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By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
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About to leave the Valley on a personal version of FarmAid, Rena Haus pauses, amid the confusion of packing, to page through her scrapbooks.
Whenever she points to photos of the performers she's opened for, like Maria Muldaur at the Rhythm Room, or Pat Benatar at the Celebrity Theatre, she punctuates each mention of their names with "what a blast." When she points to photos of Valley music veterans like Hans Olson, Chico Chism and Keith Secola, she says, "What a blessing it's been to know them and play music with them."
Haus, a native Minnesotan and a musical chameleon drenched in American roots music, spent 14 years in the Valley becoming a fixture on the blues and folk scenes. Although she is most effective by herself, just sitting on a stool, playing her guitar and belting out gritty blues or a delicate ballad, Haus played in a variety of bands and contexts--Wild Javelinas, Rena and the Reptiles, the Pugtones, A Grain of Salt, True Blue, Sistah Blue, and, most recently, the Glass Haus Band--all fondly remembered by local fans.
The bands, many of them driven by Haus' original material, ranged from blues to rock, bluegrass to swing. She praises her many bandmates and musical associates, a list that includes Jim Glass, True Blue's Dean Murphy and Chris Long, and Bobby Anderson, whom she calls "the god of five-string banjo," among many others.
"I had to have four or five different bands at times in my life because I write bluegrass, I write jazz, I write reggae, I write world beat, I write country, folk," she says. "So it's really hard to find players that are that versatile, that can play every style, and so I had to be in two or three groups at once a lot of times just to get my fix."
As you might expect, not every experience went smoothly, but she brushes off the bad stuff. For instance, "Sistah Blue was a good phase in my career. I put that band together, and did all the booking and the management, and named them, and financed them, and got them on the map, and then they threw my sorry ass out."
She laughs. "Kicked me out! It was a hostile takeover. Hurt me deeply, but I bounced back."
Sistah Blue, a supergroup collection of some of the Valley's best blues women, won the 1996 Arizona Blues Showdown and went on to the international competition in Memphis that October.
Haus has been a roster artist with the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and her work has been documented on just about every Valley compilation recording in the '80s and '90s, including Blue Saguaro, Desert Blues and an upcoming project called Blues Today, Vol. 2, a recording that will benefit the Paz de Cristo Shelter in Mesa. Her own recently released CD, Beer to Go, includes material recorded over a long period and reflects the diversity of her music.
As each page of the scrapbook triggers another memory, it's clear that Haus--also a self-professed "bleeding-heart liberal" who has worked for dozens of political and social causes--doesn't want to leave. "Oh, it's been very hard to say goodbye. I've had several meltdowns." She laughs. "I just turn into a puddle of tears." However, she feels duty-bound to go and fight the good fight back in St. Michael, Minnesota.
The 90-acre dairy farm where her family has lived for five generations is in trouble. "About a year ago, my oldest brother, Jim, got sick and never got well." Haus says he was diagnosed with "farmer's lung." Caused by repeated exposure to the high particulate matter found on a farm--dust, pollen, animal dander, fungi that grow on hay and silage--the condition is much like the "black lung" condition that coal miners face.
"They actually found an air leak in one lung, so he's on the list right now for a transplant," Haus says, "but the average wait is about 18 months, so they don't know if he will even last long enough to get it, or if he could survive a surgery at this point."
In addition, Haus' 80-year-old mother is in deteriorating health, and her youngest sister, who has been taking care of their mother and the estate, has been sidelined by a mysterious ailment that comes and goes. Although she's been through a battery of tests, there's no diagnosis so far.
"So for about a year now, there's been three family members with critical health issues," Haus says. "I want to really be there to help my family pull together."
She also wants to make sure the property remains agricultural because, in addition to the health problems, her family's farm faces the same market pressures squeezing out small farmers across the country.
"I come from a family of very independent, self-employed family farmers, and there's so many small farmers that are suffering, that are hanging on by a thread, and they're losing $40 an acre on corn and soybeans, and they can barely make a sustainable living for themselves and a family with an individually owned farm anymore."
On top of that, there's pressure from developers, who'd either like to buy the land or work through eminent domain to take it. "We've had several land struggles in the past, where they've tried to come in and just seize the property to build water towers and housing developments," Haus says.