Suzy Bogguss Gets Lucky
Back in 1989, Suzy Bogguss reeled off her first hit with Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between.” Although the first album on which the song appears is long out of print, she’s continued to perform it these past 25 years, and it’s become a fan favorite. When she was casting about for ideas for her next album, she returned to Hag’s music: “Merle is one of the most masculine songwriters I’ve ever heard,” she says, “and I’ve been watching boys covering his music for years.” I thought, “Why couldn’t a girl do this?”
Well, this is Suzy Bogguss, after all, who can sing her way around any song, making it her own with an interpretive style that honors the original but takes the song to places listeners could have never imagined the music going, as she does on Lucky, her loving tribute to Haggard’s music. She turns the title track, for instance, into a slow burn blues number that’s as much at home in a torch club as in a honky tonk, while the jaunty steel on “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room” captures the song’s playfulness as the steel riffs chase Bogguss’ sultry voice over and around the tune.
Engine 145 caught up with Bogguss by phone a couple of weeks ago to chat about the new album as she was heading back to Nashville from the Tampa, Florida area.
What prompted you to do this album now?
It was sort of a slow process. It started out by my asking how I could get “Somewhere Between”—which was my first song on the radio and that’s now out-of-print—back on an album. We’ve been doing this nice trio blend of the song at our live shows, and after the shows fans wanted to know where they could buy it. Then, one day at sound check we started playing around with “Bottle Let Me Down” and liked it so much that we started playing it in the show.
Tell me how the album came together.
We were sitting at the kitchen table, and my husband Doug Crider—who also produced the album and contributed background vocals on several of the songs—said, “You should do an album of Haggard’s songs.” I thought, “I can’t do that; Merle is still active and out there singing his own songs, and people are still lining up to see him.” But, I spun the idea around in my head for a few weeks and realized how much I loved Merle’s songs and how much I wanted to do an album of his songs. I called him to ask him if it would be okay to do an album of his songs and kind of get his blessing, but we kept playing phone tag.
Did you and Merle ever connect?
Well, Marty Stuart was going out to California, so he took a copy of the CD on his bus; he didn’t see Merle, but he stuck one in Merle’s studio where he thought Merle would be sure to see it. He finally got a chance to listen to the album, and he told me, “I just love it; I love what you’ve done with these songs.”
How did you select the songs for the album?
I chose the songs that I could deliver honestly. I chose the ones that are pretty universal, that tell stories. With Haggard songs, the titles alone pretty much tell you what you’re going to get in the song. Like “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”; that’s not just a masculine song; we’ve all felt like that some time or another in our lives. Or, “Today I Started Loving You Again”—I can really relate to this song because there have been times when my husband, Doug, our son, and I have sometimes had to get out of each other’s way when our creative spirits are flowing. There just all this drama that goes on in all of our lives that the song captures so soulfully.
Why isn’t “Somewhere Between” on the album?
We cut it, but it just didn’t fit; it just wasn’t valid, once we’d cut the rest. Plus, the song’s out there on my “Greatest Hits” album, and we still perform it live at our shows.
Did you cut the album live?
Yes, we cut it with everybody in one room. We started in April 2013, so it didn’t take that long for it to come together. The great thing about cutting the album this way is that the whole song is there; the emotions are there, the lyrics are there, and we just got out of the way and let the song take over. The other great thing about cutting it live is that if one of the musicians has something going on, we can just get out of the way and listen. I’m also so fortunate to be working in the studio with the same band I travel with on the road. Like Chris Scruggs, who has such a reverence for the old style of music and various instruments but who also brings a cutting edge to things; he’s very creative. The same goes for Pat Bergeson, Charlie Chadwick, Chris Brown, Charlie Treadway, and Will Barrow; I feel so fortunate to be working with such a creative group of musicians. I also feel lucky to be making records in a studio in my house with my husband producing the album.
When did you start singing and playing?
My mom taught me how to sing harmony real early. I discovered I loved it and could do it well. I started singing when I was around five and sang in the choir and later in the chorus in junior high and high school. I started playing guitar when I was 14; I liked the idea of the guitar and the way it sounded, especially on folk songs by singers like Peter, Paul, and Mary, James Taylor, and Carole King.
Who are your three greatest musical influences? Songwriting influences?
First, Maurice Stephens, my junior high and high school choir teacher. He taught me music along with the rest of the class, but he taught me how to phrase and how to use dynamics. Second, Bob Applegate and Jim Waitt, the first folks I sang in coffeehouses with. They totally nurtured me and helped mold my taste and taught me guitar. Finally, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt are mentors as far as song selection goes. They always chose songs they could deliver in their own unique and genuine way. You know, as far as songwriting goes, my audiences have brought me things that have changed my life. Once I started realizing the craft of songwriting, I started to develop that taste for great songwriters like Merle Haggard.
Tell me about your approach to songwriting.
Well, I’m an under the gun kind of girl when it comes to writing songs. (Laughs) Sometimes I might have something brewing, but I do have to make sure I’m paying attention more than usual. I mostly co-write. Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters—who both sing background vocals on this new album—and we will pack up a bunch of food and some bottles of wine and head off to a cabin somewhere far away. We’ll start out very tongue-in-cheek but eventually get around to being more serious and not as catty. (Laughs) Sometimes Doug and I sit down to write and he’ll want to take the song one way, and I’ll think it should go the other way, and we have to battle it out. (Laughs)
You made this new album by funding it on Kickstarter, and you raised $75, 000 in just one month. Why did you decide to use this approach?
You know, doing it this way reminds me so much of when I first started out. I was running around in a camper truck, playing in folk rooms and coffeehouses. We had these folk co-ops to which we belonged where we took care of each other and told each other about places to play. To belong to the co-op all you had to do was to share with other the names of three places to play where they would pay you and feed you. When I put together my first album, I borrowed money from folks in bars. This isn’t so different except that when fans participated in the Kickstarter campaign, they’d get the album earlier than anyone else and it would have bonus cuts on it. You could choose how much you wanted to contribute; some people received a set of handwritten lyrics; one person will even get a private home event. These folks have been like patrons; if I was a new artist starting out today, I’d certainly be looking into Kickstarter.
You’ve explored several musical genres over the last few albums—folk, jazz, swing.
I’ve been letting my heart lead me. I always seem to learn a lot when I’m collaborating with other people. The album, Swing, that I cut with Ray Benson came out of a dream I had about Ray, whom I’ve known for a long time. I prefer the way I’m making albums now; it’s just more spontaneous, and I feel like I’m able to put more stuff down.
Merle Haggard’s been getting lots of attention lately, with at least half of Vince Gill and Paul Franklin’s Bakersfield being devoted to Haggard songs, David Cantwell’s great book Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, and now your album, Lucky. Are we having a kind of Haggard renaissance?
You know, what’s great about Merle is that he’s really out there hard at it, and I think this especially true since his son has been playing with him on the road. He’s got the pulse of the country in his songs. I think there’s a lot of vitality, too, in these two guys working together. I know once I started following Merle on Twitter, I started asking myself where I could see him.
How do you think you’ve grown as a musician?
I feel fortunate that I can still sing. I’m much more loose in the studio in terms of second guessing myself; if a cut feels good to me, that will have to be enough; I want a song to sound as fun to listeners as it was for me to cut. My shows are looser and more spontaneous; we’ll do a request whether we know the song or not. Shows now are about playing to who’s there that day.
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