Susan Werner Shares Nostalgia with Nuance, Mining an Approach That’s Both Rich and Relevant

Susan Werner | Flyover Country | (independent)
Four out of Five Stars

Susan Werner has always been a remarkably perceptive artist, one who’s able to tap into the current climate and share sentiments that ought to be expressed. Her new album, and her 14th studio set to date, Flyover Country, is no exception. While it’s grounded in a specific theme — that is, her love of the heartland sounds that inspired her early on, the sentiment goes far deeper, a reflection of the absolute uncertainty that’s plagued the nation since the beginning of the year and, in reality, further back than that.

“For a while now, I’ve been committing myself to concept albums, sets of songs that share a theme and a genre,” she reflects. “I’m not the first one to say it, but to operate within limits has a way of freeing you up somehow. Something like, if you already know the shape of the pool, you can go ahead and dive in and see how deep you can get.”

That’s a stance that’s clearly defined here, especially on songs that bear such wistful reflection — “Snake Oil,” “Eldorado,” “Barn Radio,” “Only Later,” and “Wine Bottles,” each of which find her diving full on into the fertile musical firmament of her Midwestern youth, where a communal sense of shared purpose, jubilance and joy was gleaned from the music made with friends and family. Within that overriding arch of timelessness and tradition, a myriad of themes emerge — the love of life in one’s hometown, the encroaching fear of an uncertain future, the ever-constant struggles with grief, excess and the need to finds one’s own path forward. Werner does so in a way that reflects her Everyman attitude, one that her listeners can relate to, albeit from their own personal perspectives. On the song “Why Why Why,” she distills it all down to the basics, as framed by a confrontation with a cheating lover.

“I don’t wanna be wrong
I don’t wanna be right…
I just wanna know why why why…”

“To me, writing a concept album is kind of like a language immersion course — obsessive listening to one musical tradition and its defining artists,” Werner reflects. “I kept pressing repeat on Bob Wills, Jimmy Rogers, Louvin Brothers, and Willie Nelson, plus singer/songwriter heroes like Jimmy Webb, Rodney Crowell, Darrell Scott. Once you get the sounds and song forms in your ears, the subject matter starts to attach itself like velcro.”

Still, the subjects are not always what they otherwise seem. Werner, who also composed the music and lyrics for Bull Durham, The Musical, a show based on the film of the same name, readily admits that her mixed metaphors can lead listeners down unexpected paths at times.

“Sometimes, the content runs counter to the style,” she suggests. “That’s the case with ‘Snake Oil,’ a bluegrass tune about a salesman pitching authoritarianism. Other times, the subject matter is the logical extension of the style, as with ‘To Be There,’ which I wrote to sound as if The Carter Family might have been looking forward to the end of a pandemic. And that style of music, blood harmony, in a song about missing our families, is about as good a match as a songwriter like me can hope to luck onto.”

Werner also adds that the latter song in particular was her way of addressing the pandemic, and that originally, she hoped to find music that had been written during a previous epidemic. Ultimately, she wasn’t able to find any, and that’s why she wrote her own, imbuing it was an overriding optimism that there will be a way out of this deepening crisis. Not surprisingly, “To Be There” ended up being tapped by the Biden/Harris campaign as one of its essential songs, and was subsequently played at the conclusion of the team’s pre-debate pep rally. It’s an emotion also found in the swaying ballad “How Much,” an offering of unbridled devotion and dedication as well as the lovely hymn-like closer “In Lieu of Flowers.”

It’s those simple sentiments that make Flyover Country such a relevant excursion, one sorely needed at a time when constant conflict and manipulation so easily lead us astray in any attempt to shape our perceptions. Credit Susan Werner with the ability to remain grounded in the present while taking inspiration from past precedence.

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