Cover photo © 2022 Scott Doubt Photography
“I learned everything (hanging out at Antone’s). And sometimes what you really learn is from just watching how these people interact, these musicians interact. I was almost more fascinated hanging out backstage. In fact I’m sure I was. Playin’ with them was one thing but actually watching them all talk and hanging out together, interact, was very fun. So maybe it was that, that I cherish almost the most was those casual moments.”
Sue Foley is a modern Texas Blueswoman. A disciple of Gatemouth Brown, friend and collaborator of Jimmie Vaughan and student of Lou Ann Barton and Lavelle White from the 2nd great heyday of Austin’s Blues mecca Antone’s in the early 90’s; Foley plays, sings and writes with real deal Texas cred. Expressing herself deeply with heat and swagger that she has developed over an over 30 year career (she started as a teenager) Sue has a unique bran of Texas Blues that is reverential to the past but thoroughly modern and relevant. Foley’s Blues are simultaneously deadly serious and uproariously fun. Foley learned from her predecessors who she had the presence of mind to seek out, that you live your Blues, that the time on stage is just one part of being a musician.
Sue Foley’s music is inseparable from her iconic pink paisley Telecaster guitar aptly named Pinky. Sue’s newest album, the honest and present Pinky’s Blues, is a love letter and six string clinic.
“The story of Pinky is,” she reminisces, ”I’ve had this guitar for 30 plus years now. Guitars, yeah you kinda need to work them in.”
Sue got Pinky in the late 80’s originally as a gift from a boyfriend.
“I paid it off, it was one of these where ‘I’m gonna bring you the guitar home honey, but it’s your guitar.’ So it’s my guitar, it wasn’t just a gift, you know. I made the payments.”
“I’ve used her on every gig, every recording session from then on up to this album. I played her yesterday on a gig. If I’m doing hometown gigs I play her, I don’t bring her on the road anymore. It’s just kinda like I’ve got this bond with this instrument. She still sounds great, in fact I think she sounds better than ever which is amazing.”
Sue did not stand a chance as a child – she was destined to be a guitar player. In her native Ottawa Sue came from a musical family.
“I come from a family of guitar players, my father and and my 3 older brothers all played. I was just always drawn to it, they were everywhere. By the time I was 13, I was ready. I asked my Dad for one for Christmas and I think he just gave me one of the guitars that nobody was playing. Here, have this one, no one’s playing this one (laughs). So I just took to it and I had one of my brothers show me a few chords”
A young child in the 70’s with 4 guitarists in the house, the great Blues based explorations of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin along with the genre defying innovations of the Beatles influenced Sue deeply.
“I came up in an era of heavy guitar music played really wild (laughing). Rock culture, it was just that time.”
But, in the testosterone drenched Rock of the 70’s, it was not easy to find female guitar role models.
“You know, seeing someone like Charo. I definitely had female guitar icons, not necessarily in Blues music, that inspired me that I could play the instrument too. So Charo, Nancy Wilson, the women I saw holding guitars in that era when I was a little kid in the 70’s. It was a good time. So I just wanted to play it too. That was it, I just kinda always knew.”
A few years out of high school and already a seasoned touring musician, Sue set her sights in the early 90’s on the Blues that were coming out of Austin, Texas; specifically the infamous club Antone’s and the larger than life proprietor Clifford Antone.
“Well it was awesome,” she effuses. “I was so in love with the sound coming out of Austin. It was very distinctive to Austin, right? It didn’t sound like Dallas, I mean there was some stuff in Dallas that sounded sorta like it but different. Didn’t sound like Houston, didn’t sound like old Texas Blues, it was this whole new Blues sound. That was what was happening in the air.”
Sue found a home even in that rarified air of talent swirling around.
“The fact that I got down here as a Canadian and a girl playing guitar too. Not just a Canadian, but a Canadian female playin’ guitar in Austin, that’s badass. Fuckin’ Austin had some crazy fuckin’ guitar players, you know, crazy. It’s like yeah man, you’d think it’d be like being thrown to the sharks right? But it wasn’t like that at all, it was the opposite, everybody was real chill and inviting. If you could play you could play and everybody was cool. So I felt very much at home as soon as I got here, very welcome.”
With a group of like minded “kids,” Sue and her friends went to their own version of graduate school.
“I always liken it to my alma mater,” she shares. “I never went to college.”
At Antone’s University of Austin Blues Clifford Antone was the Dean. The local professors were Lavelle White, Lou Ann Barton, Denny Freeman, Kim Wilson, and many others. And a host of visiting lecturers taught master classes from the band stand.
“I mean we were at the club every night. And many nights no matter who was playing there, if Clifford Antone was in the house and it was 2am you’d be still playing music. He’d catch whatever musician was in the house and say ‘get up there and play.’ So all the ‘kid’ group would be there and just kinda waitin’ in the wings – maybe there’ll be a jam tonight – we did a lot of that. Then he would put me up on stage. I really jived with Derek O’Brien on guitar so Clifford put us up together as sort of the duo House guitar players in Antone’s House Band. And we got to back up everybody doing that. Okay I’ll tell you some names: Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop, Jimmy Rogers, Snooky Prior, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ and Calvin, Earl King – it was just astounding. And everybody in Austin from Kim Wilson to Lou Ann and Angela Strehli, Denny Freeman, yeah just everybody. And everybody who was playing there, he would somehow get the young kids up to play with them. And all of us did that. He was very generous with me, actually with everybody.”
It was also through Clifford Antone’s generous nature and the camaraderie of the musicians that Sue learned how deeply the music runs.
“Clifford and we would all go eat after the shows,” Sue remembers conjuring up late night feasts at all night dinners where local musicians schmoozed with touring legends. “You got to kinda hang out and just be in their presence. I find that I learn more about music that way sometimes just by watching how musicians are. Their character, cause their character is their music. And you realize how they’re putting that forth on stage. It’s pretty cool.”
Sue was accepted into the Austin Blues community. Issuing her first solo record Young Girl Blues on Antone’s label in 1992, Sue moved into a different phase of her career.
“One of the first tours I did for the Antone’s record label was a tour called ‘Antone’s Women.’”
She recounts the killer package “which featured Lavelle White, Barbara Lynn, Angela Strehlii, Lou Ann Barton, Sarah Brown, Toni Price and then the Antone’s House Band with George Rains, Derek O’Brien – it was a really good show. It was a great show and a great line up.”
One of the musicians who had a deep impact on Sue both on and off the stage was Gatemouth Brown. The virtuoso Louisiana guitarist, fiddler and singer helped to define the modern Texas style of Blues as a student of T-Bone Walker in the 50’s.
“Oh I was influenced by Gate from so many aspects,” Sue confesses then chuckles: “But once again (haha) one of the best things about Gate was hanging out with Gate. That was the biggest insight you would ever get.”
Sue saw Gate play countless times and hung out with him very often.
“I saw him once at a dance hall out in the country in Texas. And he played Country music all night and he almost played fiddle all night. Ha, I mean totally the whole thing, he carried it, WOW. Other nights you’d be seeing him and he’d be playing Big Band Jazz. I love him, I just love him so much. Watching him play was awe inspiring”
But, Sue was never sure that the iconoclastic musician ever remembered her from time to time.
“I had met Gate many times, we’ve gone out to eat together, we hung out with him, we always met his band. We saw them a lot. But Gate was older, he was in his 70’s and he was very cool and always nice, but I just didn’t know if he really remembered me from time to time.”
Sue shares a funny story about what she thinks is the last time she saw Gate, illustrating what a good-natured irascible character he was.
“So one time we were doing this show called Mountain Stage in West Virginia, pretty well known NPR radio show. Gatemouth was on the bill with us and I was so excited. And we were eating (before the show) and there’s this big dining area where it’s just kinda open to all the bands. I’m eating with my band and Gatemouth comes through the door and says (in a strong loud voice) ‘Where’s Sue Foley?’ And I just kinda turned red cause we’re in the middle of this busy room. My band is like ‘wholly shit Gate’s saying your name, man.’ So anyway what had happened was the week before I was interviewed by I think it was the LA Times, and it was about women in Blues. I had said in my interview, ‘I want to be the female Gatemouth Brown: I want to be 75, a wicked guitar player and ornery as hell.’
“Well I guess what had happened is he read it or someone in his band showed him and then they probably said ‘oh Gate hey that girl who said that thing is at this show.’ So he came up to me (ha) he goes ‘Ornery as hell? Whose ornery as hell? I’m not ornery as hell.’ And all his band is just laughing, they were just cutting up. So it was very cute. We hung out all afternoon and I played with him so it was really awesome. So I love Gate and he was ornery as hell and a wicked guitar player. Gatemouth was the shit.”
After a number of years in Austin recording, touring and being on the scene, in the late 90’s Sue moved back to her native Canada for a very special reason, she became a parent. “It’s been the most amazing thing,” she beams. “Having a child to me I mean that’s the topper really.” Like many creative people Sue had to figure out how to balance her unique lifestyle as an active touring musician and the demands of parenting her son, two things that can at times be at odds.
“I mean it’s great to have a career, it’s great to be a musician. I love what I do. I was glad I was able to keep doing it, but having a child and having him in my life it’s the best thing I ever did. Definitely changed my life for the better. It challenged me to be a better person and to work better, to work smarter. Because once you’re a parent you can’t really just waste time, you know, go fuck around or fuck off. You got to be there and be there for yourself and be there for them. And it’s really good for you, I mean it’s really good for me. I did manage with the help of my family so that’s why I went back to Canada. I mean having that support system was really really important for him and for me. So yeah that sort of grounded everything.”
Sue’s son is grown now. “My son’s out of graduate school now so I’m over the hump,” she boasts “I’m proud of it. I mean I did it, I managed to do it and never really do anything but what I’m doing. I think having him challenged me to keep strong that way, being able to do all these things.”
The now fully strengthened parent and artist, Sue moved back down South to Austin in the mid 20-teens and made a big artistic breakthrough with her 2018 stunner The Ice Queen. Sue decided to come back because one of her Antone’s classmates, the equally uniquely talented Hammond B3 organist Mike Flanigin, let her know that a new Antone’s had opened up. Foley and Flanigin struck up a partnership that spawned the Flanigin produced album.
“I started coming back for gigs and we did that album The Ice Queen cause I really loved Flanigin’s album The Drifter. He had just released that and man that on vinyl, it is sick. Like it sounds really good, that’s the thing I noticed and I realized he’d produced it himself. So it kinda spurred from that and then I ended up just moving back. I realized so many of my friends were still here – Lou Ann Barton and I got to be friends with Jimmie Vaughan. You know it just seemed like the scene was pretty cool here there’s a lot of cool musicians.”
For Sue’s debut back on the Austin scene, producer Flanigin tapped into some big name friends.
“Mike kinda called in everybody, all of his friends, which are my friends now too.” She recounts, “I didn’t know Whipper (Chris Layton, drummer of Double Trouble fame) that well, but Mike and Chris were friends. Charlie Sexton (of Bob Dylan’s band), Jimmie Vaughan, you know Jimmie was so gracious to come and do that. We had a ball and whoa.”
The approach was for multiple sessions that played to each song’s unique character but also kept an in-the-moment live feel.
“You know that album was recorded in segments and you can kinda hear it. And it was recorded with different line-ups. Cause, Mike had an approach he had actually taken on his Drifter album, to treat the songs individually. Just about everything on that was recorded very spontaneously too. So you’re hearing a lot of first takes.”
For example Sue remembers a 5 piece horn section being brought in for just one song.
“God I’m wondering if it might have been just one song we had that (horn section) on, ‘If I Have Forsaken You.’ But that song, and I’m so proud of that, that was such a great arrangement. I mean I didn’t do the arrangement, I’m just proud I recorded it. It was John Mills that did the arrangement, one of the horn players. Just when I hear it, it sounds so amazing.”
Like all of us, Sue has been affected by the pandemic. Locked down, Foley and Flanigin stayed busy.
“We got a lot of good stuff out of last year,” she says. “I mean we got Pinky’s Blues, we got Mike’s album West Texas Blues too. We did a whole bunch of cool things. We started a show called the Texas Blues Party, I started a Patreon, I opened a shop. You know what I mean, I had time to do all these things so it was pretty cool in a lot of ways.”
But, when asked about her COVID record Sue retorts, “Honestly I don’t even want to associate it with COVID I’m so tired of the word, seriously. I really would prefer to focus on it as an act of creation that came out of challenging circumstances.”
“The recording process,” Sue says about Pinky’s Blues “was very bare because we weren’t quarantined together but we were seeing very few people as you know we all were. And it was pretty spread out even with the 5 of us but it was such a big open space (that they recorded in) that it was real comfortable and we made big sounds (haha).”
The 5 are Sue, Flanigin, Chris “Whipper” Layton, bassist Jon Penner and engineer Chris Bow. A record of mesmerizing style and honesty, Pinky’s Blues has a big open spacious quality to it that makes the guitar simply flourish. Sue explains:
“Yeah the guitar is right, they did an amazing job – Chris Bow and Mike Flanigin, they did an amazing job really micing everything. And everything was open, all the mics were open at the same time so the drum mics, you might be hearing guitar in the drum mics or the vocal mic was all kind of wide open.”
Sue Foley is a true artist in that she seems to be always searching for the core of the music, the artistic center of the work, and relating it to her aesthetic, her life experiences and her reality. Whether it is the sensuality in the come on of “Jimmie Lee” from The Ice Queen, the reverential history lesson of “Dallas Man” or the empowered romp of “Hurricane Girl” (both from Pinky’s Blues), Sue is always present and herself. Understanding early on that you can only play who you are and what you feel, Sue Foley expresses her truth, both personal and existential. She is definitely not ornery as hell like her inspiration Gate, but she is a wicked guitar player and a powerful iconoclastic artist.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m busier when I’m at home (haha) these days. Touring is like a break, I swear there’s a lot of hats to wear in the music world you know. Yeah I seriously work more at home so I’m looking forward to the break of going on the road (laughs). I’m workin’ on a book, I’m workin’ on a PHD, I have a business, I have my own LLC and I’ve got people that work for me, I’m doin’ it all.”
For more about Sue Foley check out https://suefoley.com/