Farmer Songs Capture Intensity of Inner Lives

September 16, 2013 12:00 AM
Farmer Songs Capture Intensity of Inner Lives

Susan Werner began writing songs about farmers when her parents announced they would be leaving the family operation—160 acres west of Dubuque, Iowa, with a 50/50 corn-soybean split—and moving to town. The singer with a dozen albums to her name wanted to convey the language, characters and personalities she cherishes.

"I wanted to capture as much of it as I could before it disappeared from the immediate experience of my family," Werner says.

What began as a modest Internet campaign to fund the project turned into a full-fledged joint commission by the Lied Center for Performing Arts and the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, both part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The resulting album, "Hayseed" features 11 titles including "City Kids", which describes how country kids view those from the city; "Egg Money", a humorous story about a resilient wife-turned-murderer; and "While You Wait For The Rain", an elegy for farmers in a drought.

(Click here to find a "Hayseed" tour performance near you.)

"We’ve coined this venture ‘Ag Meets Art’," says Bill Stephan, executive director, Lied Center. "Agriculture is central to life here in Nebraska. In order to fully communicate its importance goes far beyond the limitation of spoken word. Susan’s ability to capture rural life in a song has had a resounding impact on our audiences. Half leave the theatre laughing, half crying. Susan’s songs touch everyone in a truly unique way."

Ronnie Green, Harlan vice chancellor of the agriculture and natural resources institute, agrees.

"Her music speaks to the phenomenal story of production agriculture, and the University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is so proud to have had a chance to help Susan, through her musical genius, bring how agriculture indeed makes the world go round clearly to the public eye and ear," Green says. "It is a phenomenal collection of stories in music."

While she is pleased with the album, Werner says her favorite part about the songs is the opportunity to perform them on the road. Farmers generally are modest, humble and frugal, she says, and being on stage gives her a venue to spotlight the humanity, inner lives and feelings that the public often doesn’t acknowledge. Heartbreak, revenge and a variety of other feelings are represented.

"I feel a sense of responsibility about doing it right and making the most of this particular moment with this subject matter," Werner says. She recalls the words of folk legend Pete Seeger, whom she sought out at a concert for advice on doing for agriculture what he had done for the Hudson River. "Songs are better than speeches," he replied.

Making the most of the moment includes engaging in sometimes lively conversations with audience members, many of them conventional farmers, about what sustainable agriculture should look like. For example, Werner—who characterizes herself as a moderate—dialogued chemical usage with a no-till farmer at a recent concert in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The farmer argued herbicides and pesticides are necessary to get the best yield possible.

Werner had a somewhat different viewpoint.

"While I am a cheerleader for successful farming for all times, I do have a soft spot for sustainable and organic farming because I have such affection for the land, and I want the land to do well," she says. For her, that means preserving the topsoil as a resource, limiting inputs, and developing new crops and management practices.

Whatever a person’s perspective, Werner says, the fact is "we’re all sitting side by side, drinking the same coffee out of the same Styrofoam cup." She feels conversation is vital to finding the best land-management practices that will further agriculture for the next 100 years and beyond.

Werner sees renewed interest in agriculture among the American public, and that inspires her. Traditionally, a farmer’s work day has been hemmed in by the rising and setting of the sun, and she thinks many people now seek a similar sense of a beginning and end to their work day. What’s more, people long to connect to an industry where professionals perform physical labor with tangible results, in the face of great uncertainty.

"With farming, there is so much that is out of your control, especially with the weather," Werner says. "There’s a humility that farmers possess because they know so much is out of their hands."

Over the next several months, Werner will perform throughout the Midwest, including in Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Indiana. Along the way, she visits local farmers markets, buys the most interesting produce she finds and gives it out free to audience members, as she did recently in Birmingham Alabama, tossing out Chinese yard long string beans to the audience, which grabbed them up like Mardi Gras beads.

She encourages farmers to attend a show, stand up and "go crazy," even if it means shouting opposing views her way. She loves every minute of it.

"It’s been very satisfying," Werner says.

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