Over the last few years, Suzy Bogguss has recorded a couple of easygoing records — the lively Swing and the perfectly charming Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. She’s played some gigs on the weekends and toured in Europe a little bit with some Nashville songwriting pals because, hey, that sounded kind of fun.
However, she’s taking herself more seriously now — but not too much. Although she sprinkles the conversation with hearty laughs and self-deprecating jokes, Bogguss says her new CD, Sweet Danger, isn’t quite as light-hearted as her last two projects. She wanted to invest herself in writing new music for the album and enlisted a longtime friend, Jason Miles, to co-produce it. They first met 12 years ago while working on a track for a children’s album of Elvis Presley songs and instantly clicked.
Following one of her shows in New York City a few years ago, Miles casually asked, “So, what are you going to do next?” Her off-the-cuff answer: “I don’t know. What are you doing?”
With a laugh, she remembers, “We just sat there and stared at each other for a minute, like, ‘Hmm. … That’s an interesting thought.’ We didn’t take it too seriously at first, but about a week later I wrote him an e-mail and I said, ‘Hey, do you want to hear a couple of songs to see what you think?’”
Miles liked the material enough to give it a shot, so off she went to New York City with five songs, expecting to cut three. Whereas Nashville musicians call it a night when the session expires, Bogguss kept on recording well into the night with the band. With Miles’ jazz background, a slinky, sensual vibe sneaks into a few of the songs, without compromising her acoustic leanings. For example, on “No Good Way to Go,” she balances the spoken-word riffs with a chorus that’s hard to get out of your head.
“We came up with a sound that both of us were really interested in,” she said. “It made us go, ‘Wow, what if we did a whole record like this?’” So they did, with additional sessions in Nashville, mixing Miles’ players and members of her band.
One of those new songs, “Baby July,” is reminiscent of her country hits, but before the compliment can even be finished, she interjects: “Like ‘Hey Cinderella?’ I can’t even put them in the same set!” she laughs. “Those are my old folkie chords. I can’t seem to get away from going to that danged sixth minor. It just creeps into every song.”
Bogguss grew up in the Midwest — “raised in a cornfield in Illinois,” she says — and earned an art degree with a concentration on metal-smithing. (Making jewelry is another pastime.) Fresh out of college, she paid her dues by playing the coffeehouse and folk circuit across the U.S. Some habits die hard. She admitted at the end of our interview that she’d had six cups of coffee that morning to get through the day.
Asked if singer-songwriters can get discovered today with just a camper van and a lot of ambition, she replied, “I’m sure it’s not as safe at the truck stops as it used to be. Those truckers used to take such good care of me. I had my little CB radio, and I never felt like I was alone, you know what I mean? I had a bunch of big-brother guys out there, but part of that is my naïve youth. I had a German shepherd with me too, so I always felt like, ‘If anybody tries anything, I’m pulling out my dog, and they’re gonna get it!’”
Finally, after some demo sessions and a headlining gig at Dollywood, her persistence paid off and she secured a record deal at Capitol Nashville. She struggled to find her first hit, so she filled her set list with Western songs like “I Want to Be a Cowgirl’s Sweetheart,” leading to a close friendship with Patsy Montana. In the early ’90s, she caught a break with Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon.” That opened the door to Top 10 hits such as “Outbound Plane,” “Aces,” “Letting Go,” “Drive South,” “Just Like the Weather” and “Hey Cinderella.”
Her breakthrough album, Aces, was certified platinum, and she won the CMA Horizon Award in 1992. The career momentum continued with gold plaques for Voices in the Wind, Something Up My Sleeve and Greatest Hits. She also recorded an album with her most famous champion, Chet Atkins.
“He was all on top of what was new and different in Nashville all his life,” Bogguss says about Atkins. “He had a particular gift for that, but the other thing was his lack of, ‘Oh, poor me. I’m getting old.’ And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to feel like that. I have never felt it so far, and I feel like he was a great mentor that way.”
In the mid-’90s, Bogguss scaled back her touring and recording to raise a family with husband-songwriter Doug Crider. Their 12-year-old son, Ben, inspired her to include a sterling rendition of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” on Sweet Danger.
“It wasn’t like he was saying, ‘Mom, you need to sing this song,’” she says. “He was just singing it, and when he sang it, it was so different to hear it all stripped down in just a song. I certainly don’t want to put the song down — or the production from 1976 — but the thing about it was, it seemed less urgent and pleading when I heard this little tiny voice singing it. It sounded so vulnerable. I thought, ‘Oh man, if I could capture that feeling.’ That’s just what I wanted to do. Plus the well-known fact that I like to yodel, and I got to yodel in a song that’s not about a cowgirl. How much better can it get?”