BY JONATHAN HOULON FOLK MUSIC EDITOR Susan Werner is a helluva songwriter. Just ask octogenarian British heartthrob Tom Jones or Canadian folk giant Garner Rogers, both of whom have recorded Werner’s stunning composition “Did Trouble Me.” [Note: there will be a forthcoming Wire on Garnet and his late brother Stan cuz let’s face it, you’ve never heard tell of ‘em and you shoulda done, mmmmmmmmmmkkkkkkay?] But this Wire does not concern Werner’s storied songwriting past — rather, we welcome her newest long-player, Flyover Country and it’s incredible lead-off track, “Long Live.”
Hometown songs often represent a sand-trap for songwriters: they lend themselves to the sorta sticky sentiment whose eradication thereof Sid Vicious, among other noble combatants, died in vain glory… or something. There are a few great odes to home, tho, including criminally underrated Texan songsmith David Halley’s “Hometown” which leads off with this couplet: “These brokedown buildings are home sweet home to me // where they sweep the trash they don’t want to see.” Or how about the Cole Porter of the British New Wave’s Joe Jackson who began his “Hometown” with this line: “Of all the stupid things I could have thought this was the worst // I started to believe my life began at seventeen.” Halley and Jackson avoid the sentiment trap by teeing off emphatically — witheringly in David’s case and self-critically in Joe’s.
As far as hometown songs go, Werner’s “Long Live” is a hole-in-one (for the record, I have never and will never play golf) but first let us pause for a brief lesson in Songwriting for all you millenials out there. Well, actually, let me initially mention that Werner’s Flyover Country is something called an “album” which is a collection of songs that may even have some thematic thread. Get it? Of course you don’t! But, anyway, a “song” is different than a “soundscape” that is used as background noise in the War on Drugs. Dig? See, it’s got several components including three that Werner especially excels at: (1) a “melody” i.e. a series of notes of varying lengths, some long, some short. Check out how Susan sings the words “interstate” and “Super Eight” in the first verse of “Long Live.” Instead of a staccato series of one beat mumbles, she actually elongates these notes to a full measure (that’s four beats for you musos out there). Werner writes wonderful melodies and actually has the vocal chops to sing them. (2) a “bridge” (sometimes called a “middle eight”) i.e. a variation on the the verse or the chorus that has its own melodic idea but somehows harkens and leads back to, usually, the verse. With an ace songwriter like Susan, you hardly even notice the seams between the bridge and the rest of the song — it all just flows, man! For further consideration of the middle eight, I recommend the Beatles (can you name all four?) (3) “lyrics”: yes, kids, actual words with meaning (and, no, that doesn’t require obviousness … but it requires something to which you’ll want to return). Werner veers toward the corn field on “Long Live” with images such as “the water tower and the swimming pool // the county fairgrounds and the middle school.” But, then, she hits you with this at the very end of her tale: “So pardon me if I still give a damn.” In other words, you can shove your hipster irony up your ass, Houlon. My hometown made me who I am and I’ll sing it about as much as I fucking want to. Of course, being the master she is, Werner achieves all of that with a sly wink in perfect pentameter. Don’t mess with Susie!
Werner — who, indeed, hails from small-town Iowa, cut her teeth on the Philly folk scene of the early 90s when she was first starting out; she remains resident of the city where bad things happen. For Flyover Country, she wisely enlisted local dobro legend Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner to produce and he, in turn, pulled in several of his colleagues from John Train [FULL DISCLOSURE: That’s my band.] including fiddler extraordinaire Jay Ansill who contributed significantly to that band’s early sound. There are times when Flyover Country is sort of sonically reminiscent of John Train were those local no-hit wonders fronted by a far more capable singer and songwriter. Hah! The balance of Flyover Country is filled out by a small bluegrass combo led by Sarah Larsen (who was a mainstay of this century’s Philly folk scene before moving to Maryland) on fiddle and former Huffamooser Kevin Hansen (still of Philly and still one its very best) on guitar. I can’t say that I am intimately familiar with Werner’s entire catalogue — she has been produced by some serious heavyweights including Rodney Crowell — but it is hard to imagine getting a warmer sound than the one achieved on Flyover Country. Kudos to Brenner and engineer Pete Rydberg of South Philly’s 1935 Studio for keeping the focus where it belongs: on Werner’s songs and her beautiful voice. How refreshing it is to listen to a record where I don’t sense a computer between me and what I’m hearing: Flyover Country has the feel of an unfussy living room unburdened by digital ornament. Did I actually just write that?
But where is this so-called Flyover Country anyway? If you ask me (a hardcore and unapologetic East Coast liberal elite), it starts just west of here, say, Montgomery County, and ends somewhere just shy of the Santa Monica pier. I dunno, man, this “reaching across the aisle” jazz seems pretty far fetched to me. I mean, what would that conversation sound like? “Hey, Elmer, have you read Shapiro’s latest, Shakespeare In A Divided America? How about that part where he reveals that none of other than Ulysses S. Grant once dressed the part of Desdemona? Far out, right?” “Well I don’t know about all that, Jon, but I tell you what: Gawd willin’ and the crick don’t rise, if those pizza eating pedophiles come this way, I’ll stand my ground and, then, I’ll stand back and standby too!” “Uhhhhhhh ….”
But Werner’s strength is empathy. In writing about Flyover Country, she addresses among other things child abuse. How’s this for a chilling line from “Only Later” another highlight of the record: “Only later did we learn that the neighbors right near by had a daddy with an eye [that] didn’t wander far enough.” Ouch! She concludes by reminding us (and I sure need some reminding as evidenced above): “How all alike we were only later did we learn.” Whether effortlessly moving from folk rock to bluegrass to rockabilly as she does in the album’s first three songs alone or singing about hometown subjects such as the barn radio or her daddy’s Eldorado, Werner’s Flyover Country is a place worth visiting, now more than ever. I just hope it’s only later, as she sings, and not too late.