Rory Block has so much passion, soul, and depth, and she connects to an audience like only a handful of performers I’ve seen. Besides being an amazing country blues and slide guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Rory is also one of the most qualified interpreters of classic blues. There are few players with a biography as rich as Rory’s, who started her career at 14, playing and hanging around with legends such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House. Her latest album is A Woman’s Soul : A Tribute to Bessie Smith [Stony Plain Records].
I’m going to quote your own writing from your website: “When I played ‘Big Road Blues’ by Tommy Johnson, someone in the audience jumped up and shouted ‘She plays like a man.’ I didn’t understand what men played like, or what women played like. I didn’t comprehend that I was black or white or 14 years old or 40. I was in love with the music.”
I didn’t see myself as a category. I just saw myself as a player. There may have been an initial kind of surprise when people saw me playing blues, but I chose not to register it. I didn’t see what was so different and surprising. It’s just what I was driven to do. I mean, Robert Johnson just fascinated me.
I want to talk about interpretation. There’s something in blues that when you pick up someone else’s songs, you’re jumping into their whole style. Was there a point when you found it easier to find yourself in the midst of that?
Yes, but I don’t know when that happened. In the very beginning, you are emulating all you can, and it may be impossible to say when your style becomes your own. We have to make it real from our own lives. I think one of the greatest compliments I’ve gotten is when a guy came up to me after a show and said, “You’re the only person I’ve seen do blues in the present day and make it new. I’ve never liked blues before, but seeing you now, it feels totally different and meaningful.” I am sure he has found others since then, but it was the greatest compliment simply because he said that I was making it real in the present.
But is it hard to step into Robert Johnson’s shoes, and come out sounding like Rory Block?
I never thought about it, and I never worried about it. I feel so connected to the music that I don’t even know what I am projecting. I fell in love with blues, and there’s this out-of-control passionate, loving feeling about the music, and if that comes through—great.
There are a lot of women guitar players out there now, but it’s still rare to see female country-blues artists.
Perhaps it’s an odd category. There is a lot of interest in acoustic blues, and female players are out there playing the style, but there aren’t many. I meet a lot of women at festivals, and I always say, “Don’t stop playing until everyone knows who you are.” That’s my blanket advice.
For more information on Sue Foley, click to her website (suefoley.com), or check out her latest CD, The Ice Queen.