Interview by David Edin for APHC
From her earliest years growing up in Aledo, Illinois, Suzy Bogguss loved music. She joined the church choir at age five, played the piano and drums, and bought her first 12-string with the money she earned from babysitting. She moved to Nashville in the mid-'80s and paid the bills by singing demos by day and performing three nights a week at a local rib joint. Now, more than a dozen albums later, and awards ranging from the Academy of Country Music's Top New Female Vocalist of 1989 to a Horizon Award given by the Country Music Association to a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album, Suzy has won critical acclaim in both country and contemporary music circles.
Tell us a bit about your background? Are you from a musical family?
I grew up in a small town in Illinois pretty much like Beaver Cleaver. There were four kids and my mom and dad both worked. On the weekends they would go dancing and both loved music. Both my grandmothers played piano at the thea-ters. My mom and my siblings and I all sang in choir and we kids played in the school band. My niece, Rebecca Davis, is a rising opera star and it looks like my kid is pretty musical too.
How many instruments do you play? At what age did you start studying music?
I really only claim to play the guitar. And only acoustic at that. I started with piano at age 5, played the drums and percussion from 4th grade through high school, but as soon as I had a guitar in my hands everything else fell by the wayside. Sometimes I still play a little box drum on stage.
When did you first perform publicly?
Well, I had my first solo in the Angel Choir when I was 5. I think it gave me a little confidence and from that point on I always sang loud! When I got to college in Bloomington-Normal, IL I jammed with friends in the dorm. I found out that some of them were playing a place called The Galery and getting paid. I started for seven bucks a set and all the beer and pizza I could hold!
How did you get signed to Capitol records?
After I'd been in Nashville for a year, I scored a position at Dollywood, Dolly Parton's theme park in Pigeon Forge TN. I performed four sets a day by the train station as a solo with my guitar, then in the evenings we had a full band Jamboree show and I was the lead female. Dolly encouraged us to choose our own material and showcase our individual styles. She mentored us and was a very generous employer. Capitol Records came to see my show after having received a copy of the tape I made to sell at the park. Three weeks later I had a signed contract.
The Bottle Let Me Down from 'LUCKY' (BUY)
The third CD issued on Capitol Records was the platinum selling Aces (BUY). The LP features many of your best-known songs including "Outbound Plane," "Aces," and "Letting Go." What can you tell us about the song "Outbound Plane?"
Well, first of all, I am a big fan of the writers Nanci Griffith and Tom Russell. Secondly, I love a song that sounds upbeat but has a little sad note to it. In this case it's even a bit tongue in cheek. I used to clean house to Nanci's version and one day just decided "I'm going to record that too."
You have formed your own record label and are self distributing your CDs. What are the biggest differences you notice in the music industry today from when you started out recording in 1985 — Do you prefer self publishing a CD as opposed to the major label system?
I formed my own record label in 1980 and had recorded two albums before I got into the major label machine. It was very powerful to see how a large company could distribute and promote my records. I worked with a lot of great people during that time and learned a lot. I feel like my independent beginnings helped me to use what I learned from the experience at Capitol. Having a background in both helps me see my opportunities as well as my limitations as a small label. I guess one of my favorite new things in the business is the internet. I used to write a lot of postcards to let people know where I was playing next, now I can save my fingers for pickin'!
Tell us about the American Folk Songbook (BUY)? I have heard that you say the idea for the album came about because of the Rhubarb tour with Garrison... is this true?
Yes, I think it is. As we performed on that tour, Garrison always led a sing-a-long during intermission. It made me think about growing up in the midwest and the music program we had at my elementary school. The more I thought about the great old songs, and that even my own child didn't know them, the more important it became to me to record them. Then, as I started researching my favorites, I found so many great stories I wanted to tell them as well, and that's why I decided to write an accompanying sheet music/story book.
"Shenandoah" from American Folk Songbook (BUY)
Which song from the American Folk Songbook has the most interesting backstory ? Can you tell us the story?
Gosh there's so many. Wildwood Flower is one of my favorites. It's a classic ex-ample of how folk songs evolve. I have always loved this song, but didn't com-pletely understand the lyrics. I learned it from the Carter Family recording and would sometimes replace certain words with ones that made more sense to me. (thinking I just didn't understand their mountain colloquialisms.) Come to find out it was actually a parlor song that came out in sheet music in 1860 and the lyric was a poem written by Maude Irving. It's about a girl who has been taught about love and left behind. After being passed down from parlors to hollers over a period of almost 100 years it morphed into the 1958 Carter's version: "I will twine with my mingles and wavy black hair, the lilies so pale and the roses so fair." I didn't know what a mingle was! Originally the first line was, "I will twine mid my ringlets of raven black hair, the lilies so pale and the roses so fair." Also in the Carter's evolved version the heroine is pretty pitiful and seems broken. She says "Oh, I long to see him and regret the dark hour, he's gone and neglected this pale wildwood flower" as opposed to the author's gal who is definitely healing nicely and confidently states, "I'll live yet to see him regret the dark hour, he won then neglected the frail wildwood flower." Clearly she is going to the party, hair braided with flowers to charm every heart. Atta girl!
Which song has the most personal meaning from the CD and why?
I guess I'd say Shenandoah. I grew up on the Mississippi river and there is something about the longing feeling in the music that makes me miss the place where I grew up. It's just a beautiful piece of music.
How did you go about choosing songs for the American Folk Songbook project? Are you drawn to songs because of the story or the lyric?
Actually, I started thinking about which songs I would record for this by searching my memory for my favorite songs from my 5th grade songbook. I even thought about "5th Grade Songbook" as the title, but as I got deeper into the project I wanted it to be more universal. Not just a project for me, but for anybody who loves these songs and wants to pass them on. I tried to get as many different flavors of early American life in there as I could. (Railroads, cowboys, waterways...) I'm drawn to these songs for many different reasons. Some because of where they came from, some because of the melody, and most because of the nostalgic feeling they give me.
Suzy Shares her APHC Memories
What was it like touring with Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion in 2008? You participated in the Rhubarb tour which usually is a barnstorm tour covering 20 some concerts in about as many days.
Yeah, it was a whirlwind, but I absolutely loved it! The audience is so pumped and ready to go when you get there. I enjoyed the regional twists that Garrison put into the shows every day. It was fun to be so close to him and watch him work. The band and actors were on their best game every day and it was just brilliant! You couldn't ask for a better crew either. Everyone knows their craft perfectly and it's just a joy to be on stage.
You had the opportunity to perform with Garrison in a few comedy sketches on the radio and on the Rhubarb tour. Since you normally sing, did you enjoy participating in the sketches?
I am always honored when he includes me in the sketches. I will tell you it scares the heck out of me! But in a good way!
What is your favorite part of the show?
Really my very favorite part of the show is when Garrison and the whole gang are improvising with the script. The band is playing lightly underneath them and Garrison leads them and their comic timing is so impeccable. Of course I love singing, and Garrison and I really blend beautifully when we're singing together. Who wouldn't love to sing with The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band!
Watch 'One More for the Road' from Simpatico (BUY)
The late Chet Atkins is a favorite among guest performers on A Prairie Home Companion. You worked very closely with him on "Simpatico." Tell us a bit about the experience working with Chet and recording "Simpatico."
Chet and I were friends for a long time before we recorded Simpatico. We had been in the studio together several times, but mostly we just enjoyed sitting on his back porch picking and singing. Simpatico means "we really get along well together" and we sure did. Choosing the material for that album was really fun and Chet had a drawer full of good songs he had been saving, (including a Pat Donohue song.) We worked a lot in Chet's home studio and that made it very personal, and also frustrating, because he would sometimes get distracted working on one of his guitars and then we wouldn't even use that one! It was kind of like making a record with your brother, but I feel like the luckiest that I got to do it. We laughed a lot!
Best advice you could offer a young performer?
Run!! (Just kidding.) Honestly, when I see young performers get too wrapped up in the business I just want to say, "If you're having fun so will your audience."
For fans who wish to know everything about Suzy, do you have a website? What can one expect to find there?
Yes indeed, SuzyBogguss.com. You can find out more than you ever thought you wanted to know about me there!