Suzy Bogguss

by Corey O'Flanagan

The Suzy Bogguss story starts in the small town of Aledo, Illinois, where she grew up listening to her dad's Merle Haggard 8-tracks. In 1985, she got a big break when she sang at Silver Dollar City, a Nashville amusement park that Dolly Parton turned into Dollywood the next year. With Parton's endorsement, she became a featured performer at the park and earned a record deal.

Bogguss is more of a song interpreter than a songwriter - the title track of her 1989 debut album, Somewhere Between, is a Haggard cover - but she did co-write one of her biggest hits: "Hey Cinderella," an unconventional take on the famous fairy tale.

Speaking from her home in Franklin, Tennessee, Bogguss tells the "Hey Cinderella" story, talks about her Dollywood days, and performs her song "Letting Go." The transcript is below.

Where it all began

I'm the youngest, eight years younger than my closest brothers, so there was lots of music going on in our house way before I was even born. So growing up, everybody already had established what music they like: My oldest brother was into the harmony groups, my sister was into James Taylor, and then my other brother was into Creedence Clearwater Revival, so I got a little taste of a lot of different styles of music growing up and it all is in there, it's all kind of muddled up together.

And I always loved music. I was a big ham because I was the youngest, so I was always being a little dancing bear that was making people laugh. Growing up knowing I could make people happy if I sing to them, that's how it got under my skin and began to form.

I grew up in a really small town, so didn't realize that people can actually make a living as performers. I didn't know anybody who did that. So when I got to college [Illinois State University, where she studied metalworking] there were people who were majoring in art, music, or theater, so there were a lot of people who had already played professionally. They taught me a lot of stuff, and then I started trying out for things like the university singers, and then I also had friends that played in coffee houses or in the local bars. By my sophomore year in college, I was playing in the bars and playing the 10 songs I knew, then elaborating and learning songs from all the other people that were out there playing guitar. Then I started writing songs and traveling more.

I used to play my guitar in the church. It was a Presbyterian, very older audience, and they came to life when I started playing the guitar. It was like something they didn't even know existed. It gave me a lot of confidence, and then as I started to play in bars and stuff I was still nervous, but little by little I got over that. I still have times when I get nervous. It has to do with what's going on emotionally - your confidence can wane at times.

But for the most part, I get calm. I get on the stage and go, Well, if I'm calm then they're going to feel like they're at home and they're not going to be judging me. So that's my tip to you: If you want them to be calm then you have to be calm so that they feel comfortable and not worried that you're up there ready to clam up or something.

First featured female performer at Dollywood

I moved to Nashville and I was playing at a restaurant bar called Tony Roma's, and while I was there somebody told me about this theme park. It was not Dolly's park yet, but they had a festival in the summer, so you could play two or three days in the mountains and it would be fun. So I got a gig doing that and while I was there Dolly came and was buying the park, so those people came back to Nashville and saw me in the bar and they hired me right on spot, so it was pretty magical.

Some of the songs I played at Dollywood I covered and actually had hits with. "Someday Soon" was one that I had been playing for years and years. But one of the things about Dolly, she did meet with us separately, and she really wanted you to do your own show and to sing the songs that you wanted to convey to your peeps. I thought that was so beautiful and generous, and she did that with every artist that worked there.

There were quite a few bluegrass groups and different kinds of groups that were also playing, but I was playing solo at the train station, and I also sang with the band at the end of the day. That was more of a jamboree show, but even those songs I was able to choose which cover songs I wanted to play.

When Capitol Records came to see me sing at Dollywood, Dolly took a meeting with me. I said, "They've offered me a record deal," and she said, "Well, you can't go wrong with Jim Foglesong because he's one of the gentlemen in Nashville." Jim signed me and three weeks later I had a record deal. It was fabulous. So I only worked at Dollywood for six months. I worked the first season.

Demo singing and "Hopeless Romantic"

When I got my job at Dollywood, I was singing a lot of demos in Nashville - that's when a songwriter will hire a singer to sing their song so they can pitch it to an artist like Reba McEntire or Trisha Yearwood. Trisha was another demo singer like myself.

So you'd sing these songs and get 10 bucks or whatever for it. My now-husband [Doug Crider] was a recording engineer, so he had hired me to sing a couple of songs of his and there was one that I really, really liked, and when I got ready to make my record for Dollywood, I asked him if I could sing that song, which could be kind of tricky because maybe he wanted Reba McEntire to cut it instead of some unknown person, but I think he had something else up his sleeve because he came to the session when I recorded it and he never left, so I think he figured, "I'll give her this song and then maybe she'll give me her heart."

We ended up getting engaged two months after that. It's been 34 years. So wow.

That whole time period was a whirlwind: I got married, I got a record deal, we bought a house, and I had been at Dollywood opening some shows for Dolly. So everything was coming up roses in 1986.

"Cross My Broken Heart"

I usually sing a song with just guitar, and if it still sounds convincing and I'm really engaging in it, I'll pursue it. You would not believe how many songs that I've absolutely loved, I've started to play and say, "This just doesn't sound real. It doesn't sound genuine and it doesn't sound like it's coming from my heart, so I don't want to sing it."

And "Cross My Broken Heart" was kind of a Latin feel. I started out as a drummer in high school, so I've always been a sucker for anything Latin feeling. A friend of mine, Verlon Thompson, had written it, so I got to hear it before everybody else and it was just one of those lucky things.

On the next album, my Aces album [1991], I did a song called "Music On The Wind," which also has a Latin feel and is in 5/4 time. I love seeing people try to dance to that one. Most dances are either a waltz or in 4/4 time, so when they try to dance in 5/4 time it's pretty funny.

"Hey Cinderella"

I do look at my luck as a Cinderella story. I wrote that song with Matraca Berg. We were talking about her mother and my mother-in-law, how they had both gotten married in 1959 when women were supposed to have a really cinched waist and the right coffee maker, and everything would be perfect for your little perfect life, and we started making fun of Cinderella. We started going, "Now, where are you? I don't think it's turned out exactly like you thought."

We were getting pretty catty. We didn't think it would be a real song - it was just for fun. We took a coffee break and Gary Harrison, who I've written a bunch of songs with, was out there and he said, "That's really good, don't tear it up. Get back in there and do it."

We said, "Well, you come in there and help us. We need to tone it down. The 'thunder thighs' don't need to be in there."

So he helped us tame it a little bit and then I went home and played it for Doug, my husband, and he said, "Yeah, it's done." So that one came together all in one writing episode, and it was the first time I wrote with Matraca. We've been dear friends ever since, so that one's real special to me.

Live at Caffe Milano

In 1999, Bogguss played two shows at the cozy Nashville club Caffe Milano that she recorded for a live album that was sold at her shows but just recently made available for streaming.

That was one of my favorite places to play in Nashville. It's just a darling little club that was about 225 seats and a really open floor plan so you could see everybody and you could talk to them. It was very intimate.

I had been with that band for about three years and we just were really tight. It was really fun to make a live record with some of my favorite band members of all time. The goal was to capture this particular time. I was in between record labels and that was convenient for me to record something that I would own, but I never did much with it. It became something that we would sell on the road. But right now is such a great time for live albums because people miss that feeling of being in the room.

It's a four-piece, really tight band with a guitar player that knows how to make his guitar sound like a steel and a piano player that can play strings, and of course I'm leading it with an acoustic guitar. But they were all artists in their own right. Everyone had their own style, and it just clicked. It was awesome.

Personnel on the album:
Keyboards, Vocals – Howard Duck
Electric Guitar, Vocals – John Zocco
Bass, Vocals – Denny Dadmun-Bixby
Drums – Tim Horsley

Crowd size

I prefer an intimate crowd. My favorite is around 300-500 people because I feel like I can reach all of them. I can even see if somebody dragged their spouse or their girlfriend or whoever to the show and I can target them. Like, "I'm gonna get you before I'm done. You don't like this song, but you're going to like another." I love that.

That's a really hard thing to do when you have a really massive audience, but there's also another kind of energy that you get from playing festivals or playing in large venues. But I love the spontaneity of the smaller theaters because there's not a lot of production. I've traveled the last six or seven years mostly as a three-piece acoustic, so upright bass, me on guitar, and another guitar player that sometimes plays harmonica or mandolin.

I know a lot of songs, so if people shout out something from a long time ago, these guys can follow me. I didn't dare to do that with a five-piece band, but it's easy for me to just wing it and let things be really loose with a three-piece. It's about that shared communication between me and these folks.

Merle Haggard

I grew up listening to Merle Haggard as a little kid. My dad worked in the shop at International Harvester in East Moline, Illinois, and he carpooled with a bunch of guys that love country music, and Merle was one of their biggest heroes, so there were all these 8-tracks of Merle and Buck Owens and Ray Price in the car that I got to drive when I turned 16. I had already known these songs most of my life, but I took them on as my own because I was broke and I couldn't buy a lot of music myself.

So I had been a fan of Merle since I was a little girl, and my first album is titled after a Merle Haggard song. It's called Somewhere Between and that was the one that came out in 1989 and had "Cross My Broken Heart" on it. That started a friendship with me and Merle.

It's such a weird thing when you meet mentors and heroes of yours. In country music, there's just so much accessibility. Our natural tendency I think is to reach out to people, and the stories we like to tell in our songs are about the way we grew up and who we are, so there's something about meeting a hero and having them treat you just like another person and it not being strange at all. It's not like you're kissing their ring. I felt from the beginning when I got to Nashville that everybody felt there was plenty of room for all of us. Like we weren't pitted against each other.

Wine Down Wednesdays

Bogguss has been beating the pandemic blues with her "Wine Down Wednesdays" series on Facebook.

It's 25 minutes and just relaxing. I sing a couple songs and answer a couple of questions. I ask them to tell me what's going on, and it's been so therapeutic and fabulous for me because I don't have that experience of being in the theater and doing shows live.

I feel like they're my pals, and I've been hearing from people all around the world. You hear from somebody in South Africa and you think, how did they know that I was going to be doing this and how did they even know my music?

It's so easy to get kind of gloomy. We had this wonderful tour planned for this year and we just had to shove the whole thing into 2021, so it's really bolstered me.

I started kind of a VIP subscription thing called Suzy's Inner Circle. Two hundred plus people are in it for $10 a month. I send them videos of me working in the studio on the songs we're recording now, so the money they're paying every month is paying for me to make this new album. It's a Kickstarter kind of vibe, but they get to be in on the process all the time that it's happening. Last week Doug and I posted us trying to decide between a Wurlitzer and a B3 organ for this song we're recording right now, and it was funny because everybody had their opinions.

They are cheerleaders for me too. They're pushing me to get on to the next song.

[Listen to the audio to hear Suzy perform "Letting Go"]

October 8, 2020
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Further reading:
Pam Tillis
Barry Dean
Catt Gravitt

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