Sue Foley Expands Her Blues Horizons

On her 11th solo album, Sue Foley proves she’s as vital a songwriter and guitar player as ever, taking on the challenge of recording it almost entirely live in the same studio where she recorded her debut album, 'Young Girl Blues,' for the Antone’s label back in 1992.
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On her 11th solo album, Sue Foley proves she’s as vital a songwriter and guitar player as ever, taking on the challenge of recording it almost entirely live in the same studio where she recorded her debut album, Young Girl Blues, for the Antone’s label back in 1992. A veteran of the Texas blues scene, Foley’s signature guitar sound and powerful voice have made her a showcase example of a female artist who flourished under the Antone’s mantle and established herself as one of the premier modern blues guitarists, following a long line of trailblazing women artists reaching back to Elizabeth Cotten and Memphis Minnie. Foley’s deep interest in how guitar playing was shaped by female players has also led her to conduct around 100 interviews over the last 15 years for a collection she hopes to turn into a book called Guitar Woman.

Recently, Foley has been a part of the live-from-Austin “Jungle Show” with Billy Gibbons and Jimmie Vaughan, both of whom guest on her new record, The Ice Queen. Others she enlisted for the album project include Charlie Sexton and Chris Layton, as well as members of the Tedeschi Trucks Band. “Everything was recorded at a studio right outside of Austin, so 90 percent of what you’re hearing was cut live,” says Foley. “Except for Billy’s guitar, vocal, and harp parts on ‘Fool’s Gold,’ you’re basically hearing the band in one room—even the horns. Our producer Mike Flanigin, the great B3 player from Austin, really wanted that feeling of liveness, and that was good for me because I’m basically a live player. I’m not somebody who sits in a studio for hours on end and cuts things up and stuff. We like to get that vibe and go for it. So that’s what we did.”

You touch on a lot of different styles on this album—more than one might expect on a blues release. Was there a particular concept that guided your songwriting?

Well, it’s a stage of my life. I’m 49, I’m a mother, and I’ve been through some stuff. I don’t mind talking about it. Most of the songs are about relationships and disenchantment, and some are about hope, so I tried to present the dark and the light sides. I’ve been working on songwriting a lot the last few years, but I really wanted to make sure this was a guitar album that represented that part of my personality. I like to write songs and front my band, but I identify as being a guitar player first and foremost.

The flamenco approach you took on “The Dance” was an unexpected surprise.

I actually took flamenco lessons for a few years and that really helped my playing. I realized early on that all the players I loved, the magic was in their right hand. So I focused on developing my right-hand technique. I moved back home to Canada in the late 90’s to have my son, and there was a flamenco teacher right there in Ottawa. That sort of opened up my head and helped give me my personality on guitar.

Did your technique fundamentally change by practicing flamenco?

Well I still use a thumbpick—either a John Pearse small or, as a fallback, a Golden Gate small—but I’m really confident with my fingers, and I have a lot of dexterity in the right hand. I’ve always thought that studying flamenco helped give me my own sound, but it took a long time to figure out.

The lone cover tune on this record is the Carter Family’s “Cannonball Blues.” What were you fingerpicking on for that one?

That’s my nylon-string, which was hand made in Mexico by Francisco Navarro Garçia. I’m pretty comfortable doing that Piedmont style, with the alternating bass lines and playing the melody on the top strings. I think the album as a whole shows a lot of variety in my guitar interest.

Was “Fool’s Gold” written with Billy Gibbons in mind?

Well, I kinda got the idea and showed it to Mike Flanigin, but I had it a completely different way. He said, “Let’s just make it a Jimmy Reed-style shuffle,” so we ironed out the words together, and then, when it looked like Billy could be on the album, it seemed like a song he could really take apart. Billy just got in there and owned it, and he also added harp. It was so cool what he did to it.

Is that Charlie Sexton doing the slide parts on “Come to Me?”

Yes. He’s an amazing musician. I saw him at a club and I invited him to come by the studio. So he just popped in and he knew exactly where and what to play—he’s completely intuitive that way

What’s the backstory for “81”?

It’s about Interstate 81 that starts in upstate New York, just below Kingston, Ontario—where I used to live—and runs all the way down to the Appalachians. I was driving that road all the time between Kingston and Nashville, and it’s an awful highway, especially in the winter. I used to call it the gates of hell, so I just had to write something about it. It also goes by Bristol, Tennessee, which is where the Carter Family started, and I was always very entranced by their story and music. Maybelle Carter was one of my biggest influences on guitar, so I was always seeing the sign for Bristol, and it conjured up a lot of imagery for me.

Were you playing your Tele for the solos or something different?

Actually “81” was one of the only guitar overdubs we had to do. We cut that live with Charlie Sexton, and I was on my nylon-string through a tube amp. As an afterthought, I wanted to put some guitar stings on it, but when I came in to do those parts I forgot my guitar, so I had to borrow Mike Flanigin’s SG.

Otherwise are we mainly hearing your live setup on these recordings?

Yes. I’m not very skilled at switching guitars, so I used my Fender Tele, which I’ve been playing for close to 30 years, through my early ’90s Fender Bassman. I also use a Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb pedal and I have an Xotic RC Booster that I kick on sometimes.

How did a paisley Tele become your signature guitar?

I switched to a Tele in the mid ’80s, after starting out on acoustic, and then playing a hollowbody. I really wanted to play a Tele because of Albert Collins and Muddy Waters, and also because everybody else in the world was playing a Strat because of Stevie Ray Vaughan. I figured I needed to stay out of that game, and so I had a blond Tele for a while, and then I saw those Japanese paisley reissues and thought they were really cool. I’ve had the same one ever since. It’s been refretted, and I sanded off the finish on the back and front of the neck, but nothing else has been changed on it.

What strings do you have on it?

I use a .010-.046 set, which is pretty standard. I’ve been using a new brand of strings called Sono-Tone. They’re pretty cool and seem to last a long time. Before that I was a staunch D’Addario user.

You got a great clean tone on “Gaslight.” It has that Albert Collins-style presence, but your sound is a lot rounder.

That’s because I use the neck pickup a lot—I only switch to the bridge pickup to accent something. That’s just my Tele through the Bassman. I thought I could have been a little cleaner in my approach, but since it was live, I had that nervous energy on it. I’d just met all these players an hour before we recorded, and they’re all heavyweights from Austin, so I probably was nervous.

What do you listen to for inspiration?

I’ve been studying some Sabicas lately just to get my technique really tight. He’s so meticulous, and I’ve been working on his “Malagueña” now for quite a while. But that’s my side study—I still listen to the same blues albums I’ve always listened to. Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed, and Clarence Gatemouth Brown. Also a lot of pre-war blues and the Carter Family. Memphis Minnie is my number one, though. I also go see Jimmie Vaughan here in Austin. He plays every week when he’s in town, and that’s a huge lesson right there just watching him. He’s a great inspiration.

What inspired the Guitar Woman project?

I became fascinated in trying to understand if our approach to the instrument is fundamentally different. I mean is there a different philosophy in how we play guitar? How come there isn’t a female Stevie Ray Vaughan? Those are good questions. I’ve done about a hundred interviews with everyone from Carol Kaye to Bonnie Raitt to Sharon Isbin to Suzi Quatro, but I’m still organizing my files after 15 years. I thought I would compile it into a book, and maybe I will, but I got distracted, we’d go on the road, and I had a kid—so it was one of those things where the project got larger than me.

How did the experience of recording for Antone’s many years ago shape your career?

It changed things completely. I was 21 when I came here, and I was brought down by Clifford [Antone] himself. The first weekend I was here I sat in with Albert Collins, and I shot dice with him too. Honestly, I came from Canada, and it was like being Cinderella. I had landed in heaven, and there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I was so influenced by the style that came out of Austin. The Texas blues sound was really created here, and it’s a mixture of traditional Texas blues, Louisiana blues, and Chicago blues—so it’s a hybrid, and it’s unique. And it was created here primarily at Antone’s, so coming here was everything to me, and I got to play with some of the best blues musicians in the world. Clifford was always so generous with young artists. He always made of point of making sure the young people played with the older people, and that started with him putting Stevie Ray Vaughan onstage with Albert King. He wanted to bridge that gap by having young white kids playing black music, and carrying on a tradition and keeping it alive. His whole purpose in life was making sure the blues stayed alive.