RR LogoSuzy Bogguss

Interview with Joe Montague

Suzy Bogguss Interview Photo 1Although country fans have since the late 1980’s recognized that Suzy Bogguss is an incredibly gifted singer and songwriter, it was with her last CD Swing in 2003, that non country music fans first experienced Bogguss’ excellence as a vocalist. Although she set out to make a country swing album, Swing was widely embraced, and critically acclaimed within the jazz community. With her current CD Sweet Danger, the two-time recipient of a Country Music Association award has stretched the boundaries again, and this time we can anticipate that the pop music community will warmly embrace her music. Bogguss can no longer be pigeonholed as a cowgirl with a guitar and a song, but she has a right to expect that critics, and fans alike will simply refer to her as one of today’s top vocalists.

Bogguss recently took time out from promoting her CD, touring, being a mother to her son, and a wife to songwriter Doug Crider, to talk to me on the phone from her home in Nashville. Having a conversation with Bogguss is a lot like sitting down for a chat with an old friend, she is affable, witty and laughs easily. The girl who started life in the small town of Aledo Illinois, and has become a platinum selling recording artist, talked about Sweet Danger, the previous CD Swing, and the things she values most in life.

Although Bogguss admits to pushing the envelope, in recent years, “The truth is (she says laughing) I have always been pushing boundaries. Even in the days when I was trying to make records that would fit the (country) radio format (I was pushing the boundaries). When I started at Capitol, I did a record called Somewhere Between, and it was very cowboy oriented stuff, but it was also eclectic, because it had some tunes that were more what you would think of as country pop tunes. The thing that always came up (from people) at the label was ‘Why isn’t the music more lush, and why there aren’t there more instruments on here?’ The label gave me more (free) reign, so I started layering more,” she says.

“As time went on I wanted to make sure that the personalities (of the musicians) were coming into play with the material. I always tried to make sure that with whatever band we had in the studio that I made the best of the situation that I was given. I have always had a feel for pop music, but I might have had a bluegrass guy, so I would throw him into the mix.  I used these amazing players, who were artists in their own right, and created the music in that way. That is the way it has always been for me, putting different types of people together, to make something that doesn’t have just one sound, but has a lot of personality from a lot of different things,” says Bogguss.  

When she set out to create Swing in 2003, Bogguss did not anticipate just how much she was about to stretch as an artist. She recalls hooking up with producer Ray Benson from the country music group Asleep At The Wheel, “I had known Ray (Benson) for a really long time, as a performer and as a friend. I had opened some shows for Asleep At The Wheel, back in the eighties in Montana. I went into the project (Swing), thinking that we were going to make a western swing album. My first thought was, I like to sing this western swing stuff, and there is a side of me that always had this cowgirl image going on. I thought that would be really great, but when I started sending him material, I stumbled upon some songwriters who were much more in the thirties and forties swing vein. The first thing that Ray said to me was, ‘This is jazz. This isn’t swing.’ I said, (as she laughs), ‘Is that a problem?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not, I love these songs. It is just great.” 

“When I got down there, I learned so much about him, and what a musicologist he is. He can play any style of guitar. He can play any pickin’ chicken style of country that you would ever want, but he can also play blues and swing, like the old players from the thirties. His diversity was pretty eye opening for me. He is renowned for that Bob Wills type of sound, but he was also thinking horn charts. Over the years, I had been around him tons, but mostly in show positions where we were doing the  music that we were known for. When I thought of Ray, I would think of “House of Blue Lights,” stuff that sounded like Bob Wills, but when I got in there, and he was picking along, I was amazed at the depth of his guitar playing. There was much more to it than, hey let’s slap together some cover tunes,” says Bogguss.  

In part, Swing caught the ear, and captured the imaginations of those inside and outside the music industry, because Benson and Bogguss took a step back in time. Instead of sequestering the singer and all the musicians into their own little corners, the pianist (Floyd Domino), guitarist (Benson) and Bogguss were in the same room.

She says, “There was not a lot of going back and fixing stuff. We were sitting there together, their parts were bleeding onto my mic, and my parts were bleeding onto their mics. There was a live quality (to the recording).”

Despite pulling out a lot of creative stops, the warm reception that Swing received still surprised Bogguss. “It flattered me, because I don’t think of myself as having all that much of a jazz quality to my voice. It made me happy (that the jazz community accepted it so well), because it is something that I have always loved. It made me happy that they didn’t think of it as a novelty, or that they thought I was just trying to be cute. I was having fun, but I wasn’t trying to be clever with it. I was just having a really good time singing something that I have always loved.”

“After I did the Swing album, I really thought that I would go do another swing album, because I had so much fun, and I loved touring it. It was just a blast,” she says.

However, one swing album did not beget another one, because there was still something missing from the mix as far as the singer was concerned. “In the back of my mind, I was thinking that about making a real singer/songwriter type of record. As much as I was enjoying the swing thing, there was a part of being able to perform a song by myself that was missing,” she notes.

“For this album, Sweet Danger, I tried to direct more singer/songwriter type messages, with really intimate stories and themes. It is also very acoustic, which was one of my biggest goals. If I go and play a solo gig, I want to be able to play these songs by myself,” says Bogguss, in comparing her current CD to Swing, which was equally reliant on instrumental solos as it was lyrics.

While Bogguss was still in the creative percolating stage for her next project, which would become, Sweet Danger, renowned producer Jason Miles (Miles Davis, Sting, Luther Vandross), caught her act at New York City’s B.B. King’s. At the time, she was touring her Swing CD. Miles loved her music, and wanted to know what her next project was going to be. 

“It just spurted out of my mouth, ‘I don’t know. What are you doing?’  I didn’t think at the time that he would take me seriously, but he said hey let’s do a project together. We decided to try a few songs, and once again, I thought that we were going to make a cowboy swing record,” says Bogguss, while disclosing that the material which really started to excite her was not cowboy swing music.

Songs started to emerge such as, “In Heaven,” written by her husband Crider, a song which Bogguss describes as, “a very powerful, emotional piece.” “It is about two of our very best friends. The song is one of those things that Doug wrote cathartically. “In Heaven,” is about friends of mine from college, one of whom was my roommate, and passed away (five years ago). Doug knew them for fifteen years.  Beth was sick with cancer for a long time, and Gary (her husband) sat beside her in a way that you just had to marvel at. When she passed away, he was left with a seven-year-old son, the same age as our son at the time. Doug’s heart went out to Gary so much, because he imagined himself in that same situation. He wrote what he hoped the release would be for him, in the same kind of situation. That is where the song came from.”

“In Heaven,” was a hard song to produce, because I didn’t want it to come off like a schmaltzy ballad. It was incredibly important to me that the song be intimate. When we put the drums in there, it took away from the intimacy, so I ended up leaving the drums out of the whole first verse and chorus, because I didn’t want them to get in the way of the conversation. It was a really difficult song for me to produce, and it comes off different, because it doesn’t just have a nice little groove,” says Bogguss.

 “If you listen to the album, “In Heaven,” is the song that is the most different from all of the rest of them. That is the song that I started the project with. When I brought that piece, I started thinking about what else I wanted to record.

The listener gets to take in many different colors of Suzy Bogguss with the songs she has selected for Sweet Danger. For instance, there is the great dark blue vibe of the R&B flavored “No Good Way To Go,” a song that she says she may not have had the life experiences, and therefore the emotional depth to pull off earlier in her career.

Eagerly she asks me, “Isn’t it (“No Good Way To Go’) fun? It is a cool tune. I wish you could hear the original version that my friend wrote. It is all acoustic guitar, slamming and bluegrass. He has a really strong Oklahoma accent, so when I sent him this track, (she laughs heartily), I though he was going to pass out. I was expecting him to sing back to me, ‘Look what they’ve done to my song, ma.’ All the guys in my band heard was just the piano, guitar and myself demo, but what is on the album is what they came up with.” To which we might add is a fabulous R&B number.   

When it came time to record Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” once again Bogguss decided to keep the full demo out of the hands of her musicians.. “Whatever came in there (from the musicians), had to come from 1975’s memory, not 2005’s memory. They said, ‘Can’t we listen just a bit?’ I said the chords are there for you guys, you can’t listen to it, because you will end up trying to copy it. The whole idea was not to remake the song in the same old way, but to do something fresh with it, so the comparisons won’t be, ‘did you do that again, we already had that,” she explains, donning her producer’s hat.

Bogguss’ version of “If You Leave Me Now,” was produced in a much more stripped down fashion, than we are accustomed to hearing. The decision to go in this direction was inspired when Bogguss heard her son Benton singing the melody in the backseat of her car. She says she was attracted to the clarity and the innocence that she heard. When she went home, she picked up her guitar, and began working on a new arrangement for the song.

“It (“If You Leave Me Now), has a great melody. In fact, (you can hear the delight in her voice), Peter Cetera called me yesterday. That was so exciting and so cool,” she says, adding that he liked her interpretation of the song.

When you talk to Suzy Bogguss she seldom focuses on her own abilities and but instead talks about the music and her own creative imaginings. She is also quick to credit others, such as her songwriter husband Doug, or the musicians who perform with her live, or record on her projects. Such is the case with the song, “Chain Lover,” recorded in Tony Bennett’s studio. Bogguss describes the song as being recorded “very live.”

“I asked the bass player (James Genus), to play us into the song (“Chain Lover”), a little bit, and to give us something to start off with. (I told him) we would take the downbeat from him. He did this amazing little solo on the front of it (the song), that had just so much grease and guts on it. I was ready to sing the song by the time the downbeat was there,” says Bogguss.

It seems as though Suzy Bogguss began singing on another downbeat in 2003, one that would not shed her image as a country music artist of note, but would enhance public perception of her as a world-class singer, who can hold her own in jazz, country and pop music.

Interviewed by Joe Montague, November 2007    Return to Our Front Page

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