Suzy Bogguss - Real deal with the golden touch
Suzy Bogguss is talking about suffering for her art. The cuts and burns that the Nashville-based country singer describes don’t relate directly to her music. She can, however, see a correlation between the cause of these injuries and the end result – the jewellery she’s been making in her workshop – and the songwriting process.
“I hadn’t made anything in quite a while but I decided I should get back into jewellery and enrolled in classes at Vanderbilt University,” says Bogguss who gained a degree in metalsmithing before developing the music she played at college into a successful career. “And although I looked at this as something that could be a nice escape from the music business from time to time, I ended up feeling the same way about jewellery as I do about songs. You start off with an idea and you go through various stages, reworking it, maybe bouncing it off someone, until you polish it and finish it – and that part’s always exciting, the sense of achievement.”
Bogguss grew up, she says, in a cornfield outside Chicago but it was her grandparents’ neighbour in California who got her interested in country music in general and cowboy songs in particular. At home, where her father worked as a machinist in a harvester plant, there were ponies and workhorses. Over in California on school holidays, however, she got to visit Roy Rodgers, who at the time was a big television star and America’s favourite singing cowboy with a horse called Trigger. Her brothers had all the Rodgers paraphernalia – guns ‘n’ holsters, a Roy Rodgers guitar – but it was Suzy who persevered with the songs and years later, when she won her first major music industry award, Top New Female Vocalist from the Academy of Country Music in 1989, she bumped into Rodgers, who recognised her immediately as both the new star and the kid who used to come round for dinner with her grandparents.
Other luminaries played a part in Bogguss’ development as a musician. Dolly Parton was an early employer, hiring Bogguss to sing at the theme park that became known as Dollywood. Folk singer Wendy Waldman encouraged her to make her first professional demo recording and Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris were the equivalent of music school for Bogguss as she learned how to phrase songs and develop a vocal tone from their records. They also pointed her towards songwriters – James Taylor in Harris’s case, Hank Williams in Ronstadt’s – from whom she learned so much as a writer herself.
Another piece of Bogguss’s musical jigsaw, Merle Haggard, is celebrated on her new album, Lucky, on which she sings twelve Haggard songs, sometimes from a female point of view, sometimes keeping to the song’s original gender and playing the role of narrator, folksong style. The rugged, hard-livin’ Haggard’s music isn’t exactly flavour of the month with the more pop-country-minded Nashville music machine of today, she acknowledges. But having extricated herself from working for a record label, the singer who has produced a string of gold and platinum-selling albums is free to make her own choices, even if it means turning to Kickstarter to finance the recording and promotion of Lucky.
“One of the things we offered fans who pledged money to the fund, aside from the usual Kickstarter things like downloads and their names on the CD’s thank you page, were Lucky necklaces, which I made,” says Bogguss, who also designs her own stagewear. “So I had to get the soldering iron out and I picked up a few nicks and burns. I’m not saying that this took me closer to Merle but his audiences are often manual workers. I’ve always loved his writing. He really is the poet of the common man.”
On her latest trip to Scotland, which brings her to Glasgow and Halkirk in Caithness, Bogguss is accompanied by long-time musicians and friends, Charlie Chadwick (double bass) and Verlon Thompson (guitar) and as the Halkirk gig is likely to include line dancing, she was able to call on Google to find out what songs the line dancers of Caithness might like to hear.
“The internet has made it a small world in a lot of ways,” she says. “But it’s funny because I said to the guys, do you want to come home straight after the last gig or do you want to stay on in Scotland for a few days with me and my husband? These guys travel a lot and usually the answer would be ‘home’. But they haven’t seen Scotland properly and when they discovered we were going to be travelling the whole length of the country, they immediately said, ‘We’re staying, you’re not getting rid of us that easily.”
Suzy Bogguss plays St Andrew’s in the Square, Glasgow on Friday April 11 and the Northern Nashville Country Music Festival on Saturday April 19 and Sunday April 20.
From The Herald, April 8, 2014.