‘Gospel Truth’ richer with each telling
While Susan Werner probably could have kept to the traditional folk-based style that earned her a major recording contract early in her career, that simply hasn’t been the Chicago-based singer-songwriter style.
Instead, she’s explored soul and country music, wrote an album of songs in the Great American Songbook jazz mode — where others simply recorded the original classics, and, for her most recent release, immersed herself in gospel music.
Although the music featured on “The Gospel Truth” (Sleeve Dog Records) contains the authentic soul-cleansing feel one expects from the genre, its lyrics are untraditional in their questioning of the role church and religion plays in modern day America.
In some places Werner has performed since the album’s release, lyrics such as “Lord send us forth to be of service/to build the schools to dig the wells/and deliver us from the creepy preachers/with their narrow minds and very wide lapels” – from “Our Father” - have upset some or her audience members.
“We’ve had walkouts on this tour by people who just will not tolerate their belief system being questioned in the least,” Werner said. “They get up and leave.” One woman at a show in Charleston, W. Va. yelled “Heathen!” at Werner before tossing her program in the air and storming out of the venue.
At the same time, with sex abuse scandals having brought similar tough questioning from church members still believing in the Bible’s message (she calls herself an “evangelical agnostic”), the album’s songs have been a welcome gift for others at her shows.
Some have told Werner, “This album has changed my life” and “Thank you for putting into words what I’d thought but couldn’t quite say about the church.”
Others related that, “These songs make me cry, they are so beautiful.”
As the tour supporting the album has progressed, some of the material has moved from its initial gospel style to having a more blues-oriented feel.
“That works because gospel has roots in the blues, so it’s just gotten richer, really,” Werner said. “But mostly the songs mean more to me (now) because I’ve learned how much the songs mean to so many people all around the country. It’s an honor to do this show now, because it feels like a kind of public service, much more than just another show.”
Another reason for the bluesier sound is the fact Trina Hamlin has been joining her at many of her performances. “Trina is quite possibly the greatest female harmonica player ever,” Werner said. “She adds so much to my shows, in terms of feeling and rhythm, just unbelievable.”
Werner will spend most of her summer on the East Coast performing at churches, amphitheaters and festivals – including the Nashua River Valley Folk Festival on Aug. 10. She does a lot of her musical research while driving from show to show.
“I have Sirius satellite radio in the car and when I was writing this gospel album I listened to the gospel channel, and the bluegrass channel, and did a lot of homework that way,” she said. “I like being able to choose a genre of music and study it exclusively, and satellite radio channels enable me to do just that. I love it.”
Being on the road with an open ear, Werner’s able to hear a lot of great new folk artists before most of the listening public does.
“Anais Mitchell is quite a writer and interesting thinker,” she said. “I like the trio Girlyman. Their sound of three voices together is great, and they’re really smart and funny. Natalia Zukerman, who’s in my band, is a fantastic songwriter and performer on her own.”
She’s been working on her next recording project – details of which she chose not to reveal – with producer Crit Harmon in Boston.
“My home’s in Chicago, but Boston’s a town I’ve come to know well, playing shows here and making records here,” Werner said. “I know my Soldier’s Field Road from my Fresh Pond Parkway.”
As her career has progressed, Werner has mastered the differences between playing in close-quarters coffeehouses and large outside performance venues.
“In the summer, on outdoor stages, you really want to keep your presentation simple,” Werner said. “Don’t get all caught up in the nuances of things. They’re inaudible and invisible from a distance and audiences have a different attention span in the summer. People are enjoying the night, the sky, the warm weather.
“In the winter, indoors, audiences can be like diamond cutters — so precise, and so aware of the difference between what’s good and what’s really, really great. In the summer, people just want to kick back some. And so do performers, by the way. We want to have fun, too.”
Much of that fun happens when roads that seldom cross during the traditional cooler weather coffeehouse season line up to bring performers together for impromptu partnerships and all-night jams.
“The jamming, the hanging out afterwards, is always the best part of any festival,” Werner said. “The spontaneity — the willingness to take chances, to wing it, and to stumble on a magic moment between a few musicians — that’s what it’s all about in the summer. It is one of the great rewards of doing this for a living.”
Susan Werner and Trina Hamlin will perform at the Nashua River Folk Festival on Aug. 10 at the Pierce Homestead in Lancaster. Tickets can be purchased at the Clinton Item and Sunrise Boutique in Clinton or online at lancastercoffeehouse.com.