Suzy Bogguss on her American Folk Songbook and her fondness for playing smaller venues

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When Suzy Bogguss hits the Soiled Dove Underground tomorrow night, she'll be delving into her musical roots a little bit with songs from her latest release, American Folk Songbook, which spotlights standards from the American folk tradition. For an artist known more for her country success, tunes like "Froggy Went A'Courtin'" and "Banks of the Ohio," which stretch back hundreds of years, reveal another dimension of her personality entirely.

Bogguss, of course, first cracked the country charts in the early '90s with straightforward, poppier country songs like "Someday Soon" and "Cross My Broken Heart." We caught up with Bogguss and chatted with her about the history of American folk music and discussed her fondness for smaller venues.

Westword: Can you talk a little bit about the scope of your current tour?

Suzy Bogguss: I just came back from a month in the UK playing mostly England and a little bit of Scotland. I hit the ground running because I have this new project coming out this week. This past week I was in Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont. I had already had this gig on the books in Lake City, which is a long way from Denver. We've got to run six hours to Denver tomorrow. But I love the Soiled Dove.

Every place I've played this summer has been awesome, because I've been able to stay out of the heat. You just don't play in Texas in the summer. If I have the choice, I'm going to be in Montana, or here, or Seattle -- someplace I can beat the heat.

Can you talk a bit about the new project, American Folk Songbook?

I was here a couple of years ago with Garrison Keillor from A Prairie Home Companion, and we played Red Rocks. The tour I did with him was about 25 days; it was a really super concentrated tour. Every night he would get thousands of people to sing along with him. It really moved me. It really made me think about growing up in the Midwest and the fortune I had of being able to have music in my school, how it was the highlight of my day. I decided I needed to do all the oldie songs from my fifth grade songbook. That's basically where I started; recollecting songs from my fifth grade songbook.

How did you winnow down the songs for the project from that list from your childhood?

As I made the list, I started to research the songs a little bit. I had already decided I was going to call it Fifth Grade Songbook or American Folk Songbook, so I started researching it, and the more I researched about the songs, the more I realized how lucky I was to have that book. It was such a part of my childhood -- there were little images and little line drawings in the book.

There were stories that told you the background of the song, and I think the book was called Music From Far and Near. It talked about the Erie Canal. It was kind of like getting a trip as you were learning these songs. I couldn't find the book anywhere. I looked all over and I called both of my music teachers from when I was a kid and nobody could help me with it, so I decided to write one. So now there's a book and a CD. It's seventeen songs, plus the written sheet music. They're the stories that I found the most interesting. I tried to pull out some of the quirkier sides of the songs.

What were some of the more interesting historical facts you uncovered in researching these old folk tunes?

For instance, the song "Wildwood Flower" was made popular by the Carter Family, and that was in the late '50s. It was actually written in 1861. Through the years, it was kind of like a game of telephone -- it passed down through all of these people, not always through sheet music, but a lot of times through somebody learning the words through somebody else.

By the time the Carter Family got it, the song was really kind of a sad story about a girl who gets dumped by this man. She's ruined forever, and she's sitting around pining for him. But in the actual lyrics from 1861, the girl is putting flowers in her hair, getting ready to go out to a party where she plans to charm everyone and make him feel jealous and sad. It's a totally different story. I like the revenge girl a lot better.

What were some of the oldest songs you rediscovered in your research?

The oldest one we found was "Froggy Went A'Courtin'." That one was actually published in 1611. They found a version even further back as far back as 1549 in Scotland. On that one, I have a little disclaimer about the "American" folk song, but I tried to pick lyrics that were classically American. There are 171 verses that have been recorded to that song, but I didn't do all of them. There were also a lot of other really American songs, like "Get Along Little Doggies" and "Shenandoah."

It was interesting to read about these songs. You don't really think about it, but "Shenandoah" is really a sea shanty that people would sing when they were leaving for a long trip. They had all these ropes to wind up, and it would be long work. It didn't have the hoisty, heave-ho feel. It was just fascinating to me. It became really difficult to hone them down and to edit them into one-page stories. There was so much I wanted to write about.

Compared to when you first started in the 1990s, it seems like there's been a widespread popular acceptance of this kind of root-based folk music. What are some of the differences you've noticed in the country and folk scene since you first started recording?

I've always had a real folky sound in my music. It was amazing to me that country radio accepted those of us who had that sound, like Mary Chapin Carpenter and myself. I started out in all the little folk clubs -- I started in Chicago. I was just driving myself up from the little cornfield I lived in. It's funny that so many of the people that I was following around at the time like Michael Johnson and Nancy Griffith are still making that folk-influenced music. It's people like Garrison Keillor who really highlight that music and bring it to colleges. Little by little, it's just become something that people accept. It's more like an alternative music.

Some of the versions of the old murder ballads like "Banks of the Ohio" can get pretty grisly. How did you deal with that?

I did "The Banks of the Ohio." That's got some really gory, murderous verses to it. I wanted to be able to share this book with children. I wanted to have the excitement of the murder ballad, but I didn't want them to have horrible dreams about it. I picked the one where he puts the knife to her chest and holds her down in the water, but it's not quite as bad. There's one version where she gets poisoned too. I figure she's already pretty dead in that first version.

What was the importance of making the album and book appropriate for children?

I've done a few school concerts before, and it saddened me to see that kids think that they have to sing like American Idol now. If they don't sing like a star, they don't want to sing -- they're embarrassed. That's just so sad to me. Singing is not just for singers -- it's for people to express themselves.

I'm on this bent that I'm going to make everybody sing in the audience and have fun with it. It's not just something that you watch, it's something that you participate in. You have evenings in venues like the Soiled Dove and there's a joy to it. It's one thing where you go to an arena and you're having lights thrown on you -- that's one kind of excitement.

There's another kind of sharing experience that comes from the smaller venues. I love that. I never translated to the bigger venues, so I'm happy to be back doing the smaller theaters and the things where I feel like I'm actually sharing something with people.

You're playing as a trio at the Soiled Dove. Will the smaller ensemble stick to bare-bones folk music?

You can see everybody in that room that's involved in the show. We can hash through everything with the audience -- they won't just have to hear folk songs. There will be jazzy stuff, a little bit of old country hits from the radio. It's a very diverse show.

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