Growing up in Canada, Sue Foley found herself compellingly drawn to a type of music that emanated from her land mass neighbor to the south. She just didn’t know quite what that type was just yet.
“I was born in the late ‘60s. I just turned 50, and I grew up in a time period when my four older siblings were into rock and roll, and hard rock based on blues like Zeppelin and Hendrix and Clapton. And they all played guitar,” the singer/songwriter/guitarist says. “I was hearing blues all the time, and I finally figured it out through the Rolling Stones and just went back to the source of what they were covering like Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. And I fell in love with that stuff.”
Though, not all of it was love at first listen. “When I first heard Muddy Waters, it was scary to me!” she laughs. “It took awhile for my ears to adjust to that sound!” Sue Foley will be playing in Houston at the Mucky Duck on May 18.
A young Foley made her way down south to Austin, living there for most of the 1990’s, while soaking up the music and the scene. Her record debut was 1992’s appropriately-titled Young Girl Blues and since then has produced for a series of labels, sometimes with collaborators. But her latest release, The Ice Queen (Stony Plain Records) marks her first true solo effort in 12 years.
“I just want to establish my solo career again and get back out there. I had all these songs, and I was ripe and ready to do something new. It was time to put it out there,” she says. Material on The Ice Queen certainly runs the gamut between smoking rockers, sultry ballad burners, and car-riding anthems. Most of them are Foley originals like “81,” which pays tribute to some of her past and music’s past at the same time.
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“It’s about Interstate 81, the road from southern Ontario and follows the Appalachian trail and goes through Virginia and Tennessee. I had to ride that road so much when I was living between Ontario and Nashville,” she says.
It’s also an ode to the first First Family of country music, the Carters, and the historic recordings they made in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee. Those tunes, along with ones put down by Jimmie Rodgers, basically laid the foundation of country music itself. Foley took a pilgrimage to Carter family historical sites for inspiration, and notes that Mother Maybelle Carter is a “huge hero” of hers.
The record takes a surprising turn with “The Dance,” a romantic ballad in which Foley shows off the flamenco guitar skills that she’s been working on for a decade with formal lessons and practice. “It’s an addition to my blues playing. I’ve always loved Latin music and the Spanish guitar. It’s always been with me,” she says. “I did this hybrid thing to put those two styles together. I think it sounds cool!”
There’s also an alternately harrowing and funny cover of “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair.” The graphic tune about a woman who slits the throat of her cheating man and is now pleading in front of a judge was made famous from the 1927 version by Bessie Smith. The “Empress of the Blues” is another musical hero of Foley’s.
“She’s my favorite vocalist, going back to those old Columbia Records, and I’ve covered her before over the year since I was 16,” Foley says. “I thought this song would work as an Elmore James shuffle, and we rocked it out a little. In concert, I always dedicate it to the ladies. They love it! I know it’s brutal, but it’s also funny.”
Avid back cover and liner note readers of The Ice Queen will also discover the participation of some Texas Blues All Stars pitching in on playing and vocals like ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons (“Fool’s Gold”), Jimmie Vaughan (“The Lucky Ones”), Charlie Sexton (“Come to Me”), and former Double Trouble drummer Chris “Whipper” Layton.
Foley was familiar with all of them over the years, but just happened to be playing occasional gigs with Gibbons and Vaughan as part of a loose collective called “The Jungle Show.” So it was a no-brainer to slide them into San Marcos’ Firestation Studios with producer Mike Flanigin. “And Charlie just showed up one day. He didn’t even know what he was going to be playing and singing on!” Foley laughs.
She has recently moved back to Austin full time, but the city she left nearly 20 years ago is nearly unrecognizable today, something she’s trying to reconcile in her head. “I’m different and it’s different, but I know people who have been here the whole time still trying to wrap their heads around it. They want it to be this funky, hippie city again, but it’s become high tech, high priced, gentrified and all that.”
There’s a string of fond memories that Foley has of playing Houston over the years at places like the Bon Ton Room and Rockefeller’s, and performing on a festival bill with Bobbly “Blue” Bland. After her Houston show, she’ll be heading to Europe soon for three weeks of dates before returning to the U.S. for summer festival season, then has already booked more club dates in the fall to promote The Ice Queen.
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But Sue Foley has a “side job” as well, penning a regular column for Guitar Player magazine where she interviews female guitarists like Bonnie Raitt, Joan Armatrading, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” bassist Carol Kaye. In her spare time, she’s trying to package some of those columns into a book, while hoping to start a documentary on the subject as well.
When asked which female guitarist she hasn’t talked with that would be the biggest “get” for her, Foley is quick to answer.
“Joni Mitchell, hands down. I have so much respect for her. That would be like a dream come true.”