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Susan Werner: Celebrating agriculture through music

Official press photo

Chicago-based singer-songwriter Susan Werner has worked on concept albums before – from jazz standards to pop classics to Gospel music for agnostics. But now she's turned to her farm roots for inspiration.

Werner, who's currently touring in the Midwest, describes her new CD, Hayseed, as "egg meets art," celebrating agriculture through music.

Werner grew up on the family farm near Dubuque, Iowa. When her parents decided to move to town about a year ago, the idea of creating a musical tribute took shape.

"We'd all wondered when this (her parents' move) might be coming. Six farm kids and we'd all gone to college and gone off to different parts of the Midwest and the country,"  Werner said. "They began looking at houses in town. We knew it was coming, and finally they found the one."

According to Werner, her family has worked the land in Iowa for generations since emigrating from Germany in the 1860s.

"This was an emotional event, a seismic event," she said. And she wanted to preserve the memories.

"You try to preserve the season, right? The cherries, or the rhubarb, or the tomatoes, something; you try to catch it in a jar," Werner said. "And I wanted to write songs that captured some of the language, the characters, the personalities, the storytelling. I wanted to write some songs that would preserve this for our time and future generations, and celebrate it really."

In the song Iowa, Werner sings an homage to her home state:

Of the state of iowa

The greenest corner of god's green earth

And when i say green

I mean, greener than ireland

Yeah so what they got potatoes

we got everything else

Humor as a "starting point"

The album Hayseed tackles agricultural topics such as drought, climate change, snowmobiles, the price of organic produce, and salmonella. The subject matter could be dry, but Werner infuses humor in songs like Herbicides.

Hey, hey, ho, ho, mom and dad how could they know.

Ho, ho, hey, hey, herbicides done made me gay.

"It's a little bit over the top, right? This song that says 'herbicides done made me gay,' Werner said with a laugh. "However, it does start a conversation with the audience. I like songs that have that effect. They start a conversation and if you have an audience laughing with you, you know there's a starting point."

The project was commissioned by University of Nebraska's Lied Center for Performing Arts and the Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"When we saw this opportunity with Susan, this was a perfect match for our mission of creating new work that has an impact on the lives of people in our community and around the world," said Bill Stephan, executive director of the Lied Center.

Werner is scheduled to perform tonight (Sept. 6) at the Lied Center in Lincoln; Saturday (Sept. 7) at the Polsky Theatre at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan.; Sunday (Sept. 8) at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs; and Sept. 28 at the Prairie Festival at The Land Institute in Salina, Kan.