My introduction to the music of Susan Werner was in the fall of 1999 when a friend who produced a local acoustic music radio show lent me copies of Time Between Trains and Last of the Good Straight Girls. I was instantly enchanted with the sincerity and wit that Werner brings to her music. Her last album was a thematic collection of songs that sound like they are from the '20s and '30s, but are all original and new. Recently, Werner made available for download a song she describes as an alternative national anthem. "This is a song that takes the National Anthem and turns it on his head," says Werner. "It's Francis Scott Key meets Arlo Guthrie." I had the pleasure of speaking with Werner about the song a few weeks ago.
I wanted to start off by talking about "My Strange Nation," the song that you have posted on your website. What were you thinking about while you were writing this song?
I wrote in January 2005 after wandering around for a month or two after the November election wondering, "What? What just happened? What was that?" I came to the conclusion that the country had become unrecognizable to me. I was walking – a lot of songs show up when I walk to my office and back – the melody came to me that sounded like a trumpet call. The melody sounded like an anthem somehow, with the wide open prairies, the west, Aaron Copland or… think of the theme to Bonanza. [laughter] That type of melody showed up with the words "my strange nation" attached and the rest was pretty evident. This was some kind of anthem that would acknowledge my ambivalent feelings about the country I live in and the country that I love.
Were you nervous about sharing this song with other people?
Yes. I felt nervous about it. Whenever I feel something strongly in a song, so really strongly that it comes from a very personal place, I wonder if anyone else is going to have felt the same thing. Sometimes as a songwriter you have a sense that, "oh, this song is going to belong to more people than me." I wasn't completely sure about this song. In the most foolhardy of debuts, I played it in front of 3,000 people at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival hoping it would work but not real sure, but thinking, "Maybe this is the right town." It turned out to be dead-on. It was a total smash success and let me know that I was not alone and in fact there were 3,000 other people that shared my opinion. That was very encouraging. I could hardly sleep that night.
Have you gotten that kind of a response when you've played it elsewhere?
I've gotten all kinds of responses, mostly very strong in favor of the song, standing ovations and the rest. There have been a few occasions where someone walked out. A couple got up and walked out in Rockford, Illinois. I've seen people turn to each other and shake their heads in disgust. It just doesn't agree with some people. Some people will sit on their hands at the end of the show.
Your press release emphasizes that the song is different from what the Dixie Chicks or Neil Young have been saying. Do you think that their approach is wrong or too strident?
I've had people come up to me and say, "I love that song. You're more optimistic than I am." So I know that this is to the center left. This song isn't situated all the way out there. It's been surprising to me to discover myself as a moderate. The fact that I communicate feelings of affection for my country – there's no where else I want to live. I'm not leaving. I love the geography of this country, and the vitality and creativity of this country.
I want to stay here and have it be the best thing that it can be instead of yielding to the most fearful things that it can be. In that way, it's different from some of the general nastiness going on out there right now. I appreciate where that comes from. I think we all do. There's a sense of exasperation. "How can this have happened? How can this continue to go on?" I appreciate where that comes from. My point of view is somehow more affectionate, and willing to express that openly. One thing I have said before introducing this song is that this song is a love song. In performances it becomes quite apparent that that's what it is. People laugh at first. They think, "Oh, it's going to be nasty. She's going to make smart little remarks."