Life lessons lead ‘Little Sue’ to Oregon Music Hall of Fame
Shannon O. Wells
After seven albums and countless collaborations, singer, songwriter and teacher Susannah Weaver will be inducted into class of 2019 on Oct. 12
If You Go
What: Oregon Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12
Where: Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave., Portland
Inductees: Artists 3 Leg Torso, Dick Berk, Little Sue, Mark Lindsay, Michael Allen Harrison and Michael Hurley, along with side players Joanna Bolme, John Mazzocco, Don MacLeod, Gary Houston, Larry Crane and Paul Knauls; The Decemberists’ “I’ll Be Your Girl” is Album of the Year and Ural Thomas & The Pain is Artist of the Year.
When Susannah Weaver heard she would be inducted in the Oregon Music Hall of Fame’s class of 2019, she reacted with emotion and a touch of ambivalence.”I wept,” she said. “My first question was, ‘Are there other women being inducted this year?’ I didn’t want to be the only woman.”
She also struggled knowing she would be inducted alongside Michael Hurley, one of the long-established Northwest songwriters who captured her imagination soon after her 1992 arrival in Portland.
“I knew I’d been on the (Hall of Fame) list for a couple of years,” said Weaver, who records and performs as Little Sue. “But it’s very bizarre being inducted the same year as Michael Hurley. I don’t know if I ever would’ve written songs at all if it hadn’t been for Hurley.”
All that aside, the recognition feels pretty good for Weaver, a guitarist and singer who — since moving from Michigan to Oregon — has recorded seven solo albums, collaborated regularly with dozens of area musicians, and performed as opening act for luminaries like Roger McGuinn, Loudon Wainwright III and Bob Dylan.
“I’m very proud to be in the Oregon Music Hall of Fame,” she said. “I do feel like I deserve it, I guess. Again, so do lots of people.”
Breakups and breakthroughs
Weaver, whose seventh album of original songs, “Gold,” came out earlier this year, will be inducted into the hall’s class of 2019 at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Aladdin Theater.
Since the release of her debut CD, “Chimneys & Fishes,” in 1997, the Sauvie Island resident has created an endearingly personal and quirkily poetic body of work, including acclaimed country-folkish albums like “Shine,” “Crow” and 2008’s “Baby Knows Better,” featuring songs inspired by the birth of her son, Vaden.
Weaver wraps her fetching, slightly twangy voice — alternately heart-rending and sassy — around colorfully lyrical tales plucked straight from her own life: marriage, motherhood, sketches of unforgettable Portland characters — and plenty involving, as she says, “failed relationships.”
Weaver, 48, credits her knack for heartbreak songs to her intense relationship with the late singer/songwriter Jim Boyer, a mainstay of the fertile Americana music scene based at Laurelthirst Public House in Northeast Portland.
“Before I’d written anything, (Boyer) was sitting out here breaking up with me,” she recalled, gesturing toward the sidewalk tables just outside the pub’s door. “Ah, Lily (a nickname), your heart’s broken, go write some songs. And I did. More likely, he just said that to get me out of his hair.”
Boyer met Weaver soon after she moved west with The Crackpots, the zany, wildly eclectic ensemble she formed with college friends in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Weaver’s role in the band was limited to harmonies and occasional lead vocals.
It also was Boyer who introduced the fledgling singer to other eclectic, country-tinged songwriters.
A turning point came with Boyer “giving me a tape with the Beastie Boys ‘Check Your Head’ on one side and (Michael Hurley’s) “The Long Journey” on the other,” she recalls. “I’d never heard Hurley before. … It was like a key. I was like, ‘Oh, I thought I had to write like Neil Young.’ I’d been in The Crackpots for six years and never written a song. I thought, ‘Oh, you can be funny and still be poignant.'”
Town and country
Weaver enjoys the irony that Portland, not Charleston, West Virginia, where she lived from fifth grade through high school, introduced her to the twang and heartache poetry of country music.
“Some people are like, ‘Oh, it’s Little Sue from West Virginia,’ but I didn’t hear country music there at all,” she said. “I listened to Zeppelin, the Beatles, Rolling Stones. I didn’t listen to country music until I moved to Portland. That was Jimmy (Boyer) and (artists like) Gram Parsons.”
Her longtime friend Paul Brainard, a Portland multi-instrumentalist inducted in the Oregon Music Hall of Fame in 2016, says Weaver’s songs tugged at his heartstrings from the get-go.
After years of working mostly as a full-time musician, Weaver now is content balancing a less demanding performance schedule with a career as a substitute elementary school teacher in Portland and raising her now-teenage son.
“I can do both, but letting go of my identity as Little Sue was really good,” she says of teaching. “It’s made me happier about it: I’m a teacher and I write songs.”
In other words, for Weaver, the Oregon Music Hall of Fame is more than enough fame.
“I don’t want to be a rock star,” she says. “I love seeing new Portland artists really shining. But I’m a working musician. It’s one of my jobs, and I try to do it the best I can.”