- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

"I just love Christmas songs," says contemporary country singer Suzy Bogguss. "I've always loved Christmas music since I was a little kid and I started singing in the church choir. And just that whole vibe of everything being sort of happy and swell during the holiday season."

Things will be all happy and swell at the Birchmere in Alexandria Saturday night and Annapolis' Ram's Head Tavern on Sunday, when Miss Bogguss brings her tour, "A Swinging Little Christmas," in for a stop.

"I think people kind of crave that old-fashioned community feeling, and these venues are perfect for that because they are small and intimate," continues Miss Bogguss. "We talk to each other during the show. It's a very participatory thing. They all sing along. It's just kind of a warm, fuzzy feeling."

Miss Bogguss is one of the strongest contemporary country voices to hit the scene in the last 15 years. Though she has never had that monster hit like a Martina McBride or a Lee Ann Womack, Miss Bogguss has a string of gold and platinum records, several Grammy nominations, and awards from the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. She's released 13 albums in 13 years and has had many hits, including "Aces," "Drive South," "Someday Soon" and "Just Like The Weather."

For this weekend's shows, Christmas is the theme and swing is the style, both Western and jazz. Perfect examples are two songs Miss Bogguss has already made Christmas classics on country radio. The first is "Mr. Santa," a Christmas variation on the '30s swing jazz classic "Mr. Sandman." The second, "Two-Step 'Round the Christmas Tree," which Miss Bogguss wrote with her husband, songwriter Doug Crider, follows the Western side of swing.

Western swing music has long been a favorite of Miss Bogguss. She toured as the opening act for Western swing standard bearers Asleep At the Wheel long before she got her first record deal. And she has just completed an album of new Western and jazz swing songs with Wheel leader Ray Benson as producer.

"It's kind of a cross between Nat King Cole and Bob Wills," says Miss Bogguss. Expect to find some of these new tunes and a few of her past hits in among this weekend's Christmas favorites.

•••

Some music and musicians just naturally cause smiles to break out in the audience. For anyone who catches blues veteran Catfish Hodge and his boogie blues band at Madam's Organ tomorrow night in Adams Morgan, the smiles will come quickly and last long.

For more than 30 years and 25 albums, Mr. Hodge has been ladling out big helpings of his own smiling brand of blues. "Blues music doesn't necessarily have to be all about the darker side of life," Mr. Hodge says. "When I first met blues giant Willie Dixon, he really expressed to me and showed me that blues music can be very happy music and can be very positive." Mr. Hodge has been following that lead ever since, creating a wonderful personal mix of boogie blues and old-time blues folk.

Over the years, Mr. Hodge has shared the stage with blues legends such as Freddy King and John Lee Hooker, and such blues rock stars as Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat. He's spent time in bands with fiddle icon Vassar Clements, Little Feat alums Paul Barrere and Richie Hayward and Washington's own Tom Principato. Many, including Miss Raitt and harmonica icon James Cotton, have also helped on Mr. Hodge's albums.

Mr. Hodge can carry some of the "DC's own" label as well. For almost eight years, from the mid-1970s to early '80s, he packed them in at Washington clubs such as Desperado's, Childe Harold and the Cellar Door. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to play and record. Highlights included two well-received albums with The Bluesbusters and a critically acclaimed children's blues album called "Adventures at Catfish Pond."

A few years ago, he decided he had had enough of the big city. He moved to Blue Mountain, Va., near Front Royal. He has returned to the District and the East Coast music scene, playing with a band, a trio, or solo, whichever fits each venue best.

"What I call it, is being a blue-collar working musician," says Mr. Hodge. "One night, I'll play a bar for a good chunk of money. The next time, I'll play a little coffeehouse for the gratification and the magic of the audience."

Although Mr. Hodge has never become a household name, he is well respected in blues circles. His personal style and sense of humor gives respectful nods to Delta and Chicago blues legends, but does it without copying them. He continues to release new and collected music. His latest is a compilation called "Let's Eat: Catfish Hodge's Popular Food Songs." It includes titles like "Queen of the Greens," "Chicken In the Kitchen," and "Pancake Man."

"I don't think any of [my albums] have sold over 50,000 copies, and that's OK. They're all over the world, and it's allowed me to create this music and continue this pathway."

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