August 18, 2011
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”!