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Patrons of Tony Roma's in Nashville or Pigeon Forge's "Dollywood" in the 1980s may very well have been entertained by a young Suzy Bogguss. She was a student of the classic country music canon even then. Now, with 4 million records and a Grammy behind her, she's turned her eye to the musicological, creating a jazz album with producer Jason Miles, a Western swing album with Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, an anthology of early American folk music, and a tribute to her longtime role model and collaborator, the late Merle Haggard. We spoke with Bogguss in advance of this Friday's show at the Ron Robinson Theater, part of the Butler Center's Arkansas Sounds series.
I want to ask you first about "American Folk Songbook," an album you did a few years back. So many of these types of songs get characterized as children's songs — like "A Froggy Went A Courtin'," but there's a real darkness to some of them, like "Wayfaring Stranger."
Yeah! In a way, it's like, "No matter what happens to me, when all this bad stuff is over, I'm going to the right place," which made me think it's more of a worker's song. There's a book that goes along with the album and I found that background information very helpful. It hearkens back to the shape-note singing people were doing on the East Coast, building churches. They started out with these camp meetings and didn't have hymnals or anything. Not everyone could read music, so the shape notes could tell them how the form of the song would go. I mean, it's a real American song. We sang it in church, we sang it at Girl Scout camp, and because it starts in that minor key, it feels dark. I remember when my son was 4 or 5 and we would sing it in our little Nashville church, he would just cuddle up next to me like it was terrifying.
"Shenandoah" gets me every time, no matter the arrangement.
Yes! I grew up on the Mississippi River, so I think it's common for anybody who's attached to the river. You guys have sort of the same landscape. The river was a very central figure to me in my small-town life, and I think there's something in that melody that triggers the longing feeling we might have, that just says, "I'm going back, somehow."
I was reading about the song you did for the Stephen Foster tribute, "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway," and discovered that Stephen Foster made $8.12 over 7 years on that song.
It's just wild. There was this glorious period where songwriters were rewarded with royalties, and now, you know, every quarter I get a statement from Google for one cent. I mean, it's so insane — there's postage on it, and several pieces of paper inside, and they went to all this trouble, and it's for one cent.
You've had this career that's spanned some pretty huge shifts in the record industry. Do you think it's changed for the better or worse?
Here's what's good for me. I started out making recordings with a vinyl record in 1981. I borrowed money from my friends and sold them out of the back of my car. So, it's not a new world for me; I didn't always have the huge machine finding a way to distribute it and promote it. I've done all that before, I'm doing it again, and I'm just comfortable with it.
I was watching the video for "Outbound Plane," and thinking about how you've always had this style that was so different from the women the industry was pushing at the time, like Faith Hill. You're standing there in this black hat and this long-sleeved black dress and I thought, "She looks more like Johnny Cash than, say, Shania Twain."
(Laughs.) Well, I've always had this sort of infatuation with cowboys. That comes from my age, partially; all the TV shows on Saturday morning were cowboy shows. Believe it or not, my grandparents lived on the same block as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. In fact, one of your Arkansas natives, Patsy Montana, was a big influence on me. I still yodel her song "I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." The first time I met her, I started crying. It was like a fantasy. She was the cutest thing in the whole wide world, with her little cowboy hat cocked in just the right way, and her little fringe vest. I was broke as a spoke, so I'd buy those hand-painted fiesta skirts and have them cut a different way, so it was a cheap way for me to have an actual costume, to become an image.
I do want to ask you about a specific cowboy — Merle Haggard. He may not be a native, but we take our Merle Haggard pretty seriously around here. For you, there's "Somewhere Between," and then there's "Lucky."
And before that, it was listening to eight-tracks of Merle in my old car, because when my dad handed down the car to me, the car still had all those eight-tracks. I didn't have a whole bunch of money to be buying records, so I listened to what we had: a lot of Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, Eddy Arnold. ... It was good just getting serious with Merle's songwriting, how he crafted these songs. He makes it sound so effortless, as if he sat down and wrote stream-of-consciousness, but when you start seeing how they're arranged, you realize he's cut out every extra word, every extra note. He's honed it down to where it's gonna get to your gut. You're moved, and you don't even know how you're moved.
I understand that he got to hear "Lucky" before he died.
Yeah, he did. He was so sweet. I don't want to push that, or make it seem like I made the record because he was faltering. I mean, when I made the record, he was touring like a banshee.
Well, if anyone were ever inclined to think that way, you could point them to the old video of you and Merle singing "Somewhere Between." His music was not a new thing for you.
Yeah. When he got the record, I basically paced around the house hyperventilating while he talked to me about it, and he said one of the most amazing things to me. He said, "I've always felt that we were kind of alike." I was feeling the same thing, not that I compare my songwriting to his at all, but as a singer, I do feel that connection. We both love to let our voices do what they naturally want to do. It was the ultimate compliment to me.
Suzy Bogguss and her trio perform at the Ron Robinson Theater at 7 p.m. Friday, July 22, $20. For tickets, visit arkansassounds.org.