Susan Werner at Coronado

Singer/songwriter takes stage at 8 p.m., Friday, March 30

Singer/songwriter Susan Werner will perform at the Coronado Theatre at 8 p.m., Friday, March 30.

Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the Coronado Theatre box office, charge by phone to 815-968-5222 or online at

Werner’s performance is in conjunction with the March 6 release of her CD The Gospel Truth.

As the Chicago Tribune wrote, Werner is “One of the most innovative songwriters working today.”

In summer 2006, Werner attended the Chicago Gospel Music Festival in her adopted hometown for the first time. The overwhelming, ecstatic energy of the event prompted her friend Kenni to remark: “Wow, is there a way you can get all this joy, but without the Jesus?” This honest, questioning comment sparked a creative odyssey that led Werner to pews in more than 20 churches across the United States in search of The Gospel Truth, a groundbreaking, independent collection that may just be the world’s first agnostic gospel recording.

Tapping fearlessly into the zeitgeist of contemporary American religious culture, the 11 songs on The Gospel Truth are both heartfelt and incisive, biting yet optimistic, drawing from Werner’s own personal spiritual questions to engage the Christian community at large. Addressing those tough universal doubts that even fundamentalists surely have but wish to God they could verbalize, Werner seeks common ground with her traditional religious counterparts in finding solutions to the issues that divide America.

A farm girl, raised in a large Catholic family in rural Iowa, Werner spent years caught in the spiritual middle between a healthy religious skepticism and a true appreciation for all that Christianity means to millions of people in the United States.

“For me, The Gospel Truth is the most American of Americana projects,” Werner said. “My personal doubts aside, religion gives us much of our energy as a nation, and is a source, I think, of the beautiful naiveté we have about truly being a force of good in the world. It’s part of the American personality. And I don’t necessarily feel I have to get right with God, but I figure we have to somehow get all right with God because God’s not leaving American life any time soon.”

Werner’s first step in getting at that truth is “(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small,” a pointed barb at the hypocrisy of “one way to heaven” religiosity. Producer Glenn Barratt sets Werner’s Appalachian gospel melody amidst groove-driven drums and sitars, which takes the song, as the singer sees it, “from Kentucky to Katmandu.”

Werner mines the Bible’s important passages about social justice in the sing-along, hand-clapping rouser “Help Somebody,” while on the soul-searching, choir-backed ballad “Forgiveness,” she questions loving one’s enemies when they use religion as justification for discrimination and oppression. And Werner’s neo-traditional bluegrass composition “Did Trouble Me” affirms the importance of conscience in a well-lived life.

The introspective ballad “Sunday Mornings” takes Werner (and, no doubt, thousands of listeners) back to their childhood memories of attending church with their families, and to a time, not necessarily a better time, when strict, church-approved gender roles ruled the day. “Our Father, The New Revised Edition” offers comic relief in the form of a direct prayer to God to deliver us from self-righteous people who think they speak for Him.

Werner then dishes up a New Orleans-styled shuffle for “Lost My Religion,” a kind of backslider’s lament. Yet, despite her doubts, Werner gives herself over to the evocative ballad “Don’t Explain It Away” (a nod to the possibilities of mystical transcendence) and to the sing-along “I Will Have My Portion,” a song that perfectly captures Werner’s desire to have all the joy without the Jesus.

The Gospel Truth closes with the truly “agnostic gospel” of the frank and humorous “Probably Not” and the hopeful “Together,” which imagines the kind of peaceful world God would want.

Werner made her first public performance at age 5, playing guitar and singing at church. She began playing piano when she was 11, and after earning a degree in voice from the University of Iowa, she completed her graduate studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she performed in recitals and operas. While she’ll still, on occasion, perform Madame Butterfly to close any one of the 125 club dates she does annually throughout the U.S. and Canada, she opted to forgo a career as an opera singer and dedicated herself to songwriting, performing at coffeehouses from Washington, D.C., to Boston.

Werner launched her recording career with the self-released Midwestern Saturday Night in 1993, which was followed by Live At Tin Angel in 1994. The second album impressed executives at Private Music/BMG, which released her major-label debut Last of the Good Straight Girls in 1995. She also received critical accolades for her subsequent recordings Time Between Trains (VelVel, 1998) and New Non-Fiction (Indie, 2001). She has toured the nation with acts such as George Carlin, Richard Thomson, Keb Mo and Joan Armatrading, and was featured in a 1998 Peter, Paul and Mary PBS special as one of the best of the next generation of folk songwriters.

From her folk/pop beginnings, to the songbook-flavored I Can’t Be New and now The Gospel Truth, Werner relishes the challenges of being a creative free spirit and says she’s in an exciting new phase of doing themed projects.

“I’m consciously choosing to do that now,” she said. “Not only because these types of projects challenge and interest me so much, but because, in a vast marketplace of ideas, I’ve found that it’s good to give the audience a clear concept and a specific point of reference where we can engage each other. And then the engagement is about as intense and committed as it can get. I love it.”

from the March 28-April 3, 2007, issue

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