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Country star Suzy Bogguss to perform in Durango

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com
Suzy Bogguss interprets the work of country legend Merle Haggard on her most recent disc 'Lucky'

FARMINGTON – When her dad tossed her the keys and the title to his weathered 1968 Dodge Polara after she got her driver’s license, 16-year-old Suzy Bogguss had her first car. But it was what was inside the car — an 8-track tape player and several tapes — that the future country music star would really come to treasure.

Bogguss recalls those nights cruising around her small Illinois hometown with her friends with a great deal of fondness. When they gossiped and chatted about school and boys, they usually had to strain to be heard over the music pouring from the stereo, which played the collection of 8-tracks that Bogguss’ dad had bequeathed to her along with his ride.

Decades later, Bogguss doesn’t hesitate to rattle off the names of those performers: Buck Owens. Ray Price. Eddy Arnold. Patsy Cline. And, of course, Merle Haggard.

It was the latter who really captured the young Bogguss’ imagination, in no small part inspiring her to pack her guitar and a few clothes into a battered van when she graduated from college and hit the road. Bogguss spent five years living as a troubadour, talking her way into gigs at whatever coffeehouses or road houses would have her while honing her skill as a performer and songwriter.

Eventually, she would make her way to Nashville and become one of country music’s top stars in the 1990s, charting a number of hit singles and albums. But she never got over her admiration for Haggard, the author and performer of a slew of country hits that had served as the soundtrack for much of her youth.

Suzy Bogguss says she's been a Merle Haggard fan since her teenage years, when she used to listen to his 8-track tapes in the car her father gave her.

Bogguss — who takes the stage this weekend in Durango, Colo. — finally got the chance to return to those roots last year with the release of her most recent disc, “Lucky,” which features her interpretation of a dozen Haggard classics. Bogguss said she initially planned to do only a single Haggard cover, but as she sat at the kitchen table of her Nashville home looking over the songwriter’s catalog, she was having trouble narrowing down her choice.

“I’d think, ‘That’s the one — or maybe I’ll do two,’” she said by phone last week from Nashville. “Finally, I said, ‘What the heck — let’s do the whole thing.’”

Still, taking on a master in his class can leave one with reservations.

“Oh, of course, tons,” she said. “In the past, there were all sorts of songs (of his) I would have loved to have done. But I thought the definitive version of those songs had already been done by him.”

Bogguss certainly wasn’t opposed to doing covers. After all, some of her best work is versions of songs by critically acclaimed but somewhat unknown artists like John Hiatt. But she had always shied away from performing the hits of fellow stars. That changed when she agreed to do a cover of “Take It to the Limit” for “Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles” in 1993, a project put together by Don Henley for his Walden Woods Project.

“I figured, ‘Hey, if an Eagle asks me to sing it, it’s OK,” she said, laughing.

When she told people what she had planned for this album, Bogguss said she felt compelled at first to explain herself. Later, she realized that wasn’t necessary.

“Merle’s legacy is doing just fine,” she said. “I just wanted to show people what an amazing songwriter and vocalist he is.”

The experience of immersing herself in Haggard’s work for “Lucky” was very educational, Bogguss said.

“It was like going to songsmith school,” she said. “His work is so simplified, so toned down, and he is so economical as a lyricist — which was a good lesson for me, since I’m kind of wordy. That’s just a gift of his. I can tell he worked hard to get rid of anything extra and boil it down to the real nut to get what he was singing about.”

Suzy Bogguss asked for and received Merle Haggard's blessing before recording 'Lucky,' her versions of 12 Haggard tunes.

Bogguss crossed paths with Haggard a number of times earlier in her career. In just her second television appearance, a spot on Ralph Emery’s “Nashville Now” show on The Nashville Network in the early 1990s, Bogguss said Haggard was sitting on a couch next to Emery’s desk while she performed her “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” When she finished, she breathlessly rushed over to the two men, ignoring Emery’s outstretched hand and grabbing Haggard’s.

Bogguss recalled the episode with a fair amount of embarrassment, but still giggled as she related it. Emery, as she recalled, wasn’t particularly amused.

“Ralph was so mad,” she said. “He literally made Merle do the interview. He said, ‘She doesn’t want to talk to me.’ I was literally sitting there shaking, thinking, ‘Ralph’s never going to have me on again.’”

From that meeting, Bogguss and Haggard developed a friendship. They played several dates together, and she recalled that at one point, he proposed they get together and write some songs together. To her deep regret, Bogguss said, her busy schedule at that point in her career wouldn’t allow it.

When the time came to record “Lucky,” Bogguss made sure to ask for, and was delighted to receive, Haggard’s blessing. She sent him a copy of the disc — actually two — via mutual friend Marty Stuart as soon as she got out of the studio. Bogguss knew Haggard’s daughter was getting married that weekend, and she feared if she sent just one recording, it would get lost in shuffle.

“So Marty put one in his hand and one in his studio,” Bogguss said.

That turned out to be a wise move. When Bogguss’ publicist called Haggard a few days later to see if he had listened to it, he told her he didn’t have it.

“Yes, you do,” she said. “It’s in your studio.”

It wasn’t 90 minutes later that Bogguss herself got a call from Haggard.

“He told me, ‘My whole family just listened to it from top to bottom, and we love it,’” she said. “I was so happy I was hyperventilating.”

Haggard was particularly complimentary of the new arrangements Bogguss had come up with for such tunes as “Silver Wings,” “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “If We Make It Through December,” explaining that he was always looking for new ways to perform those tunes after playing them on an almost nightly basis for many years.

When she was considering which songs to perform on “Lucky,” Bogguss had realized almost immediately that the masculine voice in which most of Haggard’s material was written would present a stiff challenge for a female vocalist. She made a point of rejecting two of Haggard’s better-known songs, “Okie From Muskogee” and “Mama Tried,” explaining, “It would just be too hard to even suspend your disbelief.”

But when she settled on some of Haggard’s other songs, many of which he wrote from a vulnerable perspective, Bogguss feared her vocal had a pathetic quality to it that Haggard’s original didn’t. She dealt with that problem through her arrangements.

“What I ended up doing in the case of songs like that was, I ended up stripping them down,” she said. “Like the last track on the record, ‘You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,’ there’s a lap steel solo on there that’s really kind of dark. It has an old country-rock tone to it. In a lot of cases, we went with a harsh tone so it doesn’t sound so pitiful.”

From the beginning, Bogguss has adamantly maintained the record is intended to serve as what she calls “an illumination of his writing,” not a tribute album. She said Haggard is worth being remembered and celebrated for the simplest of reasons.

“I just think him being himself,” she said, citing his personal integrity and consistently high artistic standards. “He’s never had to waver from himself at all. He’s always met that out front and never had to apologize for it.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

 

If you go

What: Suzy Bogguss concert

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20

Where: The Community Concert Hall, 1000 Rim Drive on the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango, Colo.

Tickets: $25 and $35 online at durangoconcerts.com, by phone at 970-247-7657 or in person at the Durango Welcome Center, Eighth Street and Main Avenue in downtown Durango.

For more information: Visit suzybogguss.com