Singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen; to weed through the endless albums of acoustic guitar solo projects and find a musician with charm and wit can feel like an endless pursuit; however, Susan Werner stands out as a criminally overlooked artist, remaining active since the early 90s, putting out albums that straddle the line between traditional folk and harder-edged Americana. Along the way, she has shapeshifted with each album, taking chances musically that could alienate her audience. However, the thread that keeps her albums on track is her songcraft’s clever wordplay and arrangements, which is what elevates her material and why it’s worth your attention.
I came along late to the game, too young to ever possibly encounter her music in the 90s; I remember seeing 2007’s The Gospel Truth appearing on iTunes. It was one of my first forays into anything resembling country or folk, as coming of age during the early 00s garage-rock/post-punk revival, this genre was the furthest thing from cool at the time. I remember trying to get a friend of mine to give Susan a listen, to which they quickly scoffed and shot down. Nevertheless, The Gospel Truth was a trenchant critique of religion’s hypocrisy and patriarchal dominance, which I related to growing up in a heavily religious environment. The lyrics were clever and touched upon the same sort of ideology that metal bands have been pushing for decades. Without my discovery of this album, I’m not sure if I would have found myself discovering the deeply rich history of folk and country music, until then I had a basic understanding. Werner’s album easily won me over, and I dived deep into her discography.
I worked my way across her back catalog from the beginning. What was most surprising to me was the evolution up to that point. Four albums across the 90s that featured acoustic renderings on life and love. Vocally, Werner is similar to artists from the 90s working in the same vein; think Shawn Colvin, who had a crossover hit with 1996’s “Sunny Came Home” or Paula Cole, another heavily rotated fixture on VH1, how I grew up hating that Dawson’s Creek theme song. With age comes the shedding of old prejudices, so quit pretending you don’t know the lyrics. Susan’s music fits comfortably with such company. The only thing missing is the hit single that catapulted similar singer-songwriters to the forefront of the late 90s Lilith-Fair adjacent spotlight.
While Werner’s first five albums were in line with traditional folk, 2004’s I Can’t Be New featured a folksy take on vocal jazz and swing music, the understated arrangements shone her vocal chops. It’s reminiscent of jazz vocalists of the 50s and 60s, this album brought me down a rabbit hole of jazz, the work of Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, and of the Jezzibel of Jazz, Anita O’Day, and for that, I’m thankful. It’s the sort of career shift that makes me appreciate her continuation as a musician; from this point on, while she would remain rooted in traditional folk, her albums would become almost thematic in sound and appearance.
The Gospel Truth is an entire collection of “agnostic gospel songs” calling for unity, “Together,” questioning the church’s discrimination, “(Why Is Your) Heaven so Small,” it’s the lyrics here that work so well; revealing Werner’s quick wit and humor. While some topics are rather serious, themes of faith and spirituality, a few lines here and there never fail to get a laugh when played live, Live at Passim, released a year later, captures this humor well. Werner is a charismatic performer live, and shows can be intimate and inviting. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but till this day, It’s The Gospel Truth I find myself returning to time and again.
Her next release would once again see a shift from her folk background. Featuring more piano work, 2009s Classics offers eleven covers of past R&B and pop songs. Her cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” is still a favorite, and the closing “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” a Brian Wilson composition, is another. 2011’s Kicking the Beehive found Werner working with a notable cast of musicians, produced by Country legend Rodney Crowell; the album featured guest appearances from Vince Gill and Keb’ Mo. It’s one of her most robust collections, fusing her past work, from folk to jazz, country to r&b, into a unified whole. The title track is a catchy ode to stirring the shit, lighting the match, and watching the burn. “Irrelevance” is a shuffling tune about the inevitable decline in one’s relevance that comes with time; the lyrics, tongue-in-cheek and slightly self-deprecating. “Nothing I attempt will matter in twenty years hence,” Werner sings over horns and acoustic guitar, almost bossa-nova in its execution.
Returning to your roots, meant to suggest a return to an original sound or the work that provided you a following, is the best way to describe Werner’s next move, 2013’s Hayseed, a collection of songs celebrating the stories of rural life and small-town characters. Taking inspiration from her own Iowa upbringing and family of farmers, Werner infuses her compositions here with lyrics hitting on subjects of sustainable farming; the album isn’t as narrow as that might sound, songs like “Herbicides” also bitingly touch on marriage equality, “herbicides done made me gay!” while “Snowmobiles” focuses in on global warming. Her touring to promote this album, titled The Hayseed Project, saw her purchasing and handing out local produce before and after each show, speaks to the dedication and convictions behind her songwriting, it’s more than a simple gimmick to touch on trendy topics, Werner puts her money where her mouth is, “think before you spray those weeds!”
Werner’s next few releases become more conceptual in delivery, from album art to subject matter, 2017’s Eight Unnecessary Songs are humorous explorations of cosmetic surgery, “What Did You Do to Your Face,” an ode to a damn good beer “Pabst Blue Ribbon,” and advice on not sleeping with your boss, “Career Counseling 101 (Don’t).” The collection might not be Werner’s most consistent release, but each song is funny, and Werner’s wit is prominently displayed.
Influenced by culture and location, 2017’s An American in Havana EP explores the sounds and life of Cuba, whether that’s the smell of “diesel and cigarettes,” riding in a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, or singing in Spanish about the love of excellent coffee! Similarly, 2019’s NOLA, some of which recorded in New Orleans, uses a powerful Dr. John influence to muse on the culinary expertise of muffulettas, jambalaya, heartburn, and Commander’s Palace, “The Night I Ate New Orleans.” or interpolation of Funkadelic, advising anyone to release some stress, “Free your ass, and your mind will follow.” Both collections are charmingly sincere, and listeners can feel the evident love and respect Werner has for both locations.
Werner’s latest release is another return to her roots, referencing the sounds of Americana over ten original songs and a short thirty-four minutes. The songs here are more traditional and universal than those on her previous few albums. Tracks like “Why Why Why” is a yearning call to be answered in a relationship. While “Wine Bottles” is a jaunty reflection of wine bottles shrinking size, containing the same sort of comedic lyricism and delivery of Werner’s livelier tunes. Most affecting is the championing of small-town America, “Long Live (My Hometown)” is a tribute to the charm of a small town, both surviving hardships and the quieter, slower pace at which these towns have existed in, “Live another hundred years.” Werner sings, and many can surely relate.
While it may take a while to get through her back catalog, it’s never too late to take a chance on an underrated musician who has been consistently releasing albums for almost thirty years, touring, and continuing to engage her audience with an intelligent approach to songcraft, biting humor, and an endearing earnestness that’s both refreshing and provoking.