by Mya Byrne, Staff Writer
Susan Werner is no stranger to the genre record. This proud Iowan and current Philadelphian is a stylistic polymath. A master of the concept album, her most recent release is Flyover Country, a collection of songs that evoke contemporary country/Americana, classic Western swing, and bluegrass, while taking to task the typical notions of what it means to be “country”.
It is, indeed, a true queer country record — Susan has not only taken these traditional song forms and performed them outstandingly, she’s taken the content of the material and queered it. To experience this album and delve into her creative process is a veritable masterclass in songcraft.
Flyover Country breaks open and questions the limitations that growing up queer in the country can place on a person. It’s an achingly beautiful ode to the American landscape and real rural life, with a true sense of place embedded within, incredible musicianship, a giant sense of wit, and scathing social commentary.
This album’s intent seems to be relatively clear in the title. People tend to dismiss the middle of the country, and queer folks tend to leave. How does your queerness inform your writing, especially with this album?
Honestly, it wasn’t until I started thinking about this Country Queer interview that I realized, “My God, there’s a lot in this record that is those things; it kind of sits on a corner and looks down both streets!”
But resolving my farm upbringing with my queerness has certainly been one of the driving forces in my career. Behind my writing is this desire to integrate these elements that were set apart, not by myself, but by the culture I grew up in—rural society and farm communities. There was no place for queerness in the eighties. Those of us in the queer community—we didn’t even understand there to be a community, but we knew somehow that we’d have to leave to really find ourselves. In my family of six kids, four of us are queer.
I hadn’t realized that.
Yeah. Sure, this was a challenge for the kids, of course, but also to parents who were given no equipment to handle something like that. For many of us coming from rural America, we feel like, “How do we put ourselves together if a part of us is at odds with the way forward, the way that’s presented by the people who love us the most and the best? What do we keep and what do we discard by the side of the road as we move toward becoming ourselves?”
Your Iowa background is very much a part of this record. “Barn Radio,” for instance.
Part of what this record is about for me is a desire to reclaim country music and music making — as I understood it as a young person — with my adult self. I mean that! Riding along with the tractor with my dad, sitting on the fender, he’s got the AM radio cranking out Conway Twitty and George Jones. I just loved all that music that was being played on the barn radio and around the house.
I learned guitar at age five, and we played hootenanny songs. Music was a social thing with my siblings and cousins. The country music tradition treasures this social aspect of playing music together. I mean, what does a bluegrass band do? It’s people playing music at the same time and then each executing parts within an ensemble in a common cause together for four minutes at a time. It creates agreement, and that is so powerful—humans are so powerful. On the singer-songwriter circuit, it’s just you and your guitar out there. It’s kind of a lonely pursuit. Yet country music is social at its core. People sing along, the songs are singable, and you can play it with kids in the car. Patriarchy aside, there are no obscene words. It’s really G-rated.
I wanted to renew some of that with this project. Part of it, I think, is that I am really stranded out East. When this is over, I’ll be happy to be closer to my family and landscapes that I love. I mean, I love cornfields. I love the open spaces. I like horizon.
Oh my gosh. Your part of Iowa, the Driftless Area, is so beautiful.
That little bit of hills! It’s underrated. If it’s where you grew up, that’s where your cousins are. That’s where your parents, grandparents, great grandparents are from. Everybody’s a farmer, you’re working right out of high school. But the economy is crashing, farmers are going bankrupt. So if this is the landscape that you knew and loved as a kid, you’re looking at this situation and saying, “There’s no future here.”
Again, if you’re queer, you’re probably gonna want to get out of there to find how to put yourself together. So you’re asked to say goodbye to things, to part ways with things. This desire to resolve this is really the center of this project. Maybe at the heart of what it is to be a country queer—there’s something about loving the physical landscape of a place, and trying to put that together with your own psychological landscape, creating harmony. I feel really happy with this project because I think that was the goal. I didn’t know that at the start of it.
I love the sound and the imagery. You’re capturing a side of America that indeed a lot of folks do fly over, yet you paint it in a way that makes it present as it truly is. Not as the caricature of rural America that many contemporary country songs tend to focus on.
Some of Americana and country music strikes me as absurd in the extreme, because to have lived it is to know how much physical work there is in a dairy operation, in a hog operation, the long hours of grain operation, in a combine, the harvest hours. The songs don’t always represent that hard work. I mean, the physical work of it is romantic in so many ways. But it’s the landscape that is the romance of country music, not the hard physical work.
But yeah, keeping it real? I guess I don’t know any other way. I mean, my mother only had lipstick for makeup. My father had one suit. We’re not fancy people. The dog lived outside, didn’t come into the house. In that way, maybe my music isn’t fancy. But it is sincere. It aims also to have fun. Sometimes I think the fun really carries the day.
I’ve had so many young women come up to me and say, “Thanks for helping me understand myself.” I’ll say, “Oh, I’m happy to have played a role in any way.” Then they’ll say, “Well, you make being queer look kind of fun!” And I say, “It is! It can be!” So the grooves on this record make me really happy, because I think they make other people happy.
I most identified with “Only Later Did We Learn.” That song in particular can be taken universally, but to me it speaks to realizing queer experience and then finding community within yourself and your peers.
No doubt. Certainly a lot of my high school friends, we didn’t understand each other as gay. What were we, the musical theater geeks? Athletes? But I don’t think we knew ourselves as gay people yet. I didn’t know myself as a bisexual person. But it’s so rewarding to reconnect with these friends as I tour, to meet their partners and meet their kids. We help each other make sense of ourselves; it’s joyous to see that we found our way. Had we known it would take years to do it? No. When people come from rural America and are gay, it’s friggin’ heroic, because it’s all stacked against you: “You’re going to have to give up so much or get out, or stuff it.” That’s where it was. But I’m seeing signs of the change.
There’s a young woman in my hometown who brings her partner to mass. That takes guts. They show up, they sit there — that’s how you do it. That’s real courage. I feel really fortunate that I have my life — I love my work and my life, but for someone to have stayed and say, “I’m going to work from within my community to change it; I’m not uprooting myself, I’m doubling down on this”? I just hold her in such high esteem, because that’s the really hard work.
There’s a desire to reclaim these rural areas as a place where queers can and should be, while also acknowledging their whiteness, and that it isn’t really their land—that these are occupied lands of indigenous peoples. I think that’s amazing.
That is the great work of this time. They’re choosing to do it as individuals without a lot of societal support. You talked about land. Something about country music is so much about the land, and white folks on the lands. My own family, like my great-great-great-great grandfathers—they received the land just for getting to Iowa. They got it for free, through homesteading: “You get out there and you can have it.” So if country music is music of the land—you know, “Down a dirt road,” et cetera—well, who has that land? Well, there are people who were born into enormous advantage to have access to land! How did you get what you got? “Freedom and individual liberty”? Well, you got “individual liberty” because you got all these advantages earlier on!
So there is this inherent racism in country music, and you just have to call it out. Part of my intent with my song “Snake Oil” was to call out some of that. But by using the means of a bluegrass song itself, it’s almost like a Trojan horse: “Here we are playing a bluegrass song, it’s just about this snake oil salesman.” Well, what’s he selling? Authoritarianism. Patriarchy. Racism. MAGA. There’s something about turning the form on itself that always appeals to me in a concept album. There has to be one or two songs that turn the thing inside out. Those are often the most powerful songs—they use the materials of the style to blow up the style.
How did “To Be There” become part of the Biden campaign? It is such a great, hopeful ode to the post-pandemic future: “One day there will be no shadow anymore /how I want to be there.”
My manager had some connections. She sent some songs along and they responded so positively, which could be for a variety of reasons; one of them, the pandemic. A key part of their pitch was that this should have been handled differently. I think the campaign probably liked the content of the song, which speaks to the pandemic and the hope for an end to it, which is what a lot of us support about Joe Biden—that he will roll out national programs that we need to get past this. He knows how to govern, basically.
I know many queer musicians who can’t bring themselves to sing right now. I think many are in a place of mourning, both around the pandemic and not being able to be together. Even before the pandemic, of course, queer/trans life could be difficult, but we would still go to clubs, or queer church, or a campfire somewhere, and sing songs together because it felt wonderful. It’s hard not having that outlet.
Well, that’s part of the reason I’m doing these livestream shows on Sunday nights. Recently, I did a show with Mary Gauthier; we duetted on “Mercy Now,” her world-class song. We pre-recorded it—I sang harmonies and played along. These pre-recorded duets for the livestreams—they’re magical. I’m not just saying that because I’m involved! It’s something about seeing people with their faces together on the screen. We cannot sing side-by-side in person, but in these duets, we can. It’s so powerful. It has so much feeling in it.
How did you record Flyover Country? Because it sounds like a good old-fashioned live-in-the-room ensemble recording.
It is, actually! I was originally going to make this record in Nashville. In January and February, I began calling some of my pals there. But once the pandemic hit, it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere. So I thought, “Well, how might I do this in Philly?” I called Mike Brenner, who I know from his work with The Low Road and Marah. He’s a tremendous lap steel player, and had just had the right players for everything, who brought their best selves to it. We were originally going to do it remotely, fly in all the different parts.
But then, as the viral numbers started to decrease in Philadelphia, we decided to figure out how to do it live. We had giant air filters in the studio and kept the windows open until the last minute. We all ran outside after every take, did all our meetings on the street, ate outside. Then we’d run upstairs, do a take, run back out. There were about four of us in there at any given time. I had my iso booth, and the engineer was way across the building. So we did our social distancing, and we made a record! Nobody got sick. We were just really cautious about it. I think what played a role is that many of the musicians on the record are parents and have families; they’re thoughtful and careful for their own reasons.
So, no good country record should be without an ode to a Cadillac and you have one in “Eldorado” — what a cool song. The story of trading in the family Pontiac for a hail-damaged Caddy — did that happen?
The truth is, my father has never bought a new car. This is rural life! One of the reasons that my father never went bankrupt on the farm is because he never bought anything new, and fixed broken things himself. This song is a bit of a work of fiction, but the fact is, you would buy something on sale if you had the opportunity, right? You buy a good time, but only when it’s on sale. In the Midwest, “hail sales” are relatively common. It seemed like a fun way to tell a story.
It’s a good time, a joyful track.
That’s one thing that I think sometimes gets overlooked in writing about queer music. Having a good goddamned time is its own kind of pleasure! Good music sometimes makes its own arguments—enjoying life as you are, in all the ways you’ve been, in all the people you’ve loved. It’s its own kind of advocacy for being all the things that we are. This song? It’s such great fun, and was fun to record. “Wine Bottles,” too.
“How Much” is so earnest and so sweet, a classic love song. It sounds like a standard. What in particular influenced it?
Willie Nelson! His songs are so heartfelt, plain-spoken, and economical. I wanted to write a song that just said it, without fancy language. No artifice. I thought, “This is really what my father would say to my mother if he was a songwriter.”
You just talked a little about your songwriting being like an immersion course; let’s go into that a little more. Walk me through your writing process when you’re making a concept record.
I’m glad you asked! Typically, I wait until I know what the concept’s going to be. Every album is like a love affair. In between records, I’ll come across a genre, and I’ll say, “What is going on there? I just can’t get enough of it.” I’m literally falling in love with a genre. Though I am personally monogamous, my career has been a series of affairs with various styles! It’s fun to fall in love. So I listen and listen and listen, then ideas start to attach themselves to the style. Subject matter starts to attach itself to the groove; something starts to happen that’s a little bit unconscious and kind of magical.
It takes patience and the willingness to pay no attention to it for a couple hours at a time. Then, you know something’s going on, but you don’t try to look at it directly for fear of scaring it off. These songs begin to emerge that seem to have something to do with each other and this style. Then I write a lot of them; I try to write 20 to 30, and keep the best 11.
Are you a “lyrics first” writer? Or a “melody first” writer?
If I’m lucky, both happen at the same time. Like a piece of DNA, right? If there’s a melody and some lyrics attached, I can spool out the whole song. If I only have the lyrics, it doesn’t turn out to be such a good song. If I only have a melody, it doesn’t turn out to be such a good song. If there’s a hook that has melodic, harmonic, and lyric material in it, that thing becomes the kernel of the whole song and will spin itself out. You just have to wait it out.
Let’s shift to “In Lieu of Flowers,” the album closer. It’s one of the few songs that have come out during the pandemic that really deal with tragedy head on, but there’s a subtlety here and so much joy within it. I’m guessing this was written during the darkest times.
This song was written after one of my brothers died by suicide in 2013. I found that I could not sing, for weeks. But walking around my hometown, the song kept showing up. The song wanted to be written, and the song was written because when you don’t know how to speak anymore, you sing. When you don’t know how to sing anymore, you write. The song was written because I needed to do it. This song somehow fits in 2020. I know a family now in my hometown that is planning their mother’s funeral by COVID. Many of them came home to plan it—and they got COVID.
This is such a dark, dark year. People are experiencing loss with extra cruelty attached. So if this song is of use to other people in any way at any time, I’d be overjoyed to think it, because if we haven’t already, we’re all gonna go through times of unexpected, unforeseen loss, and music can carry us; flowers only get you so far. But love and family—and music—can carry us through.