116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Susan Werner did her best Grant Wood impression when she crafted her 2013 album, “Hayseed.”
Wood, an iconic painter, who was a noted proponent of regionalism, is best known for his painting, “American Gothic.”
Wood, who grew up in Anamosa and Cedar Rapids at the turn of the 20th century and died in Iowa City in 1942, loved creating works capturing his home state.
Werner accomplished the same with “Hayseed,” which reflects on her upbringing in a farming family. The collection, commissioned by the University of Nebraska's Lied Center for the Performing Arts, is a concept album about people and lifestyles in farm communities in rural areas.
“ ‘Hayseed’ is one of my favorite albums, since so many people connected with it,” Werner said by phone from her Chicago home. “That album is about being a regionalist. The songs are funny. But New Yorkers were like, ‘What?’ when I played the material in New York. But Iowans get it. Those on the coasts have no idea.”
Everybody else understood it.
“It’s relatable material from Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) to Sacramento (California),” Werner said. “When I was on the ‘Hayseed’ tour I would go out and play places like farmers markets and I would toss out brussels sprouts on stalks and kohlrabi. I had a blast.”
Werner, who will play Friday night at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids, always has a good time when she performs back home.
“It’s always fun coming back to my roots,” she said. “This time it will be amazing, since my folks are coming and so are my siblings. I even have friends from high school and elementary school coming to the show.”
The West Delaware High School alum has traveled the globe and has lived in Philadelphia and the Windy City, but Manchester remains close to her heart.
“So much of it has to do with my family and the area,” she said. “Where and how you grow up shapes you.”
Werner came of age on a farm which had cows, chickens and hogs.
“I absolutely loved being around all of the animals,” she said. “My parents have always been terrific.”
They gave her the confidence to be a singer-songwriter.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” she said.
Werner couldn’t help but gush when it comes to her childhood.
“I owe my entire career to Pope John XXIII and St. Mary’s Elementary,” she said. “The Pope updated the Mass to allow contemporary music. The Franciscan nuns taught my brother how to play guitar. My brother taught me how to play three chords and that was the start of everything for me as a child.”
After appearing in a number of musicals and immersing herself in jazz band at West Delaware High School, Werner majored in voice performance at the University of Iowa and also in grad school at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“Cedar Rapids and Philadelphia are two cities that punch above their weight,” she said.
While in Philadelphia, Werner went national courtesy of 1994’s “Last of the Good Straight Girls.”
“When I made that album, I was advised to write in a broad manner,” she said. “It worked out, since I found an audience from coast to coast, but I prefer to write in a specific manner. I like to do things in a certain way when making music, and I like to do things in a certain way onstage.”
Regarding the latter, Werner is all for taking chances live and previewing new material, which isn’t the norm these days, since many recording artists don’t want material leaked via YouTube before their record drops.
“Guess what,” Werner said. “People don’t care that much, so play the songs live before they come out. At least that’s how I feel. I believe the stage should be like a lab.”
Perhaps Werner will catch some local theater when the charismatic entertainer returns, like she did in 2018.
Four years ago she experienced a play about Grant Wood at CSPS.
“I was knocked out,” she said. “It was a one-man show about an artist and it was so specific. Wood was an Iowan and there was something so ironic about his paintings. I aspire to what he achieved. It was fantastic. I get what he did.
“For me, I would rather not go broad. I prefer to go deep.”