B.B. King said that as long as people have problems, the blues will never die. Native Canadian and Austin resident Sue Foley keeps the blues alive and kicking on a daily basis. “I’m still a dedicated blues musician. I’ve dedicated my life to playing it, learning it, studying it and sharing it.” Foley will be performing at the Mucky Duck June 28.
Foley has been on the blues scene since she was a teenager and as a young adult was basically hand picked by Austin blues legend Clifford Antone to move to Austin and join the budding blues scene there.
“It really was a magical moment. It really was one of those moments where you’re like, ‘Wow I really willed this to happen somehow because I wanted it so bad!' I love Texas blues so much and I was so enamored by what was happening in Austin at Antone's. It just seemed like I landed in heaven, in blues heaven.”
Blues is typically associated with sounds of the south and up north in Chicago; music that was born from the pain and suffering of the black communities throughout the United States. It is not an obvious leap to Canada.
“There was a blues scene when I started out and it has continued on. There was a community of musicians who taught me a lot and there were a lot of blues artists that came to Canada from Chicago like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, James Cotton and all kinds of people. We saw all those guys so I was lucky to be there when everybody was still out touring and the scene was vibrant.”
Though Foley has put out more than a dozen quality albums in her career, last year's Ice Queen is her self-described best album. Ice Queen was well received by fans and critics and was nominated for Canada's prestigious Juno award for best blues album of the year.
“I just think I was in a really good place. I feel comfortable in my skin and real focused in my message and that’s probably just a coming of age kind of thing.” say Foley.
Foley was encouraged by longtime friend, and producer of the album, organ player Mike Flanigin to launch a kick starter campaign to make the record. “It was a really amazing process to just feel the love of a community and get together to create something together. People really feel connected to it and that was a really important thing, it really felt good to feel that support.”
The album features not only the fine work of Flanigin but also big Texas artists like Jimmie Vaughan, Charlie Sexton, Chris Layton and Houston’s own Billy Gibbons. In this seeming boys club, Foley naturally brings to the table her bluesy sound mixed with strong femininity and sensuality.
The title track “Ice Queen” tells the story of a woman hardened by life. “I always thought it was an interesting play on words and why people call somebody that. That song is what I call a sympathetic look at that person.” says Foley. When asked if she has ever been accused of being frigid Foley says, “I can imagine some people think I’m cool.” Ice Queen is also a reference to one of her idols, Albert Collins and their shared love for the telecaster as well as a nod to her cold hometown of Ottawa.
Her guitar playing can also have a strong Spanish influence as highlighted on “The Dance”. “I studied some flamenco guitar and applied it to my blues playing and that’s the style I got out of it. I think the two forms are very simpatico they are both very passionate musical forms they come from oppressed people, it’s all improvised music and it just had a lot of similarities to blues. I found they mix really well together.”
Ice Queen also pays tribute to women in the early blues scene and features two well chosen covers, “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair” by Bessie Smith and “Cannonball Blues” by Maybelle Carter. “There were very empowered women I pick up on that energy when I listen to early blues women; they were very sexy and free.” says Foley.
Foley herself is a scholar of the blues and women in music in general. She contributes a monthly column to Guitar Player Magazine called the Foley Files where she features interviews she has performed with influential female musicians. She hopes to one day compile her many interviews into a book documenting women in music.
“It’s another project of love and inspiration; just trying to tell people about some great players, their stories and some of the history.” says Foley. “There were a lot of women doing it from the inception of music and guitar; there have always been women playing and some really good ones and important ones like Mother Maybelle Carter, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie just to name three icons of guitar and music.”
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Foley is seemingly at the top of her game and recently got the chance to play Royal Albert Hall with her fellow Austin bluesmen opening up for Eric Clapton. The once in a lifetime opportunity came way through her old friend and collaborator Jimmie Vaughan.
“Jimmie Vaughan is somebody that I have idolized since I was 15 years old, as do many many guitar players and musicians across the board. He has been really supportive and I just admire everything he does. He has been so generous to me. I showed up at their gig and he didn't have to invite me up but he did and it shows his level of generosity and sweetness.”
“To be at Albert Hall with him and opening for Eric Clapton, that is the top of the top.” she says sincerely. Foley usually maintains weekly residencies playing the Saxon Pub in Austin but will spend most of her summer escaping the heat with a tour through Canada. She is excited to be back in Houston and at the Mucky Duck, "It's a classy fun joint and we really have a blast there."
Sue Foley will perform Friday June 28 at McGonigels Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, doors at 7 p.m. $25-28