Suzy Bogguss can still hear the raspy vocals of Merle Haggard piping through the eight-track player of her father’s car. Though a little girl at the time, she remembers feeling the mystery and danger as she clung to the singer’s carefully selected words, his cinematic story-songs painting visions of truths and unknowns to her young age.
“When I was a kid, these songs were, like, taboo. They were dirty,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. “They were about the secret adult life.”
A secret adult life involving drinking and divorce, lovemaking and prison.
“As a kid, it was like getting a view into the adult’s world and wanting a peek in there,” she added. “We wanted to know what it was like. You know, songs about sittin’ at the bar and stuff like that. We didn’t know what sittin’ at the bar was like.”
Bogguss drew on those memories for Lucky, a new album solely featuring songs written by Haggard.
“I’ve always felt a connection to him in a way because he’s got the working man blues,” she said. “But he’s a working musician. He has hit the road and he has always been a touring musician, and that’s who I am. I enjoy my touring. I love being on the road, and I love being with the people and I love sharing the music. I always felt like that was a real driving force of who he is.”
Bogguss marked her first Top 50 single in 1989 with the Hag’s heartbreaking tune, “Somewhere Between.” Though she would experience greater success throughout the ‘90s with “Drive South,” “Hey Cinderella,” “Outbound Plane,” “Aces” and the sentimental “Letting Go,” it wasn’t until recently that she decided to revisit the legendary artist’s music.
With several requests to re-release her first Haggard cut, she began sifting through the Country Music Hall of Famer’s extensive catalog.
“I started playing some Merle songs in the kitchen, sort of picking through,” she explained. “As I got listening into the songs deeper, I started realizing that the songs he wrote — I mean, he’s had a lot of hits — but the ones he wrote were the ones that were speaking to me the strongest.”
Opening the album with “Today I Started Loving You Again,” Bogguss covers several decades of Haggard classics, including “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room,” “Going Where the Lonely Go,” “Someday When Things Are Good” and a tune she herself has lived out a time or two, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
“I’ve been married 27 years, and I get mad!” she laughed heartily. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘We’ve had this conversation so many times, I’m not talking about it right now. I will come home when I’m ready but not right now. I’m just going to sit here and drink.’”
Plus, she couldn’t help but pluck Haggard’s true-to-life tune, “If We Make It Through December,” for her own interpretation. The lyrics reflect her own family growing up, as money was often tight for her parents who did their best to support four children.
“I do know that there was a lot of stress in the family, and there were strikes and Dad would go to work. I had three siblings go to college before me. And for a shop worker and my mom, who went to work as a secretary, having to put four kids through school … my folks worked their tails off to do things for us,” she said.
Unafraid to cover Haggard’s heavier material, she enlisted a friend for the woeful 1967 classic, “Sing Me Back Home.” As Bogguss tenderly narrates the story of a prisoner’s last melodic wishes, Joe Diffie hauntingly sings the part of the inmate.
“It’ll tear you down,” she said. “He’s singing this part that you get the feeling that this is the guy that’s really going to the … end.”
“She is the Memphis, little syrupy-singing girl, and I wanted that husk she has in her voice,” Bogguss explained.
Creating a comfortable and creative atmosphere, Bogguss and her team recorded the album in her home studio above the garage. Providing home-cooked meals for everyone involved, she and her crew enjoyed weeding through different melodies and shaping new ways of approaching the songs.
Exuding an undeniable sensuality with “I Always Get Lucky With You” to interpreting feelings of loneliness on “Silver Wings” and wounding heartache in “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” Bogguss delicately delivers a woman’s point of view on the project.
“I had to change a couple of tiny, little gender things, but all in all, the emotional impact — it’s the same,” she said. “And even though he’s one of the most masculine singers you can think of in the whole wide world, it was pretty easy to bring it into a female’s perspective.”
Bogguss received a call from Haggard after he and his family listened to her interpretations. She remembers him saying, “I always felt like we were kind of alike,” making her instantly wish she was recording the conversation. He added, “I’ve been playing these songs for so long. I’m always looking for new ways to play them, and you really did it. You know what you’re doin’.”
Delighted to have his blessing with the venture, Bogguss said, “For me, I just wanted to make sure that he was getting his just due of how great of a songwriter he is. Regardless of what an amazing artist he is — and he is at the very tippy-top — he really needs to also be appreciated for what his talent is by not mincing words, by coming down to the straight emotion and being able to just lay it out there for you.”