the money necessary to produce Hayseed. As an incentive for people to contribute financially to this project she sent them autographed ears of corn from the farm she grew up on. The first ten percent of the money raised for her new album went to three farming charities.

“The mission is really the key to this whole project. If I wanted to make a million dollars or if I wanted my music to be profitable, I probably would have gone about it in a different way. This is about the mission, as much as it is about the music. I researched different farming charities online and there are big ones like farm aid or larger and more visible and more well-known ones, but I wanted to take the time to match the mission of these songs and my feeling about what I wanted these songs to do. I wanted to match the intention behind the record with the charities that would have the most benefit. I wanted to match charities whose mission matched my own. I took the time and I looked through about twenty different charities pretty carefully and these were the three that were doing work that I wish that I could do myself, knowing what I know, where I was raised and where my family still lives, that corner of the world, eastern Iowa, Delaware County, Prairie Township. (I asked) whose policies can most benefit this particular quarter section of the world?  The first one I came up with was Practical Farmers of Iowa, which is a wonderful charity, a fantastic non-profit and they teach so much. They offer farminars, which are online seminars to farmers that have farmers speaking about their own experience on the land. What have they grown? What works for them? Access to the land is number one and know how is number two. Most beginning farmers simply don’t know. They don’t what works and what doesn’t work. Trial and error takes time and patience and loss of money, so know how is really the key. Practical Farmers of Iowa does so much of an educational component. This is the thing that makes the most impact, education. What’s going to work in your soil? What’s going to work on your land? How are you going to turn a profit doing what it is that you do and especially for small operations? With big operations that is well taken care of and there are lots of people who know how to do that and they are already doing that. For the beginning farmer, the small owner operator, these are the people who need the help. Practical Farmers of Iowa is the first one.

The second one is Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, known as MOSES and they host the biggest organic conference in the United States. Many more operators, including the Amish are becoming more organic farmers, because this is a very profitable way to farm on a small parcel of land. Organic returns more financially on a smaller parcel of land.

The third charity is The Land Institute in Salina Kansas and I am playing their prairie festival this year. I am very excited about this. The Land Institute is developing alternative perennial crops that can be used for feed and for energy, but that is less extractive of the soil and it is more preserving of the soil. It keeps the soil from running away. You replenish the soil and you put nutrients back into the soil. Also there are crops you may not have heard of, like Illinois Bundle Flower and different kinds of sorghum and rice. To me, these three charities were making an impact that I wanted to be a part of with this record. I think all three of these charities have received grants from Farm Aid.

Susan Werner Photo ThreeYou asked about the ears of corn, so we offered different incentives to those who supported the Pledge Music campaign. One was signed ears of corn. I said to Dad where are the biggest ears and he said go back by the creek. I took really big ones. It was roundup ready corn. You shouldn’t eat this corn. Not in a million years should you eat this corn. I picked these really huge ears of corn and if I was smart I would have picked smaller ones, because postage for a one-half pound ear of corn is way more than postage for a quarter pound ear of corn. I wanted to be aggressive about it all. I wound up signing recipe file cards and tying them to the ears of corn with jute twine. I sent these out to I don’t know how many people fifty people or so. That was a fun day to go to the post office. Here I had my big wagon full of ears of corn. People were so happy and they sent me pictures with them on their desks or in their cars. I have to tell you while picking those ears of corn and standing back there by the creek I kind of had this very emotional moment. This is the center of the universe to me and I feel like there is something that I am called to do about this. This is the land that raised me and there is something that I am meant to do. I am even getting emotional talking to you about it now. (My parents) still own the land. They sold the house and the out buildings, but they still own the land and I have my eye on the southeast field. There is something that I want to do and I hope that time and finances allow me to do that. I might want to grow organic beans on that southeast forty. I had this very emotional hippie…I just felt that I had this Saint Teresa (moment) and something happened. This is my calling and this is mine to do. (I have) something to do to preserve this for people who will live here 100 or 200 years from now. They aren’t making more farm land and they don’t make it better than that. This is my work to defend it,” she says.

Our conversation turns to Susan Werner’s childhood, “We had a big family with six kids, but by the standards of the neighborhood, my parents were underachievers. We had families down the road with eight and fourteen kids. Our family is really close and I have a really great family. For my mom and dad, along with the farm, their family was their life’s work.

My parents supported music and we played music around the house with each other. It was a social activity, much like you might have imagined it would have been on the prairie a hundred years ago with people playing the fiddle or the banjo. No matter how cliché it may sound, it really was that wholesome. When you are alone on the farm for hours you ride your bicycle and maybe you go up to your room and you practice your guitar and there was a piano in the living room, so you practice that. I feel really fortunate for that kind of isolation. It has its upsides. It does produce what Malcolm Gladwell said that 10,000 hours are required to master anything. Well if you live on a farm, other than the chores that you have to do, you have plenty of time to invest 10,000 hours in your instrument.

There was one woman in town, who taught piano lessons, but so much of it (her learning) was by ear and everyone in my family has the ear. I think that is genetic, maybe herbicides. Herbicides could make you queer, maybe musical too (she has her tongue planted firmly in her cheek),” she says.

After graduating from West Bel Air High School in Iowa City, Susan Werner attended the University of Iowa and studied music. She says it was for the opening of a window into a larger world. She then moved to Philadelphia where she attended graduate school at Temple University and for a time she flirted with the world of Opera.

“I did some auditions after I got out of school and I wasn’t loud enough. Professional Opera singers, if you ever met them and heard them sing in a small room you can’t believe how loud they are. I just wasn’t loud enough. There were people with bigger personalities and bigger voices. It was revealed to me that I was probably better off doing the work of an introvert. I like being a writer rather than trying to compete with those natural born phenoms. I think in the end the right line of work found me,” she says.

Susan Werner experienced somewhat of an epiphany when she attended a concert. “I went to this show and here comes this woman from Texas, Nanci Griffith. She comes out with a guitar, she plays songs that she wrote herself and some of them are really funny. Some of them are really heartbreaking and a lot of them are about people from rural America. I thought I could do that maybe. As it turns out, now my management company is the same management company that manages Nanci Griffith.  I have done a couple of shows with her, which is an incredible honor and she said kind words about my writing, which means the world to me. That was a big night for me to see that a woman could just write honestly. She wrote about the places she knows best and the people that she knows best. That is meaningful to people and it is as serious and as worthy of an aspiration as singing Verdi.”

Each of Susan Werner’s albums throughout the years has demonstrated her versatility as a singer-songwriter and she continues to build upon the excellent standard that she has set for herself.

In 1995 Susan Werner released her third album Last Of The Good Straight Girls.

“It was a folk rock debut album on a major label and it established a toehold for me around the country. I will always be grateful for that. The label was owned by BMG, which was a huge arts conglomerate. It was such a thrill to work with Fernando Saunders who produced the record. He was Lou Reed’s bass player. He brought in a whole cast of world class people (Marshall Crenshaw, Mindy Jostyn, Zachary Richard). I got to tour with Joan Armatrading around the United States twice. She is so deeply musical and she has a regal presence in front of the audience. Those opportunities really made a difference for me in establishing an identity all around the United States and as someone who performs live and makes a show with and for people. There is no doubt that was a big moment when I got that phone call and I got a record deal with BMG. That is like when you get called up to the big leagues. There is no equivalent. I remember jumping up and down and calling my parents (and then she mimics yelling into the phone in not very decipherable language). My parents said good for you honey. My parents never expressed any ownership over my music and I am grateful for that,” she says.

In the spring of 2004 Susan Werner took her music in another direction with the release of I Can’t Be New.

“They were all songs that I wrote in the style of Gershwin and Cole Porter. They were songs to sound like they were from the 1920s and ‘30s. They are all love songs and a lot of them are torch songs. I think this was an early experiment in speaking as characters or writing songs of a theatrical nature. It was writing songs that anyone can step into and sing. I still love those songs and it is my favorite kind of music to sing. I am not an Opera singer, but I probably am a chanteuse. I like singing in little clubs. I am really proud of that record, because I forced myself to write all of the songs in one style, not wavering, not wandering off and not allowing anything to slip inside that didn’t belong. All the songs sound like they are from the twenties and thirties,” says Werner.

The release of The Gospel Truth in 2007 became both an expression of Susan Werner’s questioning the idea of an exclusive membership in heaven and it also became a lightning rod for the conservative right. To prepare for the album, she spent a lot of time visiting churches of various types.

“I wanted to put songs of faith next to songs of doubt, which is my experience with church. I have been surprised over the years, how many people feel the same, which is an appreciation for the good and what the message of the Gospel can inspire us to do and be for others. It is also doubt in terms of skepticism about institutionalized religion and the abuses of power and the drumbeats of fear that are implemented by those interested in maintaining the status quo and maintaining a position of privilege. I wanted to put these things side by side and I hadn’t thought it all the way through, but I knew that is what I wanted it to be. No one had done this before and no one knew what to do with it. The record company that I was talking to was, ‘How do we sell this? What do we do with this? It’s not Gospel music.’ I said, sort of, it is. I guess I created a new genre called Agnostic Gospel music. I did (visit a lot of churches) and it was so interesting to encounter how kind people are when you come to their church and how welcoming they are. How people are their best selves for one hour on Sunday in the morning. I have said to people the best place to be if you are going to fall down and break your leg, besides doing it outside an emergency room door is in a church. Everyone in that church will help you. Everyone is open to being of service to their fellow human being during that one hour. Everyone in that church will all come and visit you. They will bring you food and flowers and they will look in on you. It is a window of time when people open their hearts to each other. If that spirit could carry on throughout the rest of the week and beyond political categories it would be fabulous. This idea of an exclusive heaven and a country club heaven, who gets in and who doesn’t get in and the velvet rope heaven, I think people are pretty well done with this concept. Although, there are always individuals in pockets of American culture who will surprise you.

People walked out of our shows. They just got up and walked out. They walked down the middle of the aisle, threw the program in the air and said heathen. Promoters received letters and I received emails, ‘Clearly you have misunderstood the entire message of the Gospel. Please stop singing these songs.’ Some people were singing these songs in churches and after weddings. The album went right down the middle of friends and enemies. I think this Hayseed project is agnostic all over again. Being appreciative of the agricultural economy that raised me and that helped my parents pay to put six kids through college. I am skeptical of big Ag now and many Americans are skeptical of big Ag now. It made me agnostic in a new way. People get upset and they say are you coming after my way of life and are you coming after my way of making money? This is hotter than religion. Agriculture is hotter than religion. (she lowers her voice) It’s a business. It’s intense. It’s intense,” Susan Werner says and the passion about her beliefs is evident in her voice.

In 2009, Susan Werner’s breathtaking and elegant album Classics was released. She took Classic tunes and set them to new arrangements or already existing melodies from other songs.

“I came up with this cover version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain,” and I put the Erik Satie melody in there from “Gymnopédie,” which is a collection of three tiny piano works. He was a composer at the beginning of the twentieth century in France. It is a melody that everybody recognizes and it is one of the most famous melodies in Classical music. I thought, I don’t know how many other people this will appeal to, but it is appealing to me, bringing a Pop song together with Classical music. I talked with Crit Harmon about approaching these songs in this way and he said our friend Brad Hatfield who I have worked with before, he said Brad Hatfield does arrangements for the Boston Pops, let’s get Brad in the room and talk to Brad about this idea. We began to look through the Billboard top 100 from 1965 to 1975 and we were looking for corollaries between Pop tunes and Classical music and one of them was “A Hazy Shade of Winter.” Of anything that I have done, on the internet, Youtube and everywhere, more people know me for more than anything is this mashup of Simon and Garfunkle’s “A Hazy Shade Of Winter,” with Vivaldi’s “Winter Sonata.” It was such a pleasure to do these shows. I had this cellist who came around with me for a year and we just did these chamber music shows and they were all my songs arranged for cello and piano, but also these Pop songs. It was the most satisfying music making that I think I have ever done. I think it is the most satisfying, because as a musician you are just fully engaged. You are fully absorbed and the shows fly by. We are so occupied and so mesmerized and absorbed by the music making. We had fun doing this. That was really a unique year of music making. I am happy that I was able to do it and honored that I was able to do it. It also encouraged me to think about music making differently. You begin to take apart songs, segments, sections of songs. I became more of an arranger with that project. What are the building blocks of the song? What is this melody? What is this rhythmic riff? How can this be moved over here? If it was lifted from verse one or verse two how can it be restored in an outro? Thinking about the architecture of the song was a rewarding part of that project that I feel I have been able to keep with me, as I move forward,” she says.

Fast forward to 2011 and Susan Werner releases the CD Kicking The Beehive with Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell onboard as the producer.  

“Rodney is so great. What a great guy and he is such a great artist and a great human being. I learned so much working with him. He is such a teacher and mentor and he is a beautiful writer. His songs are seamless. He begins a song and he follows the thread of the song all the way to the end. Working with him was such a privilege, such an honor and such a learning opportunity. To see him sit in the studio and (watch him) listen, his quality of listening and the thread from the beginning to the end of the track. That man is world class as a human and as an artist. He is so exceptional. He is funny and kind, both one right after another. To me that is a person with a very active, expansive and embracing human heart. He is a tiny man with a big heart.

We did a track where Vince Gill is sitting over there with Steuart Smith and Rodney and they are all banging on guitars. They were grinning like guys in a garage band. In Nashville if they let you in, if you are accepted into this elite group of talents and good souls, good hearted people it is the best BBQ ever. They are so funny and generous and sweet and kind. These are guys and they all know, that somehow they have been given great gifts and they have received confirmation from the wider world that what they do is of value. They just enter this next level of “angelness.” I am going on a bit, I realize, but they just become benevolent in newer, greater and broader ways, which is so inspiring to me. I wish I had the good fortune to achieve some of what they have the good fortune to achieve. I intend to do it like they do it to be as generous (as I can).

I feel like music is a calling and there is a business component to it. Maybe this is where I am a farmer’s daughter. As much as there is making a living, there is living your life, with these principles in the forefront. It is being in love with what you do and having a passion for what you do. Is there a service component to what you do or are you just making a buck? If I was just interested in making a buck (she laughs lightly) I think I would have chosen a different way of doing it. I would be more productive with the bucks and I would spend less hours in a car or a plane. In terms of risk taking that’s where all the energy is. It is when you break apart the atom that the atom produces energy. It’s when you explore a new kind of music, the discovery of that new kind of music, that’s where the energy is. When you chew food you break open all of the nutrients. The fresh food has all of the nutrients in it. In the discovery is the energy. I find that the best way to create new music is to continue to fall in love with new kinds of music and to discover what music I can make in a new style. That is what has the most energy and potential to me. What is the most captivating to an audience is when there is freshness on the stage. It is not an invitation of early discovery, but it is actual discovery. It is being in the moment of what that instrument can do and of what that song can do. I think that is how I have been fortunate to keep doing this for twenty years and hopefully I will keep doing it twenty years from now,” says Susan Werner.

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Photos courtesy of Susan Werner. Photos protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved.   Interview by Joe Montague, July 2013

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