Celebrated country singer-songwriter Suzy Bogguss has teamed up with Pam Tillis and Terri Clark to launch their Chicks With Hits tour, which hit the road in October. Bogguss has achieved platinum status with her album Aces, garnered Grammy nods and awards from the Academy of Country Music, and has crossed several genres with her music, including folk, jazz, and swing. Suzy has always been in love with the stories, and became a renowned storyteller herself, even producing a whole album of Merle Haggard songs (“Lucky”) from the female point of view, without having to change a thing.
Her goal right now is to give audiences something to lift them up, to escape with her into the music and get away from all of the negativity in the world today, if just for a little bit. Bogguss took the time to sit with us and reminisce, talk about the industry, and, of course, to talk about Chicks With Hits and what it means to her and the other tremendous women who are hitting the road together as a powerhouse trio that will surely bring audiences to their feet to celebrate and sing along.
You have collaborated a lot, and really beautifully in the past, how did you guys get together to make this awesome girl power thing happen?
Well, honestly you know, in the last few years there’s been a lot of collaborative things going on and I know that all three of us have, at different points, taken a trio out on the road — I mostly travel with a trio these days. But, I think Terri is the one who just thought, “You know, somehow we gotta make this thing happen,” and she called me and then we talked about Pam and it just seemed like a great group of songs from a specific time period. And, Terri, she’s a little bit younger than us and a little bit behind us in terms of the years that she was on the radio so much, but she was in Nashville at a very young age, playing those songs already…it’s pretty silly. There’s a lot of, Terri just going, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re doin’ this!”
You covered “Teach Your Children” with Crosby Stills & Nash, Kathy Mattea, and Alison Krauss, which was pretty amazing! What was that like?
Kathy and I are best buddies; we’ve been best friends for a lot of years and getting to do that song together was the first time that we actually got to collaborate on something that was working towards helping people — it was for the Red Hot + Country AIDS benefit project. That was an amazing experience, and I’m hoping to have a chance to record with Pam and Terri, and I just keep thinking that if I just keeping thinking it out loud enough I will just make it happen [laughs].
“Classic country” means different things to different generations. They might know country as Dolly Parton or Lorrie Morgan, others might say Shania Twain or Faith Hill, where do you place yourself on that continuum of country sound?
You know, that’s a tough thing because so many times radio is the reason that we come up with genres or terms like that, that try to categorize the music. I think I moved to Nashville to make country music because of the artists that I followed and I thought of them as country and I grew up in this little town in Illinois. My dad worked at this company at International Harvester, and he would carpool with a bunch of guys and they would listen to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. At the time, because I was from a small town, a lot of the men and even the ladies carpooled out of the corn fields to these places, and the stories from these country songs were very similar to the lifestyle I was living. The stories that Merle and Buck, and you know, Patsy Cline — these were things that I was exposed to as a child, and they really smacked of the truth that was around me.
You are a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, producer, business owner and more, what’s your favorite role to play?
The girl on stage, singing for people and soaking up energy, and being a ham. That’s my favorite, and that’s one of the things that kind of keeps me rolling. You know, no matter what, all the rest of it happens and you kind of have to keep your business running; you have to think of new ideas for how you have to grow your business or at least keep it visible and keep working. I don’t think anything is ever going to replace live music. I think that, no matter how much the new way people get their music, whether it’s via Spotify or buying downloads, all of that stuff can psych people out, and I just find that it’s really consoling to know that as long as I have my voice, and as long as I can go out there and share music with people that keeps me sane, and hopefully it helps them in some form of release as well. I work real hard to try and get people to try and feel free to sing along with me and you know, just let it be a hootenanny!
You, Terri, and Pam all have your own recording labels, yours being Loyal Dutchess. What are the pros and cons of this creatively?
Well, I think it’s probably like any artist. You start out with a blank canvas, and even before you can put the first stroke on there you start second guessing things and you know, the pro has always been the case for me because even when I was on Capitol — even though I had a team around me to help me find music, and focus on which things worked best — when you’re on your own, well, I’m pretty much the main person I talk to. If that person is not confident, that’s not a good thing for me. I have to build that confidence somehow before I can take her word on things or you know, what are her new creative ideas. Sometimes, they’re ridiculous. I might wake up in the middle of the night with things that I really believe are completely creative and would be just something that the world needs to experience, and I’ll either speak it into my phone, or I’ll write it down and look at it after a cup of coffee and just think, “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”
You do have to be willing to get up, though. I know, if it were me, I would lose a lot not getting out of bed.
Well, sometimes you have to weigh it: do you need the sleep more than you need the other? You do wanna try and keep yourself in top notch shape and as a singer. I know, that if I don’t have my eight hours of sleep, somewhere along the line, third night along the tour or whatever, I’m gonna crap out, and three songs before the end of the show I’m gonna be like “Oh my goodness!”
In the beginning of your career you performed at Silver Dollar City for Dolly Parton, what was that experience like?
Yeah, ya know, that’s a hard one to explain but here’s the deal. Right after I moved to Nashville I heard from some folks that there was a festival at Silver Dollar City, about three hours from Nashville. Somehow I got myself booked over there to do three days, and while I was there doing that, Dolly was there scopin’ out the park — this was a year before she actually bought it — and while I was there she actually did see me perform. So the following winter — that was like in August of ’85 — so the following winter, one of her representatives came to see me in Nashville where I was playing at this rib joint, and that’s where they actually offered me the job. So I actually worked six months at Dollywood the first season they were open. Dolly, you know, what a great person. Like a big sister. Just wonderful. She was just like a really great boss in that she wanted her music at the park to be authentic.
They’d hire a bluegrass group and they would play their stuff, and the old timey folk would come in and do their stuff, and I would just be kind of eclectic, contemporary country artist, so she wanted me to sing whatever I wanted to sing. You know, sing your songs, sing songs that mean something to you. Represent yourself as an artist. First of all it was great advice, and you know because of that, I did five shows a day. At the end of the day, I performed with a band, and I had never done that before so it was great experience. And because of that, also, I got my record deal, because of people coming and hearing me sing.
Without getting too political, country artists generally play to a very conservative audience and may even be forced to pander to a very male-dominated industry, would you say that has had an affect on you as a woman, and being able to move around in the industry?
You know I really try hard not to let that stop me in any way or make me bitter. For the time period, I feel like that the very late ‘80s and early ‘90s for females, the door was very open, really, to more artists period. Because when country music started making money, there was more money to go around, there was more flexibility, and there were a lot of us who had multiple influences. Where I had been really affected by folk music because of where I grew up, and because of the people I was working with early on and, also, I had the love for the country music and the storytelling and all that stuff, those were things that came with me to Nashville, and got into my songwriting, and got into the way I preferred to produce my records.
But I was given a lot of leeway by my record label, basically enough room to hang myself because there was enough room for artists at that time, that if after a while things weren’t sticking to the wall, they’d get rid of them. But nowadays, if an artist comes along, and they don’t already have a following, and they don’t already have their crap together as far as who their persona is and that stuff, they don’t get that time to develop. So I feel very fortunate that I had that opportunity, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some good ol’ boy network going on all through that time. I just have the kind of personality that, if I see a wall in front of me, I’m gonna find a way around it. Sometimes, it helps you, to just be tolerant of different people’s viewpoints, and you find the common ground that you have with those people, and you lean on that, and that’s how you make that relationship work, and don’t just fight everything — because I did watch that backfire on a number of artists who would end up going back home afterwards. It’s going around these days that we’re not thinking, we’re not looking at things that way. We need to look at the commonality and start trying to find ways that we can be stronger, better people by being tolerant of other people’s differences.
Is there any message, that you would like to convey to your female audience, especially the younger ones that may be trying to break into the industry?
The fact of the matter, you know, most artists, period, in country music have a good handle on their own business and what they do. But I can tell you that the three of us, you know, very much are students of the Dolly Parton, “you do your own business” school of thought. She has been a great mentor in that way, ever since I started performing. Even back when I was watching her on the Johnny Carson show, I would just be amazed at how she would handle the interview to her advantage. She would be incredibly charming and entertaining, but she would always get to that plug. And it wasn’t blatant, it wasn’t tacky, it was always done in a way that said, “You know, we both know why I’m on this show and that’s because I have this to plug, so I’m gonna bring this up right now and you need to play nice right along with me and that’s how this is gonna go.” And she would guide it in a way that was just sophisticated.
That’s one of the things that I would say to young artists — any artists, female and male — you can’t put this in somebody else’s hands, because first of all, if you’re doing this, if you’re doing it for the right reasons you’re not doing it to become famous, you’re doing it because you have to, because you want to, always realizing that this is your life. This will be a 24 hour a day job for you, and you have to be completely committed, and if you put this into someone else’s hands, you will change. You won’t ever get to be who you really are authentically, you will end up being a product that people just keep manipulating and making into something else, and you just have to be willing to be the person who has to be confrontational from one point to another.
You may not like it, it may be uncomfortable — I’m from the Midwest, we hate it! I would just as soon throw everything under the rug until the house blows up, but I can’t because otherwise I can’t do my life the way I want to. As a musician, I would say, do your homework, and when you get into a position where you’re gonna record, or lead a band, or even if it’s just you, playing an instrument gives you so much control over the way things are gonna go. You don’t have to play the instrument on stage, you need to know it well enough that you can direct the music where you wanna go, and well enough that you can speak the language well enough that you can be respected. I’d tell them to read books, too. Not about anything specific, just read books. If you read books, you’ll grow. You’ll be a broader person, you’ll learn so much. Just read books.
You had mentioned on tour that you guys will be each other’s bands and singing each other’s songs, what do you think would be your favorite song from each of them to perform?
Oh wow! Well right now I’m trying to learn to play the mandolin so I can play on “Shake the Sugar Tree” for Pam, and it’s a whole new instrument for me but of course it’s not like I have to play bluegrass or anything. I’m having a lot of fun with that! You know, Pam’s voice is higher than mine, and I’m singing above her, and it’s challenging, and I like the challenge of being like a high soprano in some of these songs, it was kind of fun for a change. Then, Terri and I have a similar range and I have to sing underneath her, so I have gotta have, I don’t know, I’m just gonna have to stand on my tip toes and go down in the basement! But, it’s good for me. Now I get to sing 14 hits by other people. Songs by other people, and it’s gonna be a blast. Songs that I get to add to my show.
Is there anything that you never get asked in interviews that you wish people would touch upon more?
Lets see. All three of us are people who have produced our own records, have always had a lot of musical input into the stuff that we recorded, and you know when you talk about the good ol’ boy circuit and stuff, it’s funny to me that nobody seems to be curious about that. At the time that Pam and I were starting out, producing our own records and being in charge of who was going to be playing on there, and what kinds of parts and what kind of instruments were going to be in those records, it just seemed that nobody gave a rat’s butt. I’m not sure, maybe that’s just typical, that they don’t think of it that hard. For us, we felt like we had really achieved something. To have it just absolutely not even acknowledged, and I kind of feel like that is still that way. You know, you get to see it in the credits, but I don’t see the interviews on that. It doesn’t seem like they’re making much out of that.
To find a tour date near you visit: www.suzybogguss.com