You never know what delights you’re going to uncover on a new CD by out singer/songwriter Susan Werner. Recent discs found her reinterpreting classic pop tunes, turning gospel music on its ear and breathing new life into the American songbook. On “Kicking The Beehive” (Sleeve Dog), Werner slips into a pair of comfy cowboy boots and fixes the brim on her 10-gallon hat for the hottest hoedown in town.
WiG spoke with Werner shortly before the release of “Kicking The Beehive.”
Gregg Shapiro: On “Kicking The Beehive,” you turn to country music.
Susan Werner: I just wanted to get out of town. Get out of the city limits. Maybe the direction on this project is South. There was an important trip I took where I went from Memphis down to Clarksdale, Miss., down to New Orleans. I think it’s important for every American to do it. And any fan of music has got to do it. You got to do your own thing down Highway 61. And once you see it, you just get it. And you come to treasure your own American heritage more than you would other-wise.
Do you think because of that trip these songs had no choice but to come out sounding like this?
These are the materials, yeah. There was something about getting behind the wheel, bringing a guitar and a notebook and a pen, that’s it. Just get back to the land in your own ways. This album is a pickup truck and a shovel in the back. It was get down to basic elements.
Has living in Chicago, which is kind of the birthplace of insurgent country, had any influence on you?
I can’t say that. But I can say that it took me back to tractors and AM radios, which is what I grew up with. Just getting out to the dirt, getting some dirt under your nails. No fancy language in this. … This is not the wit and the cleverness and the funny jokes.
“Kicking The Beehive” was produced by Rodney Crowell, who also produced Chely Wright’s “Lifted Off The Ground” disc. So he’s on his way to becoming the lesbian country diva performer of choice.
There should be a statue of Rodney in Nashville. Or in Houston, if they knew. He’s so … I’m trying to find the words for him. He’s deeply kind and deeply cool at the same time. How anyone can manage that, I don’t know. But he does. He’s so smart and so tuned in. And all the guys would just play. They would go through the wall for him. If he asked you to do something you would do it.
One of the songs I keep playing over and over is “The Last Words of Bonnie Parker.” Did you traverse some of Bonnie and Clyde’s path in your travels?
No, I just started writing a song, the first verse, “I just want to be with you, I just want to be with you.” I’m like, who’s talking? Who’s talking? This is not me. It is me, but it’s not me. Who is this? It’s one of those moments as a writer where you feel like you’re being taken on a journey, and it’s going somewhere that you, you know you’re not going to steer it, just follow it.
Your humor surfaces in “Irrelevance” and “Botanical Greenery Blues.” You can’t leave humor out, right?
No, why would you? Look, I hate records that are serious from start to finish. I don’t trust people who don’t laugh. Humorless people? I’m sorry, you take yourself so seriously, shut up. Oh God, artists, oh please stop treasuring yourself.
Now that you’re a country singer, how do you feel about Gwyneth Paltrow playing a country singer?
I haven’t seen the movie. Look, she can sing on pitch and she looks good in a mini skirt. These are the two qualifications you need more than anything. A mini skirt and auto tuning, and you’re on your way.
Do you foresee yourself spending more time in Nashville?
Yeah, Nashville is great. This is going to surprise some people who think that Nashville is a backwater. But Nashville has a couple things to offer any fan of music. Nashville honors a storyteller, let me say that. It honors the telling of story with music. It honors virtuosic talent, of certain kinds. And, as back waters go, it’s a fairly sophisticated back water. You have the symphony, you’ve got restaurants, it’s a good quality of life in Nashville. It’s a big small town. I think Nashville is underrated. Especially when you encounter the pool of musical talent that’s there. It’s fantastic, endless.
And there’s a growing queer community in Nashville.
That’s where the fresh energy is now. When you think about Utah, Georgia, it’s these states. I always like playing blue towns in red states. Those are my favorite audiences. They’re the most intense audiences. I love Fort Worth. I love Cow Town. Because it’s so conservative. But the liberals there are like, “Please, come and tell us we’re not crazy (laughs).” There’s the Bay Area and there’s Boston, those are both great markets for me, it’s wonderful, but you just feel like there’s almost nothing I could do that would just send a jolt down the center aisle.