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Susan Werner: Flyover Country
by George Graham
(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/14/2020)
I have often commented that the singer-songwriter genre is one of the most wide-ranging in music, taking in everything from folkies to jazz-oriented to bluegrass to world-music influenced, to straight out rock and roll. However most of the individual artists tend to stay in a certain stylistic realm. This week, we have the latest release from a prolific and versatile singer-songwriter whose music has encompassed several genres, often focusing an album on a particular style. She is Susan Werner, and new release, her 16th, is called Flyover Country.
A native of Manchester, Iowa, Susan Werner has long been part of the Philadelphia music scene. She has drawn on her Midwest roots in several of her albums over the years, but her recordings have spanned jazz, Gospel, folk, New Orleans and Latin American influence. She was once a guest of the late Marian McPartland on Public Radio’s Piano Jazz program. And she was composer and lyricist for Bull Durham, the Musical.
Now on her latest album Flyover Country she brings in country influence and revisits some scenes from her upbringing on a dairy farm. As usual, the album does not disappoint. She is a superb lyricist, usually making her points in direct unambiguous language, but still managing to pull at the heartstrings, introduce a clever twist, or bring a smile. She is a world-class vocalist who brings the clarity and technique of a jazz singer to her work, and she can create memorable melodic tunes.
The album’s title Flyover Country is a kind of double entendre, referring to the way the those flying between coasts look down at the large expanse in the middle of the country, and also the “country” in the title is a reference to the principal musical influence, with the prominent Dobro of Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner who also served as the album’s producer. Ms. Werner also writes in her notes about the album that she set out to create some country lyrics. The result is a fairly short 34-minute album with ten memorable songs ranging from an old-fashioned breakup song, a drinking song, one about a car, reminiscence of scene from her childhood in the milking barn, to some social commentary. The arrangements run from full band to scaled back, with Brenner’s Dobro being prominent in almost all the songs.
Opening is a tribute to her Iowa hometown of under 5000 residents, a song called Long Live. It’s served up nicely with an electric band, with the twang of the Dobro. <<>>
The album has a bit of allegorical social commentary on the song Snake Oil, which one could argue has definite relevance in the Trump era. <<>>
Ms. Werner has written a number clever songs about cars that have appeared on her albums, often showing some nostalgia for the big old cars of the past. Flyover Country has another in that mode, Eldorado which she puts in the context of growing up. She writes that her father never once bought a new car. <<>>
A classic country song topic is the breakup or divorce. On the traack Why Why Why, Ms. Werner puts it in a more folky musical context, though Brenner’s Dobro is weeping away. <<>>
To Be There is one of the more interesting songs on the album. It was created during the pandemic, with Ms. Werner unable to travel back to see her family. She writes that she was looking for an old Carter Family song that would be relevant, and when she did not find one, she wrote this one in the classic style. It’s another gem. <<>>
A country album would probably not be complete without drinking song. Flyover Country contains one Ms. Werner wrote with John Gorka called Wine Bottles, done in a kind of whimsical Western Swing style. <<>>
Another scene from her childhood on the farm is related in Barn Radio, in which Ms. Werner reminisces about being in the milking barn with her father when she was growing up. <<>>
The album ends with one of its most poignant and yet ambiguous songs, In Lieu of Flowers. Ms. Werner says that the process of writing the song song helped her to get through a period of grief. <<>>
Susan Werner is one of the most versatile and consistently high quality singer-songwriters on the scene these days. In her nearly 30 year recording career, she has racked up an impressive catalog of albums that are notable for their variety with many of them “concept albums” inspired by a musical style or set of lyrical topics. Her new release Flyover Country is no exception, with country influence and reminiscences of her childhood hometown. Once again, she comes through with her combination of on-the-spot writing, excellent vocals, and tasteful musicianship. There’s not a track on the album that could be considered filler material, and songs are models of succinctness, with only one exceeding four minutes, though saying a lot within that time.
Our grade for sound quality is about a B plus, mainly because I have heard Ms. Werner’s wonderful vocals recorded with much better clarity on previous albums. The vocals on this album sound overly compressed and even a little overdriven at times.
With such a consistently high quality artist as Susan Werner, it’s hard to say which is her best album, since they are all different, and all have much going for them. But Flyover Country is another jewel likely to appeal to both her fans and those who might not have yet discovered this musical treasure.
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