On her latest album, Susan Werner draws a musical map of Texas

The singer-songwriter from Iowa discovers the Lone Star State with “Halfway to Houston.”

By Shelly BrisbinMay 23, 2024 2:27 pm, ,

Texas is not Susan Werner’s home, but she spends enough time in the Lone Star State to have developed strong feelings about the place.

Werner is a singer-songwriter, and on her latest album, “Halfway to Houston,” the Iowa native takes on the wide landscapes of Texas – from the Marfa Lights to a rooftop bar in Corpus Christi. She also stops along the way to namecheck H-E-B and share a few thoughts on Texas politics.

Werner joined the Standard to talk about her new album. Listen to the interview above or read the extended transcript below. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I think the first question that folks might have about this album is you know, why write an entire album about Texas, when you’re not from Texas? 

Susan Werner: Yeah. Like, there’s not a shortage of Texas music, to be sure. But in my own work, I found that travelogues are really appealing at this point.

As a career singer-songwriter with a national following, at some point you realize “I think I might have plumbed the depths of the self” – whatever that profound thing is supposed to be, the poet of the soul. And one way to keep things interesting is to pick yourself up and land yourself somewhere else. 

And I’ve done travelogues in the last couple of years. One called “An American in Havana,” one in New Orleans, one called “Birds of Florida,” about Florida.  And, then this one came about, and it’s mostly because family winds up there. And then you care in a new way. 

Do you have family here? 

I do, I have family in the Woodlands and down in Corpus.

And there’s an old saying – “people don’t care what you know until they know you care.” And suddenly you find yourself caring. And then you find yourself there and looking at it through the eyes of people you love, and especially children. And you want this place to be wonderful for them. And you see what is wonderful about it already, to them.

It makes the place matter. And affection is a good place to begin with, with any project. 

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I like that. You mentioned some of your other projects – place-based records. How is writing about Texas different than Florida, New Orleans, Havana? 

Well, the musical palette is different, right? I mean, the materials you work with.

When I did the Havana project, then I was down in Havana three times and you bring in the people who play trumpet, you bring in people who play congas, you bring in people who know how to actually play maracas, right? And you have to have people who are your guides along the way to make sure that you’re speaking true and playing the instruments right and hiring people who know how to do it.

So the great thing about Texas is that there is this template to work with. So there’s a musical template, but there’s also… I got to tell you, the generosity of Texas songwriters has just been just great. I think this is exceptional. I got to tell you. I think Texans feel like, “hey, writing a song – well, of course. That’s something you do like speaking.”

It’s not surprising to Texans that you might be a songwriter. It’s the most wonderful thing. And they’re like, “well, sure.” And I’m like, “I’m working on a song. Hey, Sara Hickman, you want to do this?” “Absolutely.” “Tish Hinojosa, I’m working on this thing. Do you think you might help?” “Absolutely.” The generosity of Southpaw Jones and Billy Crockett out in Wimberley and just how people are like, “absolutely, yes. Let’s do this and let’s make something great.”

I’d like to hear a little bit more about the song you wrote with Sara Hickman. It’s called “Tiny Texans.” Is this the first time you’ve written a song for kids about kids? 

I wrote a song about my home state of Iowa that was really a children’s song, but isn’t. And this song is that same thing.

And this is really because I have so many toddlers in my family in Texas. And I love them so much. And, to think about their lives in Texas, already their parents are like “we love it here.” Hmm. “We love it here.” Hmm. OK, what is that made of?

And this song, because Sara Hickman has kids and I now have little ones in my family down there, the idea of juxtaposing what it is that’s wonderful about Texas with what it is that’s not. You know that’s an old Kurt Weill/Bert Brecht kind of deal really. It’s like musical theater and you put these things next to each other that are unlike. That’s where the surprises comes. And this tune lands live! Like, oh my God!

It’s a place that that contains multitudes, I don’t think you’ll have any argument. 

That’s well put. 

As I listen to this record, I sort of felt like you had really made a study of us, that this is sort of an anthropology thesis wrapped up in a record. I mean, is that fair at all?

Yeah, I think there’s something to that. And I found myself going places I had never gone before because you can’t really just know Houston and Dallas and Fort Worth and call it a day. So I found myself headed out to Bandera and El Paso, Big Bend, Alpine.

And the love for West Texas is really deep, and for a reason. It’s amazing out there. There were about three or four songs from this record that came from Highway 90 coming down from El Paso, past Valentine and down to Marathon and through Big Bend and Terlingua and it’s wonderful.

And I saw the Marfa Lights. I don’t want to really hear anybody say that they’re not real. I saw the whole deal, and that was awesome to go to the viewing platform just east of town. And there were people from all over the United States and even Germany. There was a couple from Denmark. They’re like, “we think we’re going to see something.” And, sure enough, there was no doubt something was going on out there, and I’m glad I saw it. 

» WANT MORE SONGS ABOUT TEXAS PLACES?: Take your own road trip around the state through song with our interactive Google map

Can you describe what you saw? 

Yeah. There’s lights moving. There’s lights moving in the distance in unpredictable directions. Like, they shouldn’t be doing that. And I get it. Once you see it, you get it. And because some people think this is hippie nonsense, I’m telling you, there’s something there. And I was the most skeptical person. 

I’m like, “this is hippie woo-woo.” And no, it’s for real. And I just enjoyed it so much and I recommend it to anybody in your audience. You got to go and see what the thing is. Even just to be in the viewing platform, waiting for something magical to happen with people from all over the world. 

Yeah, that in and of itself is quite an experience. 

This album is rich with images and imagery, and as someone who’s traveled around the state, visits it often, is there a spot, a view, a place in particular that you find yourself revisiting? Either literally or in your mind? 

Yeah. I love the Galveston Beach. And Corpus was a real discovery, too. I mean, the water! I think that people outside Texas don’t really get that Texas has an enormous coast.  And, that song about Corpus – from the bar at the top of the Omni, that was just great. That was just great. And the view out across Port Aransas and Mustang Island.

 I mean, we hear a lot about you on the news, and not all of it is lovely. But you could make more of that coast deal, I think. Well, I already know, you know, people are moving there, but I’m just saying that coast thing is really a surprise. Big Bend was a surprise. You could work on your public relations, I think a little bit. You got a lot to work with. 

There’s no doubt it’s a big place with lots of wonderful things in it. You also wrote about the not-so-wonderful things, in your view. Why include some politics amid the beauty here? And was it difficult to do that? 

Look, I think there’s a moment when you’re an adult, you’re like, “OK.” You know you love people, you love members of your family. You love them, warts and all. You love them. Even if there’s parts of their personality that you’re like, “that really is challenging for me.” But I love them. And making room for that as an adult, I think, is what being an adult with affection [is] all about – is really caring for a place and caring for the world as it really is. I wanted to make room for that. 

And these songs, let me say one thing – I want to make sure and say this part of why this album happened as it did. So as I was beginning this record, I sat down with friends in Texas and I said, “draw me a map of Texas with a pen and a piece of paper.” And they drew me a map, right? And I have like ten different maps in my office here, and they all look a little different.

I asked people: “where do you think I really should go? What do you love about Texas?” And these hand-drawn maps were so interesting that they sent me to places that I didn’t expect to go.

Galveston was big with people. Port Aransas was big with people. Alpine. Big Bend. El Paso was big with people, and it invited me to make sure and go to those places and see what it was. I’d never spent any time in San Antonio.

That was the guide. The Texan’s affection for Texas itself was the guide, was really the map for this set of travels – about four different trips through Texas. And it was so helpful to have love from within kind of point the way to “here’s some places you might want to see” and see what happens there. 

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