Whether you know it or not, singer/songwriter Susan Werner is a national treasure. Born, raised and educated in the heartland, she firmly established herself as a performing musician while living in Philadelphia in the 1990s before embarking for Chicago in the early 2000s. While in Chicago, she began recording a series of concept albums, a format Werner still follows to this day, including her latest album, the Americana-style “Flyover Country“. Over the course of 10 songs, Werner gives us something to think about (“Snake Oil,” “Only Later,” “Barn Radio”), swoon about it (“How Much”) and even smile about (“Wine Bottles”). Susan Werner was kind enough to answer a few questions about “Flyover Country” in November 2020.
Gregg Shapiro: Beginning with 2004’s “I Can’t Be New,” and the six studio records that followed, you’ve been working in the realm of concept albums. What are the challenges and rewards of creating within the concept album format?
Susan Werner: I really like concept albums because they have a way of shrinking the task, narrowing the parameters. Maybe, in doing so, helps you to know when you’re done. It right-sizes the target. I like knowing, going into something, things that are to the left of this are not going to be part of this. Things that are to the right of it are not it. I find that it enables me to go ahead and throw myself at something, knowing that it’s just this. It’s not everything, it’s just very much this for this period of time. The problem with it is that no one knows exactly what you’re going to do next. From a commercial standpoint, it is not the obvious route to success. But, if you can build enough of a reliable reputation as a person who can deliver on the challenges, then it’s a really rewarding way to make a life in this [industry] work.
GS: Among the concepts are the 21st-century cabaret/standards of “I Can’t Be New,” the “Joy without the Jesus” (as you described it when I interviewed you about the album) spirituals of “The Gospel Truth,” and the Cuba-inspired “An American in Havana.” However, Country and Americana appear to be the favored musical style on the albums “Kicking the Beehive,” “Hayseed” and your latest, “Flyover Country.” What do you find most appealing about the genre?
SW: It’s a little like growing up in a religious tradition. This is always going to be your point of reference somehow. I grew up Catholic. I can be an ex-Catholic, but I can’t be a never Catholic. Growing up Catholic, you can be a lapsed Catholic, but you’re still somehow Catholic.
GS: You can still name the saints.
SW: Yes! You still call things sins. For those of us that grew up in Middle America, playing guitar from early on, this was my native language. My dad playing the radio in the barn, the radio on the tractor, Country music in the house, Country music acts coming to town and playing at the fairgrounds, which they still do. It’s a language you speak, even if you never wind up using it again. It’s there, and it’s on the hard drive. It kept bubbling up, this style of music because there was more attached to it. There was more of what was in my younger years and growing up years attached to it. It felt fertile with more than just nostalgia. There was something more there. Some of that, I think, attached itself to these songs and this genre at this time.
GS: I love the political voice on “Snake Oil.” It made me wonder, first of all, how much responsibility you think a songwriter has to address issues of this nature? Because of your background in folk, did that also play a role?
SW: Yeah, I think that’s right. Some of the songs we were singing when I was a little kid, yes, there was some Peter, Paul and Mary in there. The hootenanny stuff appeared in my little five-year-old life. I suspected there was something, “Ooh, there’s a war, but some of this music isn’t entirely positive about it.” The nuns were the first politically aware people I ever met in my life. It was the nuns who were playing the guitar in my little town. It was the nuns who had been to Guatemala and Nicaragua and seen what happened there and experienced violence directed against them. It’s funny how we bring back the idea of being a lapsed Catholic, but, again, some of it stays with you. I think those political leanings show up, somehow, when you hold a guitar. It’s like a tool that can be aimed to any task. My guitar, like a divining rod, tends to the left [laughs].
GS: “How Much” is one of the best love songs I’ve heard this year; a wedding song for all weddings. What is the most challenging thing about writing a meaningful and universal love song?
SW: This one came about because when I start a project it’s like a language immersion course. I listen to only that music for about a year. People ask me all the time, “What are you listening to?” I don’t really talk about it because I think friends of artists are always hoping that they’re listening to something really interesting or into something really fascinating that’s hip and will be of interest to them. Actually, no. I feel like more of a craft person. I’m obsessing on this little, tiny world that may not really be of appeal to other people. One day became Willie Nelson day. I was just listening to his love songs and his ballads. They were always so plainspoken, economical, unadorned, to the point. They have no irony. That feels to me like the only way that I’ve been able to write certain kinds of songs. To serve more as a medium for the song, than it to be a personal expression from me to someone else. I don’t know why, and I don’t need to know why. The muse is doing something. Well, don’t be an idiot, don’t slam the door on the muse. Let it come in and occupy the living room for a couple hours.
GS: Am I reading too much into the lines “Only later did we learn / That the family down the road / Had a truth they never told / ’Bout their oldest son” in the song “Only Later” or is it the queerest song on the album?
SW: [Laughs] It’s certainly a song that lots of my queer friends have responded to. It may be that line. But it may also be the sense that — and it’s interesting that you point to this song — because I do think us, queer folks, growing up in the middle of nowhere, in rural America, miles from other people, those of us queers from a certain generation and a certain geographical background, I think it takes some of us longer to assemble ourselves. We did not have a lot of role models.
GS: No points of reference.
SW: Yes, to confirm who we feel we may be. Also growing up in the 1980s, I don’t know how many of my friends who turned out to be gay, knew they were gay or to describe themselves as gay. It was a long way out of there out there. One of the joys of having a long career that takes me around the country has been reconnecting with high school friends and junior high friends and even elementary school friends. Finding, years later, we’re like, “Oh, hey. This is your partner. These are your kids. Oh, my God, the lives that we have put together for ourselves.” It’s such an interesting and wonderful connection with gay friends who came from my little town, because we have had to put together a life so much from our own volition and our own energy and our own desire to integrate ourselves. We’ve turned out to be some of the most interesting people to come from there. I’ve got to say it’s joyful to connect with queer friends from high school and from my hometown. Game recognizes game. I think we see in each other, “You had to do this. You had to put together a self.” We had no playbook at all.
GS: In the midst of all the seriousness, there’s the wicked funny “Wine Bottles,” co-written with John Gorka. How important is it for you to retain a sense of humor in your songs?
SW: I do feel it’s part of my mission to show an audience a good time. I do feel that. I know that some people think that maybe that detracts from your reputation as an entirely serious artist. When you do a show, it’s the uptempo fun that kind of prepares the landscape for the ballads that can drop like bombs.
GS: You don’t want to be a total downer the whole time.
SW: Yes! Also, it creates an environment in which when you slow it down people really tune in. Plus, it’s fun for me. Look, we’ve got to keep this fun or we won’t do it. I feel like a good time is also when you draw in an audience so you can surprise them with something. It’s like the bait for drawing them in so they hear something like “Snake Oil.”
GS: There’s a variety there.
SW: There has to be variety. It broadens your audience. If you show people a good time, everybody will buy in. “We’re having fun! She just snuck this one in there and then we’re back to the good time!” An hour or two hours later, the audience might go home thinking, “Hmmm, what was that one song doing there?” You’ve reached some people outside. I think that impulse comes from growing up in rural America. My small town is proud of itself. It’s proud of its ability to reach out and help other small towns in cases of emergency. Like this terrible derecho that ran through Iowa this summer. My hometown ran down the highway with big barbecue trucks and electric service people, linemen who bring electricity back online. The generosity of my town, the willingness to engage like this, to be proud of your desire to be of assistance to others; I think this still runs in me. I think it’s part of why I feel like the show better be entertaining. A boring show is the end. It’s the death of everything.
GS: “To Be There (a Hymn in Times of Pandemic)” reminds me of Dolly Parton at her most Bluegrass. How much, if at all, do you consider Dolly to be an influence, especially in the Country/Bluegrass sphere?
SW: Dolly is such an entertainer. She shows everybody a good time. She smiles the whole time. And then she will, in fact, say something during the course of a show that certainly will surprise and challenge certain members of the audience. But it’s the entertainment that gets them in the door. It’s also these sorts of songs where we can all meet together, whatever our political affiliation, whatever our political leanings. We can all meet together on these kinds of songs. That’s Country music. She came from a family of 12. I’m from a family half that size, six, of which I think you know four of us are LGBTQ. We’re gifted!
GS: That’s a good description.
SW: To say something about Country music; it’s a community kind of gathering music. It is a social music. What’s a Bluegrass ensemble other than four people agreeing for four minutes at a time? I think this nature of playing guitar on the porch, we actually did this. We sang with all the cousins in the house and the uncles and the aunts. I grew up in a family where we got in the car, and we would go to grandma’s house and we were all singing in four-part-harmony. We didn’t even know other people didn’t do that. I didn’t know other families weren’t like this.
GS: Maybe if you were a McGarrigle or a Wainwright or a Roche you were doing that.
SW: Yes! But not a lot of families did this. I think to come back to some of that magic is part of the appeal of this project for me. To be clear about this song, there is a longing in the song to sing shoulder to shoulder with your family. I took my parents to mass in February. I went back to Iowa for the Iowa Caucus. I took my parents to mass, not because I felt the need to go to mass, but because it’s a chance to see everybody. This is where you see people in a small town, which is important to understand about the church. When you target the church, be aware that what you’re targeting for some people is their entire community and community center. When I took my parents to mass in February and I saw my cousins and my best friends from high school, [laughs] you see everybody, I was sitting between my mom and my dad. We were singing out of the hymnal. I could hear one in each ear. Now, of course, I haven’t been back to see them. It’s not safe to do it and Iowa’s especially terrible. I think that the comfort of singing, in close proximity to those we love most and especially to those we are related to whose voices may sound like our own, like what they call in Country music “blood harmony,” this is really powerful.
GS: Of course! But because churches, and singing in churches, has become such super-spreader settings, who knows when that’s going to come back again.
SW: But when it comes back, it’s going to come roaring back. The excitement of it will be so intense. I think it will be like Copenhagen in June. No one will sleep. They’re going to be partying!
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