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.
That's why she's looking to create new revenue by converting some outbuildings into storage rentals and by shifting the dairy to potentially high-profit cash crops, such as canola or, perhaps hemp, if Governor Jesse "The Mind" Ventura will sign an act to allow hemp farming in Minnesota. She says he's already expressed support for such a measure, which was vetoed by his predecessor.
"Preliminary research suggests you can make upwards of $800 an acre," Haus says. "There are entire new lines of food products and hair and skin-care products using hempseed oil, as well as synthetic motor oils, biomass, fiber--you know, 150,000 practical uses for the plant. We grew it in wartime up there on our farm. I've already got a contract for every pound of seed that I can produce from a company in Denver. It's a ground-floor market. My God! I could pull in 50K a year on a small farm!"
Unlike the stereotype of farm life stultifying creative individuals, the Haus farm was a place where music and art flourished. Her seven siblings (three brothers, four sisters) can all "sling a guitar," among other instrumental and vocal talents, and a number of them have bands of their own. Her mother, who was born on the farm, still plays harmonica.
Growing up, the conditions for Haus were primitive--no indoor plumbing or electricity (so no radio or TV), and no heavy farm machinery. "I grew up the way most people's grandparents grew up," Haus says. She went back for a nine-week visit last year to help clean up some summer-storm damage. "I spent two weeks chopping wood," from 21 trees downed or damaged by wind. That's when she found out how bad things really were for her family, and so she decided to move back.
The decision was difficult because Arizona has been a land of opportunity for Haus, a place that she says has helped her grow as both a person and musician.
"I came out here on vacation in '83, and I fell in love with the desert," she says. "I moved out the following October and decided I was going to follow my dream and do art and music, and it just seemed to magically start unfolding for me."
As you might expect of a potential hemp farmer, Haus spent about six of the ensuing years "on Dead tour," catching about 300 Grateful Dead shows in that time, playing guitar in parking-lot jams and hawking tee shirts that she had airbrushed or tie-dyed. "I really learned a lot about music that way, the troubadour tradition."
Every troubadour needs a signature tune, and Haus is one of those rare people on the scene who has written her own, "The Mechanic's Tune." It's a lusty blues that could just as easily have been called "Looking for Mr. Goodwrench."
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"It's an ode to the '64 Chevy that I've driven for the last 12 years," she says. "It's like wishful thinking, you know? Where's Mr. Goodwrench when you need him? I'm always working on that thing, always up to my ass in grease on that thing. It's a lonely job."
The song earned her national notice, getting played on National Public Radio's "Car Talk" and winning the grand prize in the 1994 Rocky Mountain Songwriting Contest. "That was a pretty big deal," Haus says. "They flew me to Nashville, and I did a recording session down there, and met with all kinds of A&R people, and had lunch with hit songwriters, and I got to just really get dipped into the Music Row scene."
Now, in addition to working on the farm, she's looking to dip herself back into the Minnesota scene, where she enjoyed some success before she came to the Valley. (She played on Garrison Keillor's St. Paul-based "Prairie Home Companion" back in 1987.)
"I'm hoping it doesn't take me 10 years to break into another city," she says with a laugh. "I think I've got a few stats now, though. I can go back and say, "Can I please play at your bar? This is my scrapbook.