Sue Foley is seated on a stool, center stage, her signature paisley pink Telecaster resting on her thigh above the chicly torn-out knee on her black jeans. The crowd is hushed except for the occasional yelp of approval.
She is coaxing sweet singing tones from the guitar with her unique style of picking and plucking the strings with thumb and fingers. The tone lingers in the air like the scent of hibiscus on a summer night.
Her eyes are closed as her music washes over her and the rapt audience. In this way, Sue puts the lie to every guitar slinger who insists that it only sounds good if it’s loud. Because the sounds coming out of the pink Tele are beyond good, they are evidence of a master at work.
“The right hand is the most important one in guitar playing,” she tells me later. “It’s where tone comes from, it’s where rhythm comes from. The fingers on the left hand need to know what to do, but it’s the right hand that drives the sound.”
Sue Foley knows what she’s talking about – she’s been playing guitar since was 13, and professionally since 16. Foley grew up in Ottawa, Canada listening to all manner of music. There was something about The Rolling Stones’ Blues-based rock that got under her skin, but it wasn’t until she saw James Cotton in concert that she was fully enraptured by the Blues and turned to the electric guitar.
She immediately began delving into this brave new world and discovered a host of artists would become her major influences, among them Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Billie Holiday, Memphis Minnie, and T-Bone Walker.
As soon as she graduated high school, she left for the big city lights of Vancouver, British Columbia where she quickly formed her own band and started touring Canada’s Blues clubs – dotted along a thin ribbon stretching 4000 miles from coast to coast. In 1990, she sent a demo tape of herself to Antone’s Records. The label brought her to Austin, auditioned her and promptly signed her. Foley moved to Austin to begin her recording career and honing her live act with tours throughout the US, Canada, Europe and Japan.
Since then, she has racked up an impressive array of awards. In 2001, she won a Juno (Canada’s Grammys) for best Blues album, a record 17 Maple Blues Awards –more than any other performer, three Trophées de Blues de France, and has been nominated for two Blues Music Awards.
This is the weight of experience, the gravitas, she brings to the stage this night in late August in front of an appreciative audience at the Nanaimo Summertime Blues Festival, just a stone’s throw across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver.
There is a vibrant Blues scene here with a thriving community of musicians and fans. They can hear the years of dedication to craft that create the subtle tones of an intimate lead break. She stretches out long, languorous notes, and then yanks the audience out of its reverie with some high octane pyrotechnics. The crowd happily goes with her, up, down and around her full ahead Blues guitar roller coaster. It is this ability to move from gentle caresses to full frontal attack that sets her apart from many of her peers.
Foley owns the stage. One minute purposefully striding from one side to the other, her trademark fiery red hair flashing in the afternoon sun, the next minute trading licks with her impressive piano player, Graham Guest. She won the crowd with her first number, a raucous, rocking number that shows off her deep familiarity with the fretboard. She doesn’t release the audience from her spell until the last note of her last song reverberates over the audience and rings across the glittering harbor.
This is a masterful performance, honed by more than 32 years of performing professionally. She barely pauses between songs, determined to give the audience what they came for. “I only have an hour with them, so I like to keep the music coming.”
Over and above the accomplished guitar playing is a voice that is equally capable of changing moods on a dime. That’s not by accident. “I work on my voice so I can convey the depth of what the lyrics mean to me. I take a lot of time writing lyrics – many of my songs tell a story, that’s really important to me.”
She finishes her set and goes back to her hotel to put her storied paisley pink Tele away securely, then returns to the venue to sit and talk about her songwriting, her playing, her new album and the state of the Blues.
After being in the business for as long as she has, she has seen a lot of changes in the Blues. Is the current state of the Blues a cause for concern? “No, I think the Blues is in great shape. It’s expanding, as it should. We have traditional Blues artists, rocking Blues, all types. And Blues music being made all over the world – Canada, Europe, wherever.”
“I hear a lot of people talk about today’s Blues and some complain that it’s not ‘real’ Blues. But the way I see it is that all music evolves. It has to, or it dies. And Blues is evolving. So it doesn’t have to be 12-bar or 8-bar to be authentic. Back when the Blues was born, musicians played all kinds of different songs, but they were still the Blues. Because Blues isn’t a format or a rigid form; it’s about fluidity and feel.”
She starts to warm to the topic, “If the music does what it has always done – pick you up when you’re down or get you moving when you’re up, it’s the Blues. I don’t have a lot of time for hard line purists. I mean the whole point of this form is its free, improvisational, flexible structure. It’s all feel. Does it feel like the Blues? Then it’s the Blues. That’s what drew me to it and what keeps me in it.”
Does she find that some people, even other musicians, unfamiliar with the Blues dismiss the genre as being too “unsophisticated”? “Yeah, until they try to really get inside and play the Blues. Then they see there’s more to it. The thing about the Blues is that it’s simple, but not easy.
“Muddy Waters always said that very few people could play his music – couldn’t copy his guitar playing or his singing. With Muddy, it was especially how he bent the notes. Even today, there are few who can squeeze more from a note than Muddy.”
So, the Blues in changing, musically, but what about lyrically? Is it still “woke up this morning?”
Foley thinks not.
“There’s still some of that, but I think the most interesting writers are using Blues to express a lot of different ideas. I’ve even heard political ideas expressed in Blues songs.
“For myself, I am trying to bring a different kind of lyric writing to my music, whether that follows a traditional Blues structure or something with a more contemporary feel. – it’s more personal with more storytelling. I’m not the only one. There are lots of players who moving the Blues along, keeping it relevant to new audiences.”
She is especially concerned about cultivating the next generation of Blues fans. “If we don’t make the Blues relevant to younger listeners today, the Blues will die along with the current generation of fans.”
The conversation turns to the topic of women in Blues, particularly guitar players. Ever since Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie, there have been women Blues guitar players. There still are – Bonnie Raitt, Suzie Vinnick, Susan Tedeschi to name just a few.
In fact, Foley collaborated with two contemporary women players, Deborah Coleman and fellow Ottawa native Roxanne Potvin, on her 2010 collaboration, Time Bombed. In addition to receiving rave reviews, it is also one a CD Foley is very proud.
Asked if being a woman has a particular influence on playing guitar, Foley has a lot to say. And a lot to back it up.
In 2001, she began interviewing female guitarists from around the world and from many different genres – Blues, rock, roots, folk, flamenco, classical. The women included Raitt and Tedeschi, but also Ellen Mcilwaine, Joan Armatrading, Susie Quatro, Nancy Wilson, Precious Bryant, classical guitarist Liona Boyd, jazz/worldbeat artist Badi Assad, even Wrecking Crew legend, bassist Carol Kaye.
“I’ve asked all of them that question – how does being a woman influence our playing and none of us has come up with a definitive answer. Not everyone is sure it makes a difference at all. The way I see it is, I can crank it up to match any man and I have seen a lot of male players capable of great sensitivity.”
Many of the interviews Foley has done with these remarkable artists are on her website under Guitar Woman. They provide an intimate and illuminating look at the inner workings of these superb musicians and the times that shaped their playing. The interviews are well worth reading.
How about being raised in Canada where Blues doesn’t have the deep roots in has in the US? There’s no New Orleans, no Mississippi Delta, no Chicago. Was that a hindrance?
“No, I wouldn’t call it a hindrance. Blues is all about feeling, and you can feel the Blues wherever you’re from.”
One of the songs she played this day, which is also on her upcoming album scheduled for release this fall, is called “Ice Queen”. She introduces it as “a song written by a Canadian woman …” invoking both nationality and gender influences.
“They call me the Ice Queen because I’m cool and I’m detached
Yeah, they call me the Ice Queen, I’m cool and detached
And all the men agree, I’m too slippery to catch.”
You can decide whether how much of this comes from being a woman and how much from being Canadian, if any. She doesn’t wear either on her sleeve – it’s all about the music and the story.
A few years ago, Foley met Blues-roots singer-songwriter Peter Karp at the Ottawa Blues festival. They hit it off professionally and personally, eventually releasing two truly terrific CDs. The first, He Said – She Said was inspired by the emails they exchanged as they getting to know each other while they were on separate tours. The resulting CD is personal and universal at the same time. It went to the top of the Blues/Roots charts as well as entering the Billboard charts at #5. They followed this up with Beyond The Crossroads, another excellent CD that threw the sophomore curse to the side of the road.
But life has many roads, and Sue Foley’s path has lead her back to living in the US, North Carolina to be exact, where she is an Assistant Professor of Music at a local college. She is herself a student of American roots and Blues music and plans to pursue a Ph.D. She still spends a fair bit of time in Canada, but to Foley, it’s all the same. “It’s music. Canada … US … doesn’t matter.”
As if balancing teaching and touring isn’t enough, Foley practices every day, and is also taking flamenco guitar and cello lessons. But most of all, after so many collaborations, Foley is getting back to her own music. “It’s time,” she says to focus on what I want to say, and I’m really pleased with where my songwriting is right now. I still have lots of stories to tell.”
Are these stories told in Blues or in other musical forms?
“This latest album is definitely Blues based. A couple of the songs I played tonight, including “Ice Queen”, are on it. But I’ve also introduced some other flavors, flamenco, Latin, some of the other things you heard today. It’s produced by John Whynot, and he’s amazing to work with.”
“And I have a couple of other solo projects in mind that I’d like to concentrate on – some in music and some on outside projects. I’m working on expanding Guitar Woman and turning it into a book. These incredible women I’ve interviewed, in all styles of music, from around the world, some famous, others known by their peers and fans … they deserve to heard, to have their stories told, too.”
If you haven’t listened to a lot of Sue Foley, you really should check out her catalog. If you are already one of her dedicated fans, you know the breadth of music she is capable of. It’s impressive and varied. It’s always fascinating to see an artist’s progression over the course of a rock solid, steady career.
From the curiously innocent “Mean Old Lonesome Train” from Young Girl Blues to the more lyrically sophisticated “Analyz’en Blues” (nominated as Blues Blast Song of the Year 2013) from Beyond The Crossroads, you can feel Foley’s power and passion. She is one of those rare artists who can convey the same energy in the studio that she generates live, in front of an audience.
The final act of the night is on stage in Nanaimo and she turns to me and says, “I really want to go catch this guy. He’s a terrific guitar player …”
And off she goes to celebrate the Blues with fellow musicians as they watch and listen from backstage. Watching them all – Foley, other big name artists, and local players who were on stage earlier – it is easy to see that Foley is absolutely right. The Blues is in great shape indeed.
Visit Sue’s website at: http://suefoley.com/.
Interviewer Lex Dunn is a writer and musician living on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. He has fronted blues bands in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax and looks forward to his next venture on the Island. He is passionate about music in general and the blues in particular.