By Emily J Ramey
Written for Susan Werner
Midwestern folk bard and “Empress of the Unexpected” as dubbed by NPR, Susan Werner is as unshakable as the earth and as unpredictable as the weather. It is fitting then that on her newest release, the downtown Chicago-based singer-songwriter set out to pay homage to American agriculture. On Hayseed, Werner lends her characteristically ardent voice to common agrarian themes like love for the land, patience for the rain, and the travails of farmers and their families. Each song dons a new perspective, sketches a different facet of true rural living, establishing Hayseed as a barbed but candid representation of the agricultural community.
Listeners will recognize Werner’s own brand of Americana roots sprouted on 2011’s Kicking the Beehive; however, the collection of sharp, passionate originals that appear on Hayseed hit much closer to home. “Everything was mandolin and banjo and upright bass and fiddle,” she says. “A sound that’s as (forgive the term, but it finally applies) organic as a sound can get.” The album itself was homegrown using a Pledge Music campaign to fund its production; Werner incentivized fans with rewards like handwritten family recipes and signed ears of corn. A percentage of the money raised was donated to farming charities as well: Practical Farmers of Iowa in Ames, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) of Spring Valley, Wisconsin, and The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.
Hayseed was produced by Crit Harmon (Martin Sexton, Lori McKenna, Mary Gauthier, Ed Romanoff), a songwriter and music producer from Boston. “I chose Crit to produce because he’s a songwriter himself; that was hugely important to me,” Werner says of Harmon. “And also because he grew up in Missouri and knows the business end of a honey wagon. I knew he’d get the spirit of the songs, the sense of humor and the sense of place in the songs. I also knew he’d assemble the best cast of players possible. This is the A list of the A list of the Boston area players.” That cast includes legendary guitarist Duke Levine, dobro genius Steve Sadler, and Red Molly’s Laurie MacAllister on backing vocals. “He totally got when I said this should sound like it’s being played on the front porch of a farmhouse,” Werner continues. “Iowa isn’t the south, but you can throw a rock and hit Missouri, and that’s about as urban as this album could dare get.”
Hayseed is the fourth in a series of concept albums, beginning with 2004’s I Can’t Be New, which features original songs in the style of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, followed by The Gospel Truth in 2007 and Classics in 2009. “I like concept albums because they give the audience and the artist a place to meet and something to talk about, right from the word ‘go,’” Werner states. “And it seems everybody has something to say about farms and farmers these days.”
Werner, a farmer’s daughter herself, is intimately acquainted with the trials and tribulations of American farm life. Her keen yet caustic perspective has led to the creation of the derisive, acerbic cast of characters that populate the album. “I wanted to show that farmers are just like everyone else,” Werner explains. “Honest, hard working, kind, generous, jealous, and capable of murder.”
Underneath its glib, satirical wash, Hayseed is tender and benevolent, Werner’s way of saluting her upbringing. “There’s something affectionate and at the same time wry about Iowans take on where they’re from and the world in general. Our worldview is sweet but cynical.” Werner’s next words serve as example: “Growing up on a farm is part poetry and part horror,” she says, “but it taught me that you can love a place as much as you can love a person.”
After all, it seems her pastoral childhood is what drove Werner to music in the first place. “I started playing guitar when I was very young. Like many farm families, we played music as a form of social entertainment. Boredom can be a kind of gift, and I think being out there in the middle of nowhere, we made the best of it by cultivating the ability to play music.”
At age five, farm girl Susan Werner made her debut, playing guitar and singing at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Manchester, Iowa. At 11, she began playing piano. After earning a degree in voice from the University of Iowa, she attended Temple University in Philadelphia, performing in numerous recitals and operas while completing her graduate studies. Werner still on occasion closes any one of the 125 club dates she plays annually throughout the US and Canada with “Un Bel Di” from Madame Butterfly or “Habanera” from Carmen, but she ultimately opted to forgo a career as an opera singer, dedicating herself to songwriting instead, building a reputation at coffeehouses and folk festivals from DC to Boston.
After launching her career with the self-released Midwestern Saturday Night in 1993, her second recording Live at Tin Angel impressed executives at Private Music/BMG, which released her critically acclaimed major label debut Last of the Good Straight Girls in 1995. She also received critical accolades for her subsequent recordings Time Between Trains (VelVel, 1998) and New Non-Fiction (Indie, 2001). She has toured the nation with acts such as Richard Thompson, Keb Mo, and Joan Armatrading, and was featured in a 1998 Peter, Paul, and Mary PBS special as one of the best of the next generation of folk songwriters.
On Hayseed, Werner employs her shrewdest charm and duskiest wit to deliver an assortment of tunes as hilarious as they are insightful. “There’s a certain sense of humor that goes along with farming because things don’t always turn out the way you expected,” she states. “If you can’t laugh about it, you’re not going to be farming for long. It was important to me to honor that part of things with the songs. If the songs weren’t funny, then they missed the mark.”
Opener “City Kids” sets a tart, jocular tone its snarky commentary on what Werner refers to as “the Revenge of the Nerds.” “The character in this song is surprisingly resentful, but the truth of it is that if you grew up on a farm, you always did feel a little square, a little behind,” she explains. Over a lilting minor banjo melody, Werner channels the biting, brooding attitude of the farm kids, practically spitting the title phrase: “All the city kids, they had fluffy little dogs, a dog that sits and begs, a dog with all four legs, didn’t smell like hogs.”
The countrified, hyperbolic “Herbicides” is saturated with Southern-accented sarcasm. “It’s another fact of farm life that itself deserved a song, but I didn’t know what new to say about it,” Werner laughs. “And this is something entirely new to say. The song speaks for itself.”
“Something to Be Said” is quiet and reflective, one of the few tracks that takes a moment to say something serious. “I was doing some shows in rural Nebraska, and this little girl wrote a note that said, ‘Thank you for coming to this waste of cornfields,’” Werner says. “It made me so sad that this kid felt that way about where they were growing up. I thought that needed addressing. Kid, you’re overlooking something. It may have taken me many years to see it, but I really do see it now.”
And slipping effortlessly into yet another character’s voice, the viscous, plodding “Egg Money” slinks suspiciously, wading into the dangerous waters of marital discontent and the wrath of a woman scorned, charting the story of a farm wife’s revenge.
Other Hayseed highlights include the punchy, sweltering “Bumper Crop,” a track that struts and sways like a 70s-era rockabilly number, the hushed and silvery “Plant the Stars” written about Werner’s father, and “Ode to Aldo Leopold,” a lustrous, ebbing closer boasting traditional harmonies, molten slide guitar, and lyrics like, “The land will outlive us all, however long we all shall live, and when the future comes to find the legacy we leave behind, may they say of us that we’ve been kind; we left the land with more to give, for the land will outlive us all.”
“This record matters now because there’s a changing of the guard taking place in American agriculture,” Werner explains. “Farmers like my father and mother are retiring, and new farmers are starting out. I wanted to honor my parents and their way of life, and I want to be part of the conversation about what happens next, what farming looks like this year, next year, ten years from now.”
The ultimate purpose of making Hayseed, though, is broader, more light-hearted. “Maybe the reward of it all is just this simple: to write a song like ‘Egg Money’ or ‘City Kids,’ to see a song like that make my parents laugh, my brothers laugh, my cousins, my high school friends, and know people all across the country will laugh,” she says. “Well, there you have it. Mission accomplished.”