Beautiful Dreamer, Beautiful Danger
Beautiful Dreamer, Beautiful Danger
A Q&A with Suzy Boggus
By Geoff Gehman
Suzy Bogguss was a music-loving teen in a rural town when she was first captivated by the beautiful danger of Merle Haggard’s songs and singing. She was a 32-year-old road-tested musician when she had her first charting single with “Somewhere Between,” Haggard’s typically lucid look at love in limbo. A quarter century later, she still considers Haggard a favorite messenger of her favorite musical elements: melody, story and honesty.
Last year Bogguss released an album of nothing but Haggard songs to satisfy fans who wanted more Merle from her and to satisfy her desire to record country-blues that stick to souls and soles. On “Lucky” (Loyal Dutchess Records) she applies her sublime skills—a clear, rich, compass-tuned voice; a settled-in-the-saddle feel for rhythm; a weathervane ear for emotional shifts—to songs painful (“The Bottle Let Me Down),” cautiously hopeful (“Today I Started Loving You Again”) and frisky (“Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room”). As if interpreting a rough man’s tough words wasn’t brave enough, she even tackled “Sing Me Back Home,” casting herself as a sort of singing narrator of a tale about a prisoner’s request to make life on Death Row less deadly.
“Lucky” is another naturally ambitious project for Bogguss, who has built a career around steadfastness and spontaneity. Over five decades she’s performed several times daily by a train station in Dolly Parton’s amusement park, toured for five years in a camper truck, spent a decade as a hit-making, prize-winning, tradition-spinning countrysmith for Capitol Records. Since launching her own label in 2001, she’s stretched even further, cutting an album of swing numbers and a CD/book tracking folk standards that introduced her to the wide, wide world outside Aledo, Ill. Helped by her husband, songwriter Doug Crider, she even cut her own folk standard, “Two-Step Around the Christmas Tree,” a tradition for everyone from dancing karaoke cowboys to a gay men’s choir.
Bogguss will perform on March 27 in the Mauch Chunk Opera House, her debut at the Jim Thorpe house. Below, in a conversation from her home in Franklin, Tenn., she discusses how Haggard helped her understand her parents better, how she saved her voice by not belting a half-dozen shotgun songs in a row, and how she doesn’t miss her gypsy-caravan days of solar-powered showers.
Q: So you’re a teenager in Aledo, Ill., driving with your friends in your father’s car, listening to Merle Haggard on eight-track cassette. What tune of his did you cue up over and over and over again?
A: It was probably something I didn’t record, maybe “Branded Man” or “Mama Tried.” Here I was in this small town, having my world opened up by this man writing from experience, who had been sort of a wild character. For me there was a kind of beautiful danger in country music, and I thought that both of those songs were so dangerously beautiful.
The car, by the way, was a 1968 Dodge Carrero. The color was the most horrid green and my friends all called it “The Snot Mobile”—“The Snot” for short [laughs]. If it was my turn to take the loop with all the girls, we’d take “The Snot,” which was my father’s fishing car; there was a canoe on top. Everybody would pile in, we’d roll the windows down, and we’d blast country music out the windows. Then again, maybe we opened the windows to get rid of the fish smell [laughs].
Q: You’ve said that one of the early attractions of Merle’s songs is that they allowed you to eavesdrop on your parents’ secret lives. When I read that, I flashed back to 1968, when my friends and I would read aloud the dirtiest passages from John Updike’s novel “Couples,” which was a merry-go-round of infidelity. It helped us understand our parents better during the era of key parties and bed hopping. Did Merle help you understand your parents better?
A: I think so. What Merle was singing about was a kind of dangerous taboo. At the same time I knew that life would be more complicated when I was older, so perhaps I should just let life slide off of me right now. Or I should try to get into it and understand it. You know, growing up in a small town, we pretty much knew everything that happened. I think I learned tolerance not only from country music but from that small-town life, where there were no gated communities. You knew sometimes you’d be with kids whose parents didn’t have great reputations. Sometimes the kids were misjudged, sometimes they weren’t, and sometimes you got into trouble. That’s just how it was: a certain amount of this, a certain amount of that.
Q: You and Merle are very vocally different—a bit like chalk and cheese, as my English mom would say. Yet you both shift styles easily. You both serve the song, lyrically and melodically. And you both have voices that are well-placed and square in the saddle. Are there any other things you two share?
A: You know, Merle called me after Marty Stuart delivered [“Lucky”] for me because Marty was performing at Merle’s daughter’s wedding. And Merle said: “I have always thought we were sort of alike.” This is how I took it to mean: We both like a lot of styles of music. We both inject our production and our live shows with a little swing style, a little bit of folk even. His band and his cohorts have a little more grit than the people who tend to hang with me. He’s a very masculine singer, so there was no way I could sing “Branded Man” or even “Mama Tried.” But there were a lot of his songs that spoke to me as human messages. And I think as singers we both like to do the same stuff: we like to stick to a melody; we don’t like to do a whole lot of acrobatics. We like to sing a melody that’s catchy enough to sing along with. To sing a song with a really great melody and an authentic story is about the best thing you can ever do.
Q: Another person who loves great melodies and authentic stories is Garrison Keillor, with whom you duetted on the 2008 “Rhubarb” tour of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Keillor loves to sing at the drop of the hat; hell, he doesn’t even need a hat dropping to break into song.
A: I’ve been listening to him since 1980 and as time has gone on he’s become more and more passionate, more fearless, about singing. He probably thought: Why shouldn’t I sing? It’s my show, and the audience is having a good time. And he’s so good at getting people to sing along with him. It was those intermission sing-alongs that helped inspire me to record “American Folk Songbook” .
Q: Do you have a favorite story about the impact of “American Folk Songbook,” the album and the book?
A: The only painful part of the process was putting only a fifth of those songs into the set. I wanted to sing them all because they’re so much fun. It was so fun to hear stories of how songs are passed down through families, how the first instrument they ever played was on “Red River Valley,” how “Shenandoah” is like a river flowing through their lives. That’s why I do “Shenandoah” almost every show. There’s something about that melody that has so much longing—like, I can’t live without you. There’s a lot of boo-hoo’s in the audience when I sing that song [laughs]. But I think it’s a good kind of cathartic.
I still want to know if there’s someone out there who needs to get turned on to these folk song the way I did, who needs to know more about how this great country came to be. There was more to the project than: Here are some songs we should share so they won’t get lost. That’s why I ended up doing the book. I wanted to explain, and find out why, I had such a connection with that folk music, the Industrial Revolution, the whole building up of the United States, those 30 or 40 years when the U.S. was growing in leaps and bounds with railroads and cowboys and the Gold Rush, all of which was reflected in songs, everything from gospel music to the [chants of] field workers. As fifth graders we were learning about all these different places, in our country and the world. It really fed my desire to leave this rural, remote part of the world and really see the world.
Q: Another reason you made “American Folk Songbook” is that you wanted to teach your son Ben songs he didn’t know that you knew by heart when you were his age. Did the project bring you closer together musically?
A: I made Ben listen to all the songs as we were recording them on our drives to school. I told him about Stephen Foster and shape singing; I taught him a lot of the stuff that inspired me. It was at the time that he really started getting into guitar and finding music of his own. I saw signs when he was 13 or 14 that he was slipping away from me and I was feeling a little irresponsible for not pushing music harder on him. Doug and I decided that since we’re in the music business that it wouldn’t be fun to cram music into him. I think that sharing my love for folk songs with him somehow rubbed off on him, honestly. And now the guy can’t do enough music. He’s an English major and he’s performing plays and he’s writing up a storm. I think his passion for music was in there all along, but he needed to get away from us before he could blossom the way he wanted to, without constant reminders from his parents.
Q: I’m always curious about marriage partners who are also musical partners. What does Doug do better than you and what do you do better than him?
A: He plays piano better. I can read music and struggle through pieces; he doesn’t read music but he plays a lot better than I do. A lot of times when we’re writing he will take the wheel coming into the lyrics and I will take over more of the melody. He’s a really musical dude, but when we’re writing songs for me to sing, I’m better at putting them into a place for the sweet spot in my voice.
Q: Have you recently discovered a sweeter spot in your voice? I know that once upon a time you were on a mission to sing airier.
A: I’m very strong right now as a vocalist. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I did 115 shows last year; the muscles were really toned. I’ve got a niece who’s an opera singer and without picking her brains I’ve picked up things I’ve noticed in her growth. In some ways I think my voice is richer because I know how to open it up better, particularly in a live situation.
Saying that, the highs are harder now. I think that’s probably just being older. I haven’t had to drop the keys of my songs. I do have to think about what song I’m putting after another song, which I wouldn’t have even thought about in my 30s and 40s. About 10 to 12 years ago I had some hoarseness caused by a stomach problem, something like [acid] reflux. There was a fella trying to figure out why I was so hoarse and he said: “Oh my gosh, why do you put six or seven of your biggest, hardest songs back to back at the end of the set?”
“Because it’s the climax; I’m building it.”
“Well, you need to quit doing that. You need to space out the songs better. You don’t have to put so many up-tempo, belting songs in a row.”
I followed his advice, and I improved the stamina in my voice. It made a difference not to be blasting out so many songs in a row with real shotgun lyrics. I don’t know how those Carrie Underwoods do it. They must have a humidifier in their bodies [laughs].
Q: Can you put your finger on a recording of yours that’s had the widest, most surprising reach, that ended up in nooks, crannies and hollers you couldn’t have imagined? How about “Two-Step Around the Christmas Tree”?
A: “Two-Step” definitely caught me off guard, especially when you consider that there are only three weeks a year that it can be played on the radio. It’s the most successful song that Doug and I have ever written as far as mailbox money is concerned. It’s been recorded by lots of different people. One of the funniest things is that so many people sing it during karaoke Christmas events. In fact, Doug put together a little video of clips of all sorts of these amazing performances–by preschool dance groups, little cowboys down in Texas, more formal singers up in Minnesota. It’s adorable. This last year the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus did it in their show and in a video. That was a huge honor; it was absolutely awesome.
Q: What’s one thing you don’t miss and one thing you do miss from your five years of touring in a camper truck?
A: One thing I don’t miss is putting a five-gallon camping water bottle bag on top of the hood of my truck to let the sun warm it up, then hanging it on a tree, and that’s how you get your shower. I kind of miss that real frontier spirit of: I don’t know where I’m playing three days from now but I know I’m going to find a town and a gig that I can fit into and it will be fun. I miss that sense of adventure, although I still work that into my life to a certain degree.
Q: How about one thing you miss and one thing you don’t miss from your 11-year, 10-record stretch with Capitol Records, when you won awards, scored hits and were a neon name?
A: I definitely miss the publicity machine that helps get the word out when you have a new album and a new song. I actually miss the people. I enjoyed having lots of people to say hello to in the office; I miss asking them how things are being received. I don’t miss being fussed over. I don’t miss having people bring clothes to my house because I had to be on five different television shows and makeup people constantly powder puffing me and getting up in the morning and having to be in a radio station at six o’clock after having a show until one in the morning. I don’t miss being taken around without knowing where I was, without being in charge of my life. It was like being led around with a blindfold on [laughs].
Q: Last year you had the completely different experience of raising over $75,000 for a Kickstarter campaign to help promote “Lucky.” Talk about a 360-degree loop.
A: That was awesome. Nothing could have made me feel better in the whole wide world than people saying: I love your music; of course I’ll buy your next record. It’s a warm, fuzzy feeling that people have that sort of confidence in you, that they feel you’re worth something
Of course, a Kickstarter drive tends to have a lull in the middle. Luckily, somebody had warned me about that lull. And that kept me from being overly anxious and downright terrified [laughs].
Q: Back in 1993 you kicked off a women’s leather-apparel line that was sold in Nordstrom stores. How about kicking off a second line of women’s clothes with a Kickstarter campaign?
A: I’ll tell you, I’m having so much fun touring right now to think about doing something that different. Maybe I’ll do something in the metals line; I took some more jewelry classes at Vanderbilt [University] year before last, and that was a blast. Designing jewelry would make more sense than getting back into the leather line. Although there was a perk in designing leather coats, and that was it was nice to have a lot of leather coats. Once in a while somebody will come to a show and tell me: “You know, I have five of your coats.”
Q: So, Suzy, what’s at the top of your Bucket and Fuck It lists?
A: My Bucket List is to just continue to make records. For my Fuck It list I would like to get to a place outdoors and enjoy myself without being afraid of coming upon a snake. I’ve wasted so much time because of my horrible fear of this stupid little squiggly thing. I’m getting better, I really am. I don’t cuss and scream and have horrible nightmares if I see a snake.
If I were to be completely honest, I wish that snakes would all die and then I wouldn’t have to worry about them. I’d like to thank you; I’ve finally put my finger on it. That’s what I need to pray for: some kind of snake plague that will wipe them all out. I think a snake plague would be progressive—in a positive way.
Suzy Bogguss: The Scoop
The first song that turned her inside out and upside down was Harry Nilsson’s “Without You,” a pop aria of anguish. “It was one of the first grownup songs where I felt my guts were going to come out. I knew exactly what he was talking about, that initial feeling of boy-girl love. It was so wrenching without really knowing why.”
She was the first female performer at Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s amusement park.
One of her first singles was a cover “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” minted in 1941 by the Ink Spots.
Her hits include John Hiatt’s “Drive South,” Nanci Griffith’s “Outbound Plane” and “Hey Cinderella,” which she co-wrote.
She’s contributed to CD tributes to the Beatles, the Eagles, Guy Clark, Buddy Holly and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; she shared a 2011 Grammy traditional-folk award for “Beautiful Dreamer,” a salute to Stephen Foster.
“Simpatico,” her 1994 album of duets with Chet Atkins, includes Jimmie Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now” and “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” a hit for Elton John.
She decided to record Peter Cetera’s “If You Leave Me Now,” a hit for Chicago, partly because she enjoyed hearing her son enjoy singing it at a time he hated singing with his mom around.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Suzy Boggus’ belief that Merle Haggard is a country-blues Stephen Foster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.