Susan Werner Bio

Susan Werner

Susan Werner

Supporting Hayseed

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.”

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The Delta Saints Bio

Supporting Death Letter Jubilee

By Emily J Ramey

Written for The Delta Saints

Photo by Melissa Madison Fuller

The Delta Saints

The Delta Saints are not what they say they are. Delta? Absolutely. But saints? One might call them “cautionary tales” long before the term “saints” ever came to mind; however, there is something devout about their bayou rock, a dirty, distinct sound they’ve zealously refined on their debut full-length, Death Letter Jubilee. Alternating between raucous melodies and slow-burning odes to the devil in his many forms, Ben Ringel (vocals/dobro), Dylan Fitch (guitar), David Supica (bass), and Ben Azzi (drums) explore themes of difficult love, the wanderer’s high road, and the moral low road using their unconscious fascination with the classical elements – earth, air, fire, and water – as a natural vehicle for their briny narratives.

With Death Letter Jubilee, The Delta Saints are blooming into life not as a pretty flower might, but perhaps a mushroom explosion from an atomic bomb or a feral thunderhead. After two self-released and well received EPs, Pray On and A Bird Called Angola, fans demanded a full length and happily burst through the band’s Kickstarter goal to get it. “That is a feeling like no other,” Ben Ringel claims. “It’s awesome and also humbling. And it’s good pressure on us to succeed. It’s the kind of pressure we were able to harness and strive off of.”

The members of The Delta Saints each moved to Nashville for college in 2007. They first found common ground as old-world-loving, good-bourbon-swilling musicians and began playing together around town before they had any plans to record. As the searing harmonica and howling vocals of their live show began garnering notoriety in a city known well for its indifference to anything less than worthwhile, The Saints rode their roots rock wave right into the studio.

On the heels of 2010’s A Bird Called Angola, the band toured tirelessly, playing more than 150 shows a year, including a slot at Arkansas’ Wakarusa Festival and two summers headlining in Europe during which they performed on the long-running, renowned German TV show Rockpalast. Road tested and weather worn, The Delta Saints have seen wholly organic growth, working diligently in the name of a roots revival alongside fellow up and comers Alabama Shakes and Gary Clark Jr., becoming The Black Keys of a bygone era, all the while harnessing the brackish delta current into something gripping and bold.

“Liar” opens Death Letter Jubilee with a swaggering bass line and a blazing guitar riff, the “Come on!” refrain in the chorus echoing like a command, beckoning listeners to settle in for the long haul. “’Chicago’ is just written about the first time I was ever in Chicago,” Ringel explains. “We were there for 18 hours, and there was a blizzard, so it was snow and wind and bitter cold. Right before bed, I looked out this big third story window, and all I could see was amber light from the streetlights and snow, and for some reason that image just stuck.” The song itself generates a heat fit to ward off that blizzard weather, featuring a rare but incendiary brass section and an immovable beat that marks the tune as an early highlight.

“Death Letter Jubilee” is by far the most magnetic track on the album. There’s something eerie about its cacophonous Orleans-inspired chorus, the warm buzz of harmonica, the tinny trumpet whine, and the way one can’t help but be swept away by the utterly irreverent revelry. “I love songs where sonically you get one emotion from it, and then you look at the lyrics and it’s not at all what you expected,” Ringel says of the song’s musical inspiration. “And everybody has certain emotions that they’re not proud of. The idea that you can be glad about somebody’s ultimate demise… it’s such a negative thing, but everybody feels something a little like that.”

“Jezebel” melts down into a sweltering lo-fi blues number, its minimal instrumentation muddled and viscous as though the song was written on an old front porch when it was just too damn hot to do anything but sing. And like water thrown over flames, the crackling and steaming “Out to Sea” cools the album with its haunting refrain: “Oh, oh, river run, straight out from the hurt that seems to pour from me, and oh, oh, river speak, just haulin’ ass down the Calabash, just headed out to sea.”

“It was a new direction for us on a lot of different fronts,” Ringel admits of the tune. “It’s quiet and it’s sweet and it’s sad. It explores the idea of that cheesy, sappy movie line, ‘I can’t live without you,’ but this is more like, if you’re going to say it, what does that really mean?”

“Sing to Me” starts out sluggishly, forlornly, a rusted locomotive gathering speed with lyrics like, “I come to you now with blood on my hands, the law on my tail, and my conscience be damned, my sweet little babe, my sweet honeybee,” before running off the rails completely, harmonica flashing, drums galloping. And “River,” a second listen gem, is a brief interlude deep into the album in which an ethereal female gospel choir seems to sway and billow in the breeze on balmy Sunday afternoon.

“The main thing we wanted for Death Letter Jubilee was for it to have movement,” Ringel states. “We wanted people to listen and have an emotional journey similar to the one we had while making it.” That journey has left them energized and confident about the future, while still enjoying each stop along the road: “We want to grow, and maybe even grow faster, but we understand that it’s all in due time. We want to fully realize the weight of our experiences, and be able to savor them too.”

The Delta Saints’ new album will be available January 2013. For more information about The Saints and Death Letter Jubilee, go to http://www.thedeltasaints.com.

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