By Craig Harris
The Folk Alliance Music Conference’s “Best Contemporary Folk Artist” of 2008, Susan Werner stirs things up with her 10th album, “Kicking The Beehive.”
Having updated the Great American Songbook with “I Can’t Be New” (2004), combined gospel and agnosticism with “The Gospel Truth” (2007), and applied a classical music approach to pop, soul, and R&B tunes by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Cat Stevens, Bob Marley, and Paul McCartney on “Classics” (2009), the Iowa-born and Chicago-based songstress takes a break from thematic writing to deliver an album distinctly her own.
“It was a real journey to write [the songs on “Kicking The Beehive],” said Werner, who performs at the Falcon Ridge Festival, in Hillsdale, N.Y., from July 22 to 24. “The whole thing had an energy that felt exceptional.”
Much of the album reflects an increasing frustration with urban life. “Many of the songs had to do with a desire to get out of the city and back to rural America,” said Werner, who grew up on her parent’s hog farm. “The songs have country and blues flavoring.”
Werner’s commitment to authenticity led her to explore the music of the American south before working on the songs that became “Kicking The Beehive.”
“I made a trip to the Blues Highway Highway 61 from Memphis to Clarksdale and I found that I had underestimated the south,” she said. “Once you go to school for music, you tend to sophisticate yourself out and that’s a loss for people like me. I was determined to find out for myself what the Mississippi Delta felt like, what it looked like, and what it sounded like. I’m so glad that I was able to interact with that tradition and contribute something.”
Recording for the first time in Nashville, Tenn., Werner was aided by some of the Music City’s most respected artists. Alison Krauss’ brother, Victor Krauss, who usually plays with Lyle Lovett’s band, played bass guitar, with melodic accents provided by such guests as Paul Franklin, on pedal steel, Keb’ Mo on slide guitar, and Vince Gill on guitar.
Much of the album’s sound reflects the input of singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who handled the production. “It was a pleasure to work with him,” Werner said. “I learned so much about inspiration and where true north is when you’re in the studio. He was really kind and good-natured. We worked really hard for a week. It was one of the best weeks of my life.”
Crowell’s songwriting had a profound effect on Werner. She wrote the title track after immersing herself in his recordings. “When he agreed to produce my album,” she recalled, “I went to town with his records, listening and listening. That song has a Buddy Holly, ‘50s, rock, swing to it. I had never written a song like that before.”
A number of tunes deal with deeply emotional issues. “Doctor, Doctor” tells of losing a loved one to sickness. “This was a contemporary take on a traditional blues subject,” Werner explained. “It says, ‘Doctor, I’m confused by all these number and words that you use.’ Anybody who receives a diagnosis is confronted with all these statistics, studies, and clinical trials, it’s so overwhelming.”
Another song, “Manhattan Kansas,” offers a glimpse at single motherhood. “It reminds me of the songs of Jimmy Webb, who I admire,” Werner said. “They’re so well written. It was composed on the piano. It always gets quiet during the song.”
The hardest-hitting tune on the CD, “Different Son,” is a maternal look at raising a child with autism. “It’s in the blues form,” Werner said, “but, it’s an update on the blues tradition. The music sounds at peace with the tradition but there’s something new about it.”
Dubbed “folk music’s most surprising artist,” by National Public Radio, Werner has based her career on the unexpected. Her repertoire includes everything from folk-rooted singer-songwriting to Tin Pan Alley-like balladry, jazz-tinged instrumentals, and operatic singing.
“The number one responsibility of an artist,” she said, “is to stay interested and have something at risk, always bite a little more than you could afford. Everyone responds to that. Where does playing it safe get you? This is the wrong line of work for that. Once people know what they’re going to get, all of the energy goes out of a room. Every show should have a lot of risk. It should be a tight-wire act.”
Though she’s primarily performed as a soloist, Werner’s recent shows have featured instrumental and vocal help from Trina Hamlin, who plays harmonica and drums, and Gale Ann Dorsey on bass.
“She’s toured with Gwen Stefani and Olivia Newton John,” Werner said, “and she’s known as David Bowie’s bass player. Oh man, is she great. She brings the presentation to a whole other level. These are the best shows of my entire career.”
For further information about Werner’s upcoming shows, call 866-325-2744.
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