26 years ago, Suzy Bogguss scored her first hit with a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between.” She’s hoping to repeat the trick with her newest album, Lucky, a collection of countrified classics originally performed by the Hag. Bogguss isn’t the only artist to tackle these tunes, of course, but she’s one of the only women — maybe the only woman — to spend an entire album flipping Merle’s masculine music on its head, adding a feminine perspective (and some killer pipes) to some of the manliest twang-fests of the 20th century. We sat down with her in a Music Row conference room to talk about the album, the songs, and what it takes to make Merle Haggard verklempt.
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Vince Gill and Paul Franklin just released an entire album of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes. Guys cover Haggard’s music all the time. Why haven’t we heard more women doing it?
I wonder if it’s because his art is so masculine. Roseanne Cash did “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go,” and I sang “Somewhere Between” on my first record. But you’re right; it’s normally the boys.
Do you think the songs still pack the same punch, once the gender is flipped?
I think I picked songs that really suited that switch, although some had to be ‘forced’ more than others. When I was singing “Sing Me Back Home,” I really had to do that song more as a narrator, because you don’t often see a woman on death row… and a co-ed death row is definitely not happening anytime soon. I actually brought in Joe Diffie to sing with me for that one. He’s the prisoner going down the hall, and I’m the narrator telling his story, which sorta lets me off the hook. Doing something like “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” was easy, though. I didn’t have to conjure up any special scenario for that one, because who hasn’t sat at a bar, gotten into a bit of an argument with their spouse, told that spouse to leave, and then done that very same thing? It doesn’t happen all the time… but it’s happened.
It’s one thing to listen to an artist’s albums. It’s another thing to actually play the songs with instruments. While recording the original, what did you learn about Merle Haggard’s songwriting and voice?
Do you know who I would equate him to? Stephen Foster. He just goes everywhere with his melodies. You might find a couple of songs that emulate each other, but he’s got “The Running Kind” and “Mama Tried” and “I Always Get Lucky With You.” He’s got jazzy melodies, bluesy melodies, straight ahead country melodies. He’s got “Sing Me Back Home,” which sounds like folk music to me. It’s a wonderful catalog.
Did this project require you to sing differently?
With some of these songs, I sang them lower than I would’ve if it was something I’d written. My goal was not to strain on this record. I wanted to sound relaxed. Merle’s style is so effortless, and I really wanted to show that girls can do the relaxed thing, too, even if we can’t dig as deep as he can.
Have other people covered your songs before?
A couple of times. It’s very flattering. And it’s always a shock, too, to see which song they pick. The song of mine that’s been covered more than anything else is a Christmas song. It only gets played three weeks a year, but it happens every single year, and it’s the most successful song Doug [Crider] and I ever wrote.
Some of these songs are faithful to the original arrangements. Others are very, very different.
The guys and I completely restructured “Sing Me Back Home” over dinner. We tracked the song in the home studio above my garage, then went down to the kitchen to eat together, then went back up there and added this spooky, eerie vibe to it, just to give it a different flavor. “Someday When Things Are Good” might be one of the most different ones we did. We cut it with a full band, including piano, then we took everything off and recut it with guitars, drums, and vocals… then we took the drums off. In the end, it’s just me, guitars, and vocals.
Did Merle gig to hear the album?
He did! He was verklempt. He said that his family sat down together and listened, and they recognized Pat Bergeson’s guitar playing immediately. He was just so sweet about the whole thing. He was saying, “I’ve been looking for some new ways to play these songs, and you’ve done such a good job changing them up.” That’s what I hoped he’d feel. I wanted him to know it was all about his songs. He’s still out there, touring his butt off and sounding great, and you just can’t compete with his records. They’re gonna live on; they’re timeless. So I wasn’t trying to compete with that. I was just trying to show a different angle, a different way of looking at his songs.