On the surface, Suzy Bogguss doesn’t have any business recording a dozen Merle Haggard songs. She made her name as a winsome ‘90s country songbird; he came to fame in the ‘60s with a hard-edged sound and songs about drinking and the hard time he’d done.
Despite all that, Bogguss is a sharp Haggard interpreter, bridging their gaps in gender, generation and reputation on her new covers collection Lucky.
As a high schooler, Bogguss inherited both her dad’s 1964 Dodge Polara and his collection of Merle Haggard 8-tracks. You can imagine impression that soundtrack must have made as she and her girlfriends cruised around their tiny Illinois town:
“I liked being the girl who had a canoe on my car, and who listened to country records out the window and everybody went, ‘What’s going on with her?’”
Bogguss reflects. “Merle’s music was really kind of dangerous for us. It dabbled in adulthood and, ‘What do people do? They’ve got complicated lives and they have to go to the bar and drink, because they need to get their mind off their troubles.’”
Somewhere In Between
As the new girl in Nashville in the late ‘80s, Bogguss announced her mature taste by selecting Haggard’s song “Somewhere Between” as the title track of her major label debut.
Somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a window that I can’t see through
There’s a wall so high it reaches the sky
Somewhere between me and you
I love you so much I can’t let you go
And sometimes I believe you love me
But somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a door without any key
“I love the way that Merle can take kind of a complicated message, you know, a relationship thing, and he’d boil it down to just a few sentences,” she marvels. “In the case of ‘Somewhere Between,’ he is, like, boiling it down to, ‘You know, sometimes we’re just not capable of seeing things the same way. And no matter how much we try to beat it into each other’s head, I’m not gonna see it your way, and you’re not gonna see it my way. So let’s just agree to disagree, and realize that if we want to have a relationship, we’re gonna have to let some stuff go.’”
That cover garnered Bogguss her first taste of radio airplay and got her booked on an episode of the TNN chat show Nashville Now on which Haggard was also a guest. Here they are singing “Somewhere Between” on a television special:
Real And Right
As sturdy as Haggards lyrics are, Bogguss recognizes that they don’t stand on their own; it’s Haggard’s delivery that lends them living, breathing humanity. So in tackling an album’s worth of his songs, she was consciously taking on the challenge of making them sound real and right coming from her.
There were some songs that I was thinking, ‘Man, I have to be careful here, because when a real macho, very testosterone-strong dude like Merle Haggard sings this song, it comes out like … ‘I’m vulnerable and I’m telling you this.’ But if I wasn’t careful, as a female singing that, I could come off like I’m pitiful and I’m whining. And I really, really didn’t want any of that in this stuff.
But to Bogguss, the fact that this stuff has typically been tackled by male performers says less about the material itself than superficial assumptions about who it will reach.
“Honestly, I really feel like women will relate to these songs and just the personal nature of them,” she says. “I wonder sometimes if they just heard it completely out of context and they weren’t thinking about it, they’d be like, ‘Where do I know that song from?’ Would they go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a Merle Haggard song?’ Or would they go, ‘That’s a Bonnie Raitt song?’ What would they say?”