Suzy Bogguss didn’t set out to craft a Merle Haggard tribute record. Some might call that serendipity; she just calls it Lucky.
“Merle Haggard is a hell of a storyteller,” says Suzy. “When I hear his songs, I feel like I’m listening in on someone’s life.” On her new album, Lucky, a collection of songs all written by Haggard, Suzy does more than just listen—the CMA, ACM and Grammy Award-winning singer makes the country rebel’s compositions her own, reinterpreting classics like “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Silver Wings” and “Today I Started Loving You Again” from a female point of view.
“Merle is one of the most masculine songwriters I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been watching boys cover his music for years. I just thought, ‘Why couldn’t a girl do this?’” Suzy says.
Turns out, a woman can—especially if that woman is Suzy Bogguss, one of country music’s most pristine and evocative vocalists. With the release of the Illinois native’s 1989 major label debut, Somewhere Between, Suzy quickly became one of the key artists that defined those golden days of ’90s country. She scored a string of Top 10 singles with country radio staples like “Outbound Plane,” “Drive South,” “Hey Cinderella,” “Letting Go” and “Aces,” and her 1991 album of that name was certified platinum. In addition, she scored a trio of gold albums and notched more than 3 million sales.
With Lucky, released on Suzy’s own label Loyal Dutchess, the singer comes full circle, returning yet again to her early inspiration, Haggard—Suzy’s Somewhere Between was titled after a Hag cut.
“My very first song on the radio, ‘Somewhere Between,’ was a Merle Haggard song,” says Suzy, going on to explain the title of Lucky, which she produced with her husband, songwriter Doug Crider. “I was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper and the word ‘lucky’ jumped out at me. I said, ‘That’s the title of the album.’ Because I feel lucky that I get to know Merle.”
Not that Lucky is a tribute album. Of that, Suzy is adamant.
“I don’t want it to be viewed that way. I had been wanting to make a record based in country and blues and I just kept thinking of great Haggard songs,” Suzy says. “Finally it just made sense to quit denying that what I really wanted was to sing an entire album of Merle songs! I have always looked to great singer/songwriters for material outside of my own. These songs are perfect for me at this time in my life. They just happen to all be written by one guy.
“I didn’t try to imitate Merle, this is my interpretation of his songs,” she continues. “Besides, Merle is still doing his own thing. He’s hard at work, and people are still lining up around the block to see him.”
Lucky is remarkable in its freshness. Its acoustic-based arrangements, while sparse, crackle with vibrancy. Each song is driven by the perfect marriage of Suzy’s delicate voice and the adventurous, yet tasteful, playing of the band. It’s indicative of what Haggard himself would do in the studio. “Merle would experiment. He would take his band The Strangers into the studio and they’d be pioneers,” Suzy says. “Each one of Merle’s records sounds fresh and you hear that in these different songs we chose. I really miss that fearlessness today.”
Suzy followed suit. Assembling her own ace band at her home studio—along with an A-team of singer-songwriters, including Jessi Alexander, Matraca Berg, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Joe Diffie, Gretchen Peters and Jon Randall Stewart, to lend background vocals—she cut a dozen Haggard tunes. They range from the boozy lament “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and the randy “Let’s Chase Each Other Round the Room” to the somber one-two punch of “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” and “Someday When Things Are Good.”
“Merle’s songs were on the 8-track player in my dad’s car. Saturday nights when I would drive around with my friends, this was a part of our soundtrack. Back when country music talked about real adult problems and how we deal with them. We felt like we were eavesdropping on the secret lives of our parents,” Suzy says. “Merle’s songs feel familiar... and slightly dangerous. And there’s not a truck or a bonfire in the batch.
“These are the songs that I related to, that I felt I had a reason to sing,” she continues. “They all had something that I could give them, whether it was a particular passion to a lyric or a melody. Every melody on this whole project is one that I just love as a singer.”
Throughout Lucky, Suzy’s bohemian spirit—for nearly five years, she lived in and traveled the country by camper—is palpable. In “Silver Wings,” she delivers an almost cinematic vocal. “There’s a movie playing in my head when I sing that song,” Suzy admits. “And in many of his songs.”
To further the metaphor, it’s a movie written by Haggard, but directed by Suzy. One of her goals with the album was to show fans of American music exactly what Merle wrote. “These are meaty melodies, meaty stories,” she says of the songs. “I love sinking my teeth into them.”
And she hopes both her fans who have followed her since the ’90s as well as devotees of Haggard will do likewise.
“What I really wanted to illuminate is not only is this guy awesome to see live and awesome to listen to on his records, but his songs are very relatable for somebody else to communicate to other people,” Suzy says. “Not every artist has music that is as universal as Merle’s. It’s pretty heavy-duty stuff and I think that’s why to so many of us who sing and write songs, he’s such a king among us.
“He really is the poet of the common man.” Or in this case, an extraordinary woman.