'Shenandoah" might be Suzy Bogguss' favorite folk song, and "Red River Valley" the one that got her thinking a few years back about a new album concept, but when it comes down to it, the Nashville-based country music artist says, "Froggy Went a Courtin'" is the one that prompts the most fun for her and her audience members.
"I get great stories from people who tell me that their grandma used to sing it, or their Uncle Harley used to sing it to them. ... One lady I remember, her story really struck me, she said that her grandma was kinda hard-edged, really didn't smile much. ... But this song, when she would sing this song to them, she would just light up like a Christmas tree. ... It's like, you couldn't even believe it was the same person. That's how that song is. It just, it's infectious."
Infectious — but only if you know the song and other old folk tunes, and Bogguss realized while out on tour with Garrison Keillor in 2008 that many people didn't. At least those in the audience under the age of 30.
"Not only did they not know the words, the song was completely new to them," she says. "That sort of saddened me because I grew up with probably three or four days a week, we had music class. It was almost like a second recess for me."
So Bogguss' 2011 album, American Folk Songbook, a combo CD and 96-page illustrated book, was born.
And now, when Bogguss tours with her two bandmates, Pat Bergeson on guitar and harmonica and Charlie Chadwick on upright bass, the mostly sing-along shows based on the album turn into, in her words, "hootenannies."
"It's a mixture of, you know, the joy of sharing something with somebody else in the same room. But it's also, they're slightly embarrassed. There's a vulnerability about it, but there's also this camaraderie that's almost like a pub attitude — hey, let's have a good time together!"
Part of that might be that the 56-year-old displays her own vulnerability on stage — a full-circle change, Bogguss says, from her highly produced work of the late '80s and early '90s. Though it was a time that earned her places on the music charts, a Grammy nomination and an Academy of Country Music Top New Female Vocalist award for hits like "Cross My Broken Heart" and "Hey Cinderella," she's got a different focus now.
"I've come way back around to where I just feel like the spaces and the groove of the song are at least as equally important as how many notes are planned. So now, I feel like, even as a singer, I just try really hard to be in the moment. And be as fresh as I can be. And not try to sing perfect, but to just try to get across the story in the song, instead of here's me showing you all of my Mariah Carey licks," she says, laughing. "'Cause I don't do Mariah Carey licks. She does, you know?"
Bogguss is also willing to stray from what's comfortable for her at her shows.
"If people request something from my past catalog and I can pull it off without butchering it and ruining it for them for the rest of their lives, I'll do it."