A Conversation with Suzy Bogguss
Mike Ragogna: Welcome, Suzy.
Suzy Bogguss: Hey there, Michael. How's it going?
MR: It's going well. You?
SB: I'm very well. It's been a busy summer -- I've been traveling a lot.
SB: Yes, all sorts of places. We've played a lot of living rooms too, which is awesome. I like every one of them. I like the change of pace from one place to another.
MR: Now, you have this new album, American Folk Songbook. I imagine you're playing some of the songs from that on the road?
SB: Yeah, we are. I've been playing one of the songs, "Red River Valley," for a couple of years to finish my set and sort of make a big sing-a-long out of it. I'm just prepping to get the record out and kind of feeling people out to see if they are really going to take to the whole idea of reviving some of our fifth grade songbook songs. But I've been really encouraged and really delighted to see how people will sing along and have fun, and after the shows they'll tell me great stories about how their Uncle Harley taught them the harmonica or whatever. It's been really a lot of fun.
MR: Now, there's also a companion book--Sheet Music And Stories Of America's Favorite Traditional Music. I've read some of the stories, and the sheet music is simple to read so it's really very easy to learn these songs.
SB: Well, a lot of these numbers I really did learn in elementary school. I was a really lucky kid -- it was a big deal at our school to go to music class, and the book sort of came as a byproduct of that. As I was remembering back and picking what songs I wanted to put on the CD, I literally was conjuring up the image of this old book that we had in our class--and how my teacher would play the piano really hard and look around and have a big grin on his face, and sort of spying because he was the principal and he wanted to make sure nobody was goofing off. Especially the songs "Froggy Went A-Courtin" and "Sweet Betsy From Pike," I remember vividly as kids just blaring those songs completely, without inhibitions at all.
I went to sing at my child's class when he was in about fourth grade, I think, and I was so amazed that some of the kids were really shy about singing out. And even though we were learning things that were simple enough for them to follow along, it was almost like they felt that if they weren't as good as American Idol, they shouldn't be singing. I just love the idea of encouraging people to get with their grandmas and their little kids and share these songs together again. I sent the first copy to my attorney, who's been my attorney in Los Angeles for years and years -- since 1987 -- and she said, "You made me get my guitar out from under my bed." That was the ultimate compliment to me, that it brought back something that just said, "You know what, maybe it's going to be worth it to go through my callusing my fingers up again." (laughs)
MR: (laughs) And, of course, she had to take the guitar out of its cardboard box from under the bed.
SB: (laughs) Yeah, most likely. You would hope that if it was a really good instrument, she wasn't keeping it under the bed.
MR: There are a few of these songs that came my way because of my stint as a singing cowboy at place called Wild West City in New Jersey. They kind of let me get away with murder--you weren't really supposed to sing contemporary songs, but I was singing John Denver songs in addition to folk and country traditionals.
SB: You were like Bronco Billy.
MR: Yes, I was Bronco Billy. I remember once when ASCAP visited the place and I had to behave and play things like "Old Dan Tucker."
SB: You needed something that was public domain.
MR: Exactly. So that was how I came across that song, as well as "Shenandoah." Songs like that are so emotional, and they're so entrenched in our American culture--they're our heart. Why do you think folk songs resonate so much with us?
SB: Well, you know, in the instance of "Shenandoah," I really believe that the melody is just totally compelling. I think that somehow, we as human beings... there are certain melodies that strike us, and you don't have to know what the words are to know the feeling you are supposed to feel when you hear that melody. I think "Shenandoah" is one of those. It's like you don't know why you feel kind of lonesome, but you just do. You feel a little sad, and you're longing for something -- the melody just drives you to feel that.
MR: And a song like "Erie Canal" brings out the workingman vibe.
SB: It does, and I think that one would probably be called a "sea shanty" because it replays the chorus that way. You just want to bellow it out, you know -- it's fun. It's got that dark side to it, which is the minor melody; but then, at the same time, you get to the (sings) "Everybody!" and everybody wants to get into it with you. It's that sing-a-long, "Hey-we-gotta-hoist-the-main-sail" feel.
MR: (laughs) And a little like a pub song.
SB: Exactly. That's exactly how I see it. It's definitely an "everybody-get-involved" kind of thing.
MR: Now, there's a song on the album that evokes another song -- Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Cruel War" -- "Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier." There are these recurring themes in folk music -- going beyond the melody. With some of these songs, when you're singing the lyrics, are you acknowledging that they are almost cathartic for the culture?
SB: Oh, absolutely -- especially the sad ones. There's no way that we can not look back on history and all the many lives lost in war and not acknowledge that. It's not remembering so much, but experiencing the feeling of "There's nothing I can do about this -- it's gonna happen. And until this is over, I gotta get though it. It pains me, but I have to do it." Several of the songs are that way. I really try to pick a lot of different styles for that reason, so that I wasn't really belaboring any one particular kind of song. It was hard for me in some cases, because I had favorites that I would have liked to put on there, then I had to say, "But this one's my more favorite, and if I do that song, I can't really do this song." (laughs) I even had trouble when I did "All The Pretty Little Horses," because so many people have recorded that song. I thought, "Man, I don't know if I can bring anything new to this that hasn't already been done."
Then, I ended up doing "Beautiful Dreamer," which is a lullaby too. I thought, "Do I need to leave one of these off because they're both lullabies," and I couldn't leave off a Stephen Foster song, because I love Stephen Foster, so there was that. I loved the story behind that song, too. I thought it was one of the more fascinating things that I was able to dig up about these songs. The fact is that Stephen Foster was the guy who first taught us all about how royalties work, and he basically said, "Hey, look, I wrote this song called 'O, Susanna.' I made a hundred dollars, but all these other publishers are publishing my song and making sheet music and making lots of money off of it, but I didn't get any of that. That's not fair, so I'm gonna say, from now on, if my publisher puts this song out, then nobody else can put it out." So, he had all these papers drawn up, and it really changed the way that songwriters got paid. He basically started the first job of being a songwriter, where you were not just paid to turn in the song for a one-time pay. You got thirty dollars for writing a song then, and it's not that way anymore. People get paid their royalties on the song if it gets played a lot and gets really popular, and they get paid for it if the sheet music sells or whatever.
But it didn't actually work out for him -- he ended up dying poor as anybody. The story that I wrote in the book is about how he died in 1864, and was completely penniless. And his publisher put out the song "Beautiful Dreamer" right after he died -- a few days after he died -- and they said it was the last song that he'd ever written, the last song ever penned by him, only a few days before he died. Well, it had actually been on their shelf for two years. It had already been printed up and ready to go, because they knew he was in bad shape and it was only a matter of time. So, they totally exploited it. If they maybe had put the song out a little bit before that, he might've had some money and stopped being an alcoholic living in The Bowery. That was a sad tale to me.
MR: A very sad tale, and it's a probably one of the earliest examples of the music business hyping a death in order to make money off of it. It's terrible.
SB: It is, and it's funny, because I was trying to pick a song of Stephen Foster's for the project, and I really had a hard time because he'd written so many beautiful songs. I was looking at an album that was all Stephen Foster songs that I'd gotten to participate on, and the name of it was "Beautiful Dreamer." When I read the lyrics, I thought, "I totally hear this stripped down like a little lullaby." So, the version I did is just guitar and vocals -- it's a completely stripped down version. I'm singing to someone... when I'm singing it, I'm actually thinking about the sadness of Stephen Foster. It's almost like a little goodbye to him.
MR: Beautiful, Suzy. Were there any recordings left over that didn't make it onto the album?
SB: Actually, there were not. This was such a fresh project -- eleven of the songs, I just did first takes. They're just me with Pat Bergeson playing guitar. We did some cuts with banjo and bass live, but a lot of it was just Pat and I, almost doing demos, almost like, "Well, let's see if your voice works on this song." We would do four or five at a time, and then I just didn't want to touch them. I felt that if I went back into them and tried to polish them up too much, they weren't gonna sound honest. So, we just kind of did as many as I had in my head that I wanted to do, and then sort of pulled them full circle. There are lots of other songs out there -- it's limitless how many beautiful songs we have passed around in this country for many, many years. Those were just the ones that I remembered the most from my fifth grade songbook.
MR: Which brings me to my next comment. This, without question, sets you up for American Folk Songbook Two, and ...Three, and ...Four. (laughs)
SB: (laughs) I'll tell you what -- if I get that kind of response, it certainly wouldn't be hard for me to do that. I really loved it, the whole process was fun. I've never done a standards record before, and when you're choosing material for a new album or are writing for a new album, it's painstaking and there's all this second guessing and stuff that goes into it. I just didn't have that experience, you know. Other than the two lullabies, I really was like, "You know, this is just supposed to be fun." I'm really trying to promote using music to entertain yourself again, instead of it always having to be something heavy or analyzed to the nth degree. I just wanted to have some fun with it.
MR: I know this is the typical question that you're not supposed to ask an artist of their album, but what is your favorite track or the one that resonates the most with you?
SB: Probably "Shenandoah."
MR: "Shenandoah." Love it.
SB: Yeah, it just turned out so beautifully. You know, I grew up on the Mississippi River, and the whole river scene is just so American to me. I love going to different parts of the country, but I need sky, because I grew up on the plains. I can be in North Carolina for a while -- or someplace like Maine -- and I really love it. But at some point, I have to get out to where I can see a lot of sky. That's just a part of where I came from, and the river has that same kind of power for me because I grew up on a really large, powerful river. I was taught from a young age that it was a very useful river, but a very dangerous river. It's a beautiful place, but it's powerful. So, I love that song so much because it makes me think of my home and it draws me to those thoughts and those memories.
MR: All of these songs are great, but can you tell us about "Rock Island Line"?
SB: Well, I grew up right next door to Rock Island, and I grew up a block and a half from the railroad tracks where the Rock Island Line cars used to drive through my little hometown. So, that is a really prominent memory for me -- those rusty brown cars with the white lettering on them. And, of course, in town where we lived, they had to slow way down. The town was only, maybe, ten blocks wide. It was a small town, and that was a big hangout for us. I don't know why, but people would drop their pop bottles and stuff along the track, and we would go pick them up and get two cents apiece for them.
My grandfather was the depot master about twenty miles up the road from there. When I was a really little kid -- my siblings are older than me, my closest brother actually eight years older -- we used to be able to take the dolly, which was a real small train, up to my grandpa's depot and visit my grandparents. My mom could just pack us a lunch and just throw us on there. You know, we'd have a little sandwich and we'd stand up on the train for twenty minutes because there weren't any actual seats on it. So, it was a pretty cool time. That whole small town atmosphere... I still love it. I loved the story about the song itself, too, coming from the prison. John Lomax was just such a great man to preserve all these songs for us, and when I got into the research for the book, I realized that what I thought to be just sort of a fun little "hey-let's-dance-around-the-table" song when I was a kid was actually a work song for the guys in prison.
MR: And yet it has joy, and you took a joyful approach to all of the songs on this album.
SB: Yes, I did. (laughs) I couldn't help it. It was just like going back in time for me -- I felt like I was singing like my younger self, you know, just very carefree and just not overworking anything -- so that I didn't have even a chance to start getting all worried about something.
MR: Let's talk a bit about you're country career. One of my favorite singer-songwriters is John Hiatt and you recorded "Drive South" with him, which was a big, big hit, just missing #1. You've had more hits in "Someday Soon," "Outbound Plane" and "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word," and more. Your career has basically been in country music, but you're exploring other genres. How different is your life now in comparison to when you were mainly a country artist?
SB: Well, I'm not playing really large venues anymore. When I had songs that were on the radio, I was playing the bigger arena-type places and things like that, and I'm very happy to be back in a smaller 500-1000 seat theater-type thing. For me, that's really where I'm most comfortable, because I cut my teeth sort of in the listening rooms and the places where the audience is a part of the show. You have to hear what they're saying to you and be able to sort of spontaneously have a banter that goes on between you and them, and even though I tried really hard to pull that off -- we had these big, foot-long microphones out in the audience and I had little earbud headphones to make it so that maybe I could hear people better -- I never felt like I really went over in those large places like that.
I feel so much happier now because I feel like I've had a really special event, because we've shared something -- the communication was there and I'm gonna take that away and go sit and think about some of the people who had these snappy little recoveries or whatever. (laughs) You know, it just makes it fun for me. It makes every night different. And the other way was really difficult for that, because there were so many people involved in putting on the show -- with lights and all this stuff -- and I just didn't have the luxury to be that crazy and spontaneous every night. Now I can do that, and it's really just more what I'm about. The guys in my band talk on the microphones and make smart-aleck cracks, and it's a real spontaneous kind of thing.
MR: Nice. So, one of the hits I mentioned earlier was "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word," your duet with Chet Atkins.
SB: Right. I did a whole album with Chet in 1994, Simpatico, shortly after he had been diagnosed with cancer and he knew that he wasn't doing great. I had been trying to get him to do the record for a couple of years, and he just kept saying, "You can't do this right now. Listen to me as a record guy. You need to keep making these young, upbeat records and stuff. Don't make a record with an old guy right now, it's not a good idea." (laughs) I was just like, "Oh, yeah right. He just doesn't want to do it." But, eventually, he called me and said, "You know, it's time. Let's go do it." And so we did that whole record.
It was just real fun picking out tunes with Chet, because he never thought old. He was always a forward thinker -- he was always thinking progressively. He had a whole drawer full of cassette tapes that people had sent him and he thought would be good choices. They were just really good songs, he was a great song man. So, we got to record a lot of new material for that project. I can't remember what it was about "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" for me, but I can just hear his guitar on that. Chet is a real melody guy too. If you listen to his records, the most important thing about them is that he does not forget the melody. He might embellish it or he might veer from it slightly and do something more "artsy," but he really establishes the melody in his songs. So, I just thought, "That song would be so cool if it had that beautiful, straight-sounding electric guitar sound on it.
MR: Yeah, it's not mournful, but it comes off with that in-between vibe. He nailed it just right.
SB: Yeah, yeah. And he just had such a way... he could bend a note like nobody else. He could bend a note and have it last for like half a minute. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) You also did "Hopelessly Yours" with Lee Greenwood.
SB: Yeah -- that's a Don Cook and Keith Whitley song. When Lee was doing that record, it was kind of one of those projects where I think he and the label were looking for something unique to do, and so they decided that he would do ten duets with ten different chick singers. I was lucky enough to get chosen to do one, because I never ever would've thought about Lee's and my styles going together, but he's a great singer and he has such a beautiful rasp to his voice. And I have none -- I have Doris Day, you know? (laughs) I can't make a rasp when I have a cold -- it's bad. So, I thought it was really fun singing with him because it kind of gave me, by being with him, a little bit of extra vibration and some of that credibility in a country song of "I'm spent, I've just cried out through the whole night, and now my voice has got a little gravel in it." So, even though my voice wasn't doing that, I thought they blended real well and I had a lot of fun doing it.
MR: Another one of my favorites is "Red River Valley."
SB: I always close my shows with that, and I make everybody sing along. And I make fun of the verse "Do you think of the valley you're leaving / O how lonely and how dreary it will be / And do you think of the kind hearts you're breaking / And the pain you are causing to me." I make a lot of fun about this whiny girl and how I don't like that verse because she's whining all over the place. So, at the very end of the song, in the last show, I get everybody to do a little a capella verse all together, and I end it with (sings) "So stinkin' true." I love the response from people, because everybody's kind of, you know, they're trying to put on their "sunday best" voice, and all of a sudden when I do that, they just fall out. It cracks me up every night...I crack myself up! (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Suzy, I know you don't remember, but we met way back when we both played at New Faces in Nashville.
SB: Oh, my gosh, yeah. I was in New Faces for a long time. (laughs) I don't know about you, but it seemed like I was a New Face that just kept going back as a New Face forever.
MR: Nashville knows how to market.
SB: Yes, they do -- they sure do.
MR: And I look forward to American Folk Songbook Two...
SB: (laughs) I don't know, I've actually just been getting some song ideas, so I don't know what'll be next. I have to see how they turn out and if there's any kind of a theme that's coming up in my life that I feel I need to write about. You know, I tell you what. If I get out there and people are into it and I get to perform for some kids in schools and things like that... if it's taking me over for a while, I'll just follow my gut. I got no real "I have to do it like this" thoughts. I'm kind of good at just, again, being spontaneous.
MR: Would a Grammy nomination do it?
SB: That would be lovely. We'll see. You know, they got rid of the traditional folk category, so I'll be competing with a lot of people, so we'll see. I would love that, it would be great if I could just get nominated. That'd be awesome.
MR: And by the way, wasn't that ridiculous? They got rid of so many categories that seemed important.
SB: I know! I thought so too. Especially right before my album! (laughs) It's very pertinent to my situation.
MR: I think a letter-writing campaign and a petition is in order here.
SB: Well, I don't know if it'll do any good for now, but I just have a feeling -- in talking to so many people -- that there really is going to be a lot of feedback about it. I'm not sure it was very necessary, because most people have certain types of music that they sort of stick to and I didn't find that more definition was a bad thing. But, you know, we'll see.
MR: And next year, by the time Volume Two comes out, they'll have reinstated it anyway.
SB: (laughs) Exactly. That's great.
MR: I do have one last question for you -- what is your advice for new artists?
SB: Oh, gosh. Well, you know, I always try to tell people that when I first started with trying to figure out who I was going to be, I really listened to a lot of people. I listened to too many people sometimes, and I found that the people who kept coming back to see me perform, when I was playing live, ended up being some of the best voices in telling me what about me was special. So, I would say listen to your audience. Listen to what they say to you. And figure out if you, too, agree that that is something about you that is special. Then you can start developing it.
MR: Very nice. Of course, when asked that question, everyone suggests different advice. But pretty consistently, if it's a modern or a younger or a pop act, they'll go right to Twitter and Facebook.
SB: Oh yeah, I'm sure that's true. That is interesting -- the thing for me is that when I was doing the bus tours and that kind of thing, there was never enough time and there were too many people to actually do a signing. So, you didn't really have that accessibility, which is part of what I always loved about it, because I loved to hang after the show just as much as I loved doing the show. I think back on those times, and I think of my first boss -- who I worked for for seven bucks a set at this place in Illinois -- and it was him who said, "You should never be in a band. You can have a band, but don't be in a band, because it's your connection that is what is good about you." When I felt like I was not making that connection -- when I was in too big of a situation for myself -- I just was, like, lost. I didn't know who I was supposed to be. I'm not Mick Jagger, so I couldn't prance all over the stage. I had a guitar and I wanted my guitar. So, I think that you should just figure out what makes you happy and how you can communicate that and try to stay happy... unless you're a really sad artist, then you should be sad. Then that's you're gift.
MR: (laughs) I love it, like Leonard Cohen. No, wait, he's not really sad.
SB: Exactly. There are people like Tom Waits, but he knows who he is. He knows what he's trying to say.
MR: Well, that brings me to one more last question. What artists out there are you just dying to do a record with?
SB: Oh gosh. Yeah, lots. I've always wanted to sing a duet with Vince Gill -- I just would love to sing a duet with him. He's sung on a lot of my records, but they've gotten mixed into sort of background vocals, so I'd love to sing a duet with him. He and I have a real good range together. He sings higher than me, but other than that... (laughs) I think it'd be fun to sing a tune with Merle Haggard -- I think that'd be awesome. I recorded one of his songs and it was really cool. On a TV show that we did together sometime back in history, we got to sing together, and I'd love to sing another one of those.
MR: I think I'm interviewing him soon, so shall I drop that hint?
SB: Drop it, yes! Absolutely. Tell him I'm waiting around and that I'll be down at the studio.
MR: (laughs) Suzy, this was a real joy. I want to wish you all the best with your American Folk Songbook, the first volume of a ten volume series, I'm predicting.
SB: (laughs) We'd both be so sick of it by then -- that would be a bad thing. Oh, lord.
MR: (laughs) Thank you so much, Suzy.
SB: Thank you, Michael -- I so appreciate it. It was great talking with you -- I enjoyed it.
MR: Take care.
1. Shady Grove
3. Red River Valley
4. Froggy Went A-Courtin'
5. Wayfaring Stranger
6. Banks Of The Ohio
7. Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier
8. Ol' Dan Tucker
9. Rock Island Line
10. Sweet Betsy From Pike
11. Swing Low Sweet Chariot
12. Careless Love
13. All The Pretty Little Horses
14. Git Along Little Dogies
15. Erie Canal
16. Wildwood Flower
17. Beautiful Dreamer
Transcribed by Claire Wellin