By Susan Werner
“With your eyes to the west, You keep watching the sky, While the leaves start to curl, ‘Cause the crops are so dry. It’s like everyone says, Does no good to complain, But it gives you something to do, While you wait for the rain.” –While You Wait for the Rain.
Susan Werner’s rich voice, accompanied with a wry smile, settled on my soul as I shared a beautiful concert space with farm neighbors and co-workers on a recent hot, sunny Sunday afternoon. The insightful singer-songwriter clearly knew what our days in the fields have been like this summer.
Proud of her eastern Iowa farm heritage, Susan packs concerts promoting her recent recording, “Hayseed,” with evocative, funny, touching, and bittersweet songs about farming, soybeans, corn, eggs, Iowa, the land, herbicides, and childhood jealousies of “city kids.”
“All the city kids, They never did no chores. We were baling hay, Milking twice a day, They were making smores. All the city kids…” –City Kids.
Using her voice like an instrument, knowing when to bang out the lyrics and when to fade to soft, Susan is an in-your-face performer in the best sense of the expression. She made us laugh and almost cry, sharing a perfect mix of fun and sentiment. She obviously carries the fun with her from the farm fields of her youth.
“There’s a certain sense of humor that goes along with farming because things don’t always turn out the way you expected,” Susan says. “If you can’t laugh about it, you might be in the wrong line of work.”
A classically trained vocalist, Susan masterfully uses both the guitar and piano to create moods that enhance the lyrics of her songs. It’s rare to find such a talented songwriter and singer who is also such an outstanding musician.
The Hayseed album was commissioned by the University of Nebraska’s Lied Center for the Performing Arts and the Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources. The project began with seed money from fans during a successful PledgeMusic campaign. Susan rewarded pledgers with unusual treats, such as signed ears of corn from her folks’ farm. A percentage of the money raised was donated to three farming organizations: Practical Farmers of Iowa in Ames, Iowa, The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and MOSES in Spring Valley, Wis.
Hayseed is the fourth in a series of concept albums. “I like concept albums because they give the audience and the artist a place to meet, something in common to talk about, right from the word ‘go,’” Susan says. “And it seems everybody–from the First Lady to Dodge Trucks –has something to say about food, farms and farmers these days.”
“I wanted to show that farmers are just like everyone else,” she says with a laugh, “Honest, hardworking, kind, generous, resentful, and murderous.” Underneath its glib, satirical wash, Hayseed is tender and benevolent, an homage to her upbringing. “Growing up on a farm is part poetry and part child labor,” she jokes.“But it’s the landscape, the land itself, your love for that that stays with you–the fields, the fences, the creek. And I’ve found you can love a place as much as you can love a human being.”
“There’s a changing of the guard taking place in American agriculture,” Susan 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 see people all across the country laugh,” she finishes. “Well, there you have it. Mission accomplished!”
I’m thrilled to find a musician that is not only incredibly talented, but also sings about my life and my neighbors’ lives. What greater satisfaction than tapping one’s foot along to a song titled “Barbed Wire Boys”? Susan’s dedication to organic production and local marketing offer additional reasons to support her.
The MOSES staff attending Susan’s recent show highly recommend our readers follow this bright star’s career. You can purchase “Hayseed” or one of her other recordings and check out several music videos at http://susanwerner.com.
Review by Jody Padgham, with contributions from Susan’s web bio, and MOSES colleagues Audrey Alwell and Eric Hatling.