Album Review: Suzy Bogguss, American Folk Songbook

Suzy Bogguss

American Folk Songbook

An accompanying press release explains how the idea came about for Suzy Bogguss to record an album of classic American folk songs (some of which sprang from European origins, and were later adopted into American culture):  “Suzy Bogguss had a revelation on stage with Garrison Keillor in 2008. Everyone loves to sing along on ‘Red River Valley’ –  except the children who somehow don’t know the song.”  That realization gave rise to concern over the possibility that such beautiful folk songs could be overlooked, particularly with music education fading from the public school system.  Thus, she set about to record an album of her favorite folk classics with updated-yet-reverent arrangements.  The resulting collection is an absolute delight.

Bogguss herself fills the producer’s shoes for the project, and she does an excellent job of carefully seeing that each song is given its ideal treatment.  When beloved folk songs meet Bogguss’s golden-throated vocals and soft acoustic instrumental backing, it’s a match made in heaven.  In recognizing the timelessness of these songs, Bogguss sees to it that they are never treated as museum pieces.  Instead, each song is interpreted in a manner that is updated, yet still true to the spirit of the original song.  Though their classic nature is emphasized, they are treated in a way that makes them feel relevant even today.

The songs are backed by a beautiful stripped-down instrumental arrangements, featuring the sounds of fiddle, mandolin, concertina, harmonica, banjo, and tin whistle, as well as other instruments.  Drums are used sparingly.  In addition, Bogguss’s talented partners in crime – Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters – can be heard singing background vocals.  Many distinctive creative touches are added, but Bogguss never resorts to cheap gimmickry.  Echoing background vocals at the end of “Banks of the Ohio” give the dark murder ballad an almost otherworldly feel, while subtle hopping-frog sound effects meld nicely with the sprightly arrangement on the ditty “Froggy Went A-Courtin’.”  There are many instances in which the instrumental arrangements on their own are engaging enough to hold up as instrumental tracks.  One example is “Ol’ Dan Tucker” on which Richard Bailey’s banjo picking makes the familiar tune sound more catchy than ever before.  Meanwhile, Stuart Duncan’s fiddling makes “Sweet Betsy from Pike” a delightful sonic treat.

But a major part of what makes this collection so special is the fact that Bogguss clearly has a deep connection to these songs, and that connection is audible in her performances.  The once-platinum-selling Grammy winner is still in fine voice at age 54.  Through her ethereal vocals, she breathes new life into these familiar tunes.  One of her finest vocal turns comes at the beginning of the iconic “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” as she sings the opening lines a cappella, and then the gentle dobro-driven arrangement gradually kicks in.  On her broadly enjoyable version of “Erie Canal” she gives a loose, jazzy delivery as she eases into the musical tale of navigating the Erie Canal. 

A fine example of Bogguss’s deep emotional resonance comes in her performance of “Red River Valley” – the standard that inspired the recording of this album.  She injects deep emotion into the oft-heard lyrics “Do you think of the kind heart you’re breaking/ And the pain you are causing to me?”  Even if you’ve heard the song countless times, hearing Suzy Bogguss sing it is like hearing it for the very first time all over again.  Another highlight is “Shenendoah,” a song whose lilting melody fits Bogguss’s voice perfectly.  As the album reaches its final tracks, she sings “Beautiful Dreamer” in a half-whisper against a bare-bones acoustic arrangement, closing out the set on a high note.

Though the album weighs in at a hefty 17 tracks, Bogguss effectively holds our attention throughout.  Each track feels essential in its own way.  There is no filler material.  It feels cohesive without the tracks running together.  Through these stellar reinterpretations, Bogguss’s American Folk Songbook not only keeps these classic folk songs alive, but ends up an artistic achievement in its own right. 

Whether you’re a devoted fan who’s followed Suzy Bogguss’s career from the start, or a new convert just beginning to discover the riches of her music, Songbook is an album that’s well worth adding to your collection.  Now everyone can sing along to “Red River Valley”!

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21 Comments

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21 Responses to Album Review: Suzy Bogguss, American Folk Songbook

  1. Superb review, Ben. I thought this would be a difficult album to tackle, but you did it perfectly. I am quite hisitant to give albums five stars and I’ve only done it once since my beginning in 2008 (Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s Rattlin’ Bones), but I would have given this album five stars too. In fact, I’ve been inspired to listen to it again now, even though it’s already been played a lot around here in the last three weeks or so.

  2. Thanks, Leeann! That means a lot coming from you. I wasn’t sure at first how to tackle this review either, but it took shape eventually. I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of listening to this album.

  3. bobNo Gravatar

    I second Leeann’s comments. Great review. If you ever get a chance, you should see Suzy in concert.

  4. She’ll be at our favorite venue, Stone Mountain Arts Center, in November. It’s in the middle of nowhere and three hours away from us, so it’s risky to buy tickets during Maine’s winter season, but we think we’ll chance it.

  5. GatorNo Gravatar

    I’ve seen endless praise for this album, but I’ve been hesitant to buy it because the songs , while classic, don’t always grab my attention right away. With that said, I think the two of you (Ben and Leeann) have convinced me to get the album and give it another try, after which I will come back and give my own input.

    PS I know it came out back in May but is there any chance that you guys will be doing a review of Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields? It is so far my favorite album of the year.

  6. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    This is an album that really, in my opinion, needs to be heard because this is what authentic American music is all about–country music in particular. I really think country music has lost a lot of the traditional spirit that made it what it is in the first place; and hearing these songs being done this way by a true lover of American music like Suzy is ironclad proof of how important it is not to lose that spirit completely in the face of a corporate mentality that guides today’s music business, especially in Nashville.

  7. It’s an absolutely lovely sounding record – excellent arrangements and Suzy has an exceptional voice which I’ve always liked. But I do have one reservation; at times it sounds a little bit *too* beautiful, on songs like Banks of the Ohio, where the lyric is actually rather dark, and I don’t feel that comes through in Suzy’s admittedly beautiful recording. She just doesn’t sound like a man who has murdered his sweetheart, she sounds like someone singing a pretty folk song.

  8. True, Miranda Lambert could probably do the grit better.:)

  9. Interesting point on “Banks of the Ohio.”. But I do think she handles the regretful tone of the final verse very well.

  10. And of course, if you regard this as an educational exercise, as the title and press release both imply, my criticism is more or less irrelevant, as this kind of pure presentation is maybe right for the project. But as a listener I feel a little distanced at times.

  11. I just don’t hear a distance or disconnect in her performances at all. All I hear is warmth imminating from her voice on this album.

  12. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Great review of a great album Ben, you certainly did it justice. I agree with the score as well. This is truly music that matters.

    I think Suzy infuses each lyric with great emotional resonance and empathy. Her voice is pretty throughout, but always convincing, nuanced and substantial. Only a few criticisms from my vantage point, I wish she put a little more energy in Shenendoah and Red River Valley, and picked up the tempo just a little, but that is just a matter of individual taste. A few more Stephen Foster songs would have been nice, as well as Yellow Rose of Texas. Hopefully there will be a follow up to this incredible album.

    The market place is doing Suzy a grave injustice. I have not been able to find this album at any retail stores in my area, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, nowhere except for Cracker Barrel, (where the companion songbook is also available). Like everyone else, I cannot recommend this album enough.

  13. I think the fact that it’s only physically released at Cracker Barrel was on purpose. They released it first there and on her website, then released it as a digital album everywhere else a week later.

    It would have been cool to hear her do Yellow Rose of Texas, but I don’t know if it would have fit the album. Maybe though.

    So far, her version of Shennandoah is the best I’ve personally heard. I’d never really thought one way or the other about it until I heard her version. Now, it’s one of my favorites on the album.

  14. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Various articles and reviews (the Boot and some Bluegrass blogs) have been stating that the album was indeed released in July at Cracker Barrel and her site, as you indicate, then they use terms like “everywhere” and “wide release” at “fine retail and digital stores” on August 2nd, but I guess that seems to be news to those “fine retail stores everwhere”who didnt seem to know what I was talking about when I asked for the album. Oh well…AFS certainly deserves wide release anyway. I’m dissapointed for Suzy, but certainly not dissapointed in her or the album.

  15. Oh, you’re right if they said retail stores. Those stores are shelving less and less country music these days. Too bad, but I can’t complain too much, since I’m one of the digital only purchasers these days (unless it’s not available digitally).

  16. “So far, her version of Shennandoah is the best I’ve personally heard. I’d never really thought one way or the other about it until I heard her version. Now, it’s one of my favorites on the album.”

    I agree. “Shenandoah” is my favorite by far. I was a little disappointed in her version of “Wayfaring Stranger” and I didn’t care much for “Froggy Went A- Courtin'” but the rest of the album is excellent.

  17. Leeann, the distance is in my reaction rather than the actual performance, if that makes any sense. I agree it sounds lovely.

  18. Yes, that makes perfect sense, OH.

  19. badrockandrollNo Gravatar

    No Cracker Barrels in Cda or in northeastern USA. Used copies and e-copies (which are not downloadable in Cda) are available on Amazon; e-copies on I-Tunes. I am contemplating downloading from I-Tunes, but no liner notes. they make it really tough to love this sort of music up here!

  20. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    Quote by Steve from Boston:

    The market place is doing Suzy a grave injustice.

    That’s the truth. It does a grave injustice to virtually anybody who does intelligent and thoughtful work of this sort, especially when it’s a female artist (IMHO).

  21. Its very nice review and also songs of their album is also nice thanks for sharing .