With her latest album, “Lucky,” a tribute to country legend Merle Haggard, Suzy Bogguss has come full circle.
Bogguss made her debut in 1989 with “Somewhere Between,” a Haggard composition and the title track of her first Capitol Records album. The album was a success with critics and fans, and Bogguss was named the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Female Vocalist and later earned the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award.
One of the most gifted country artists of the past 25 years, Bogguss scored a string of top-10 singles and three gold albums. The platinum-selling “Aces,” released in 1991, featured some of the decade’s finest songwriting, including the Cheryl Wheeler title track, Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” Nanci Griffith’s “Outbound Plane” and “Letting Go,” written by her husband, Doug Crider.
Bogguss left the spotlight in the mid-90s to raise a son, later returning to music to perform and record on her own record label. “Lucky,” released in 2014, was financed with a Kickstarter campaign.
These days, she and her band travel by van to perform at house concerts and in small clubs, such as Chapel Hill’s Local 506, where she and her trio will perform on Thursday.
From her home in Nashville, Bogguss talked about her music, her career and her transition.
Q: You burst on the scene in 1989 with “Somewhere Between,” a diverse album that included a cover of Patsy Montana’s 1935 classic, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”
A: I’ve been pretty eclectic. At that time, it was kind of a scramble. Ricky Skaggs was on the scene, Randy Travis, the O’Kanes – all these people who were kind of earthy, a little more on the traditional side of country music. That was perfect for me. When I moved to Nashville, I was digesting about five years of road life. So that first album on Capitol reflected a lot of that traveling. I did a lot in the West. So I was starting from where I was. I still look at albums that way. I still look at them as “records” of where your creative side is taking you.
Q: It was a wonderful time to break into the industry with your folk-styled songs. Nashville was open to so many different styles with such talented singers as Patty Loveless, Martina McBride and Kathy Mattea on the charts. Did this allow you to bring your folk inclinations into your music?
A: It connects with a lot of people of my age who were fans of singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Carole King. No matter what influences we put into the production of our songs, so many of us came up listening to story songs, and lyrics were super important to all of us. Singing was really important to us, to tell stories with the melodies we were singing. I think how fortunate I was to have come to Nashville when I did, but also to become friends with all these people and have the friendships continue. Kathy is one of my best friends. I sang on Patty’s demo projects – I was a background singer at 5 o’clock in the morning.
Q: “Lucky” features your interpretations of 12 Haggard compositions. What was it like covering one of your heroes – your male country heroes?
A: I wasn’t trying to do a tribute album, but I was borrowing from his amazing catalog to make a record. What came out of it was realizing how profound his songs are and how relatable they are as a female singing a male catalog from a pretty macho dude. I had to change hardly any gender things because his stuff is so relationship oriented.
Q: How is today’s country music industry different from what you experienced when you were charting in the 1990s?
A: At the time, Nashville was super open. Music Row was just hopping. We had groups of publishers that were buddies that we played volleyball with. So we knew about songs. We’d go out at night and somebody would pull a guitar out and play a (new) song for us. Today, it seems a little more closed and artists have to get their music straight from the writer or from their “crew.” I miss that camaraderie and how many of us there were just walking around the streets of Nashville.
Q: One major difference is that so many artists are using social media, including crowdfunding, to finance and promote their music. Did you find it difficult to initiate a Kickstarter campaign?
A: I didn’t know what to expect. But back in 1980, when I made my first vinyl record, I stood on the bandstand in saloons and coffee houses and solicited loans from people. That’s how I made my first album. So it wasn’t new to me. I knew it was possible to do that and pay it back. This is the sixth album I’ve made on my own label. We found we were in a rut. We’d get done with a record and then sell it. Then we’d have to use that money to do the next project. Sometimes we would have to get a loan to start the record. When I saw that people were doing (Kickstarter), I thought, “I’ve done something like this before and it was successful.”
It helps that I started out with the camper truck. It would be difficult if I had never experienced booking myself and putting my own posters up. You know, we had “crowdsourcing” back then, but I’d have to write 200 postcards to people (to say) that I was coming back to Montana. Now, I can write one note, push a button, and it goes to a bunch of people. That’s a lot better. I feel very comfortable with it. And I like the “guerrilla touring” (traveling light), too. We fly in and usually rent a mini-van. It’s low overhead, low maintenance, and we have a good time.