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Derry native is executive producer of Grammy-nominated kids' CD

| Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012

A Westmoreland County native and former lawyer for The Washington Post is seeing her radical career change pay off: The children's album her indie label produced earned a Grammy nomination.

Mary Ann Werner -- who grew up in Derry, attended Derry Area High School, and lived in East Liberty and Green Tree as a young adult -- might be accepting the Grammy Award in the children's category on Sunday's show. Werner, executive producer of "I Love: Tom T. Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow," says it's hard to express the excitement she feels.

"We are a three-person operation. We were so excited by it," says Werner, 57, of Nashville. Her husband, musician-writer Eric Brace, and friend Peter Cooper produced the album. "This is beyond imagination that we're going to the Grammys. At the center of the whole project was one of the greatest country music songwriters of all time. These are his songs.

"It's just an honor to be nominated ... we were blown away," she says.

"I Love" -- released last May by Werner's indie label Red Beet Records -- contains 12 Americana songs by Hall, who celebrated his 75th birthday the same month the album appeared. The album re-imagines Hall's 1974 "Songs of Fox Hollow" album -- which produced two No. 1 hits, "I Love" and "I Care" -- and brings the songs to a new generation of youngsters.

The songs' inspirations came from Hall's Fox Hollow farm, where two of his nephews spent a summer years ago and asked many questions about the animals. The songs -- such as "Sneaky Snake," "The Barn Dance," "How to Talk to a Little Baby Goat" and "The Song of the One-Legged Chicken" -- contain rhyming lyrics and promote kindness to animals, Werner says.

For the 2011 album, Werner rounded up musicians who love Hall, including Patty Griffin, Duane Eddy, Bobby Bare and Buddy Miller. After rehearsing in Werner's garage, they got together and recorded the songs at the farm, where Tom and his wife, Dixie, still live, just south of Nashville.

"I think that was a really a great tribute to him, to ... take this record that was really dear to his heart, bring it up again and give it a new life," Werner says. "It's just been a fantastic process."

In 2006, Werner and Brace started Red Beet Records, which they run from their home. The couple met at The Washington Post, where Brace worked as a music columnist. They moved to Nashville several years ago for Brace's new job at The Tennessean newspaper; he also teaches country music classes at Vanderbilt University and sings in the band Last Train Home.

"We're just passionate about music, and we wanted to get stuff out there that, frankly, otherwise would not see the light of day," she says.

People often ask Werner whether she ever regrets leaving The Washington Post.

"Are you kidding?" she replies. "Duane Eddy came to my garage and played the guitar. Bobby Bare was in our garage. I love it."

Reviews of the "I Love" album -- which has instrumentation with a bluegrassy, country-like feel as well as Americana -- described the music as sounding grown-up, even though it was for kids. That's the way Werner and Brace want it to be.

"We honestly felt like we were doing something we could enjoy, too," she says.

Mary Fleming, one of Werner's Class of 1972 friends from Derry Area High School, bought four copies of "I Love" for her grandkids. She ended up buying a fifth copy for herself, because she loved the music so much. It doesn't sound like kids' music in a "Barney" or "Sesame Street" kind of way, she says.

"These songs ... still have beautiful messages that are relevant to today's kids," says Fleming, 57, of Derry. "We all couldn't be more proud of her -- all her classmates and friends from back home."

Brace and Werner often come to Western Pennsylvania to visit friends and Werner's 92-year-old mother, Beth. They play music at the Greensburg Concerts in the Park during the summer.

"We feel that part of the world is still very much a part of our landscape," Werner says.

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