Suzy Bogguss,
American Folk Songbook
(Loyal Dutchess, 2011)

In her days as a Nashville star (from the late 1980s into the mid-1990s) Suzy Bogguss distinguished herself as a superior vocalist who sometimes spurned the songs of the usual Music City hacks for the work of real songwriters such as John Hiatt and Ian Tyson. Among the last of a dying breed, she passed from the charts as bland suburban pop-rock started to dominate "country" playlists, presaging the current dismal era. Since then, on an indie label and now on her own, Bogguss has released well-crafted albums of jazz-flavored adult pop.

American Folk Songbook represents something of a return to her roots. In the early 1980s the Illinois-born and -bred Bogguss toured the national coffeehouse circuit as a solo folk singer. While I never saw her perform, folk-musician friends who knew her then have always spoken well of her. It is certainly easy to speak well of her new CD, which -- as the title indicates -- visits the traditional standards many of us grew up with but that sadly seem to be passing out of American memory. I have no recall of a time when I did not know "Red River Valley," "Froggy Went A-Courtin'," "Git Along, Little Dogies" and "Sweet Betsy from Pike." These are not just great folk songs, they're great songs period, as good as any Americans have ever sung.

I learned "Shenandoah," "Ol' Dan Tucker" and "Erie Canal" out of grade-school songbooks. (Do they still feature folk songs?) When I developed a conscious interest in traditional music in college, "Shady Grove," "Wayfaring Stranger," "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" and more entered my life. More specifically, they entered my heart, where they remain. Their pleasures have never diminished, and I will tire of them when I have tired of life.

Bogguss has always had a fabulous way with a song. Clearly, she's in love with this old material, and she sings it straightforwardly, eschewing distracting flourishes. She is smart enough to know these grand old tunes can carry themselves. I particularly like her way with tongue-in-cheek songs, though; listen, for example, to her good-humored reading of "Sweet Betsy." (It's a folk song, incidentally, whose composer -- John A. Stone -- has a name; he wrote it sometime in the 1840s.) Hearing her sing it gladdens my spirit. Well, actually, so does hearing her sing anything, from the grim murder ballad "Banks of the Ohio" to Stephen Foster's wistful "Beautiful Dreamer," the album's closer. And who among us who yet breathes could -- or even want to -- resist the Hollywood-cowboy yodeling on "Dogies"?

The arrangements, built around a small acoustic string band with occasional augmentation via concertina, accordion and tin whistle from Jeff Taylor and snare drum from Harry Stinson, are uncluttered and perfect. Just like the songs they carry.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 July 2011

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