An Interview with Blues ‘Ice Queen’ Sue Foley

INTRODUCTION

As a lifelong devotee of music—and especially of blues and rock music—I’ve been privileged to see some amazing performances. The kind of performances that galvanize the eyes of several thousand people on the stage, as if mesmerized. In my life, that has included several life-altering moments: James Cotton in Mary Hall, Nelson, BC, 1975. The Pogues at Expo ’86, Vancouver—even hobbled by a pathetically drunken Shane Macgowan. The discovery of the mighty voice of Ruthie Foster at Salmon Arm Roots and Blues in 2007. Seeing Chris Squire—who along with Who bassist John Entwistle rewrote the book on how to play bass in a rock band—in Kelowna, BC on his final tour with Yes in 2013. Stumbling on the greased lightning of Aussie slide guitarist Jeff Lang at Kaslo Jazz Etc. in 2014. And that’s not even considering all the legendary moments in music history I had the misfortune of birth or timing to miss—Ten Years After and Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969. The Who, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Jethro Tull at the Isle of Wight, 1970. To name only a few. These kinds of performances seem to align with the cosmos—and the performer’s 10,000-plus hours of experience—to burn themselves indelibly into the synapses. If you’d seen Jesus walk on the water you couldn’t have been more impressed.

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Sue Foley at Finley’s, Nelson, BC, July 26, 2018.

Now I have another such legendary performance to add to my sensory apparatus: Sue Foley live at Finley’s Bar & Grill, Nelson, BC, July 26, 2018, hosted by the Kootenay Blues Society. It takes incredible skill and talent to invest a genre as old as blues with an original approach, but she surely did it that sultry, smoky Thursday evening. Her first set was all electric, with blistering solos on her signature pink paisley Telecaster. Then, as if we weren’t gobsmacked enough, she pulled off another coup. Her second set was entirely acoustic, displaying a dexterity and command of stylings that ranged from Texas and Delta blues to flamenco. The set included songs by her original blues heroine, Memphis Minnie, and one of the few non-original songs from Foley’s new album, The Ice QueenSend Me to the Electric Chair, by Bessie Smith. Foley’s eloquent playing walked us through a history of the blues that cried, sang and moaned with grace and power.

Her technique is nothing short of stunning. The thumb pick/fingerpicking combo favoured by so many blues greats gives her incredible right-hand dexterity. (In the book It Came From Memphis, author Robert Gordon relates the story of when Hubert Sumlin joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band. Seeing that Sumlin used a flatpick, the Wolf told him to get rid of it.) According to guitarist and Kootenay Blues Society director Jon Burden, Foley uses almost no effects pedals—incredible given her many subtle tonal variations. And her current band is something of a blues power trio: Tom Bona is the most interesting blues drummer I’ve seen in years, using brushes, tom-toms and an array of cymbals to add tonal nuances to the songs instead of just keeping time. Leo Valvasori plays bass.

In my interview with her before the show, she talked wistfully of her younger years playing in clubs and how much she misses that scene. Finley’s is as close to a live music club scene as exists now in the Kootenays. The intimacy of the venue must have struck a deep chord with her, because she pulled out all the stops for this show. People either danced right to the end of the night or stood mesmerized near the stage. I’m guessing she won’t forget her night at Finley’s anytime soon. Now if we can just entice her back to the Kootenays….

INTERVIEW July 26, 2018

I notice from your Bio that you started playing guitar at age 13 while living in Ottawa. Did you grow up in a musical family? I did. My father played guitar and my three older brothers played guitar. I was the youngest girl and kind of just followed in their footsteps.

Was there an active blues scene in Ottawa at that time? There was; there was a good blues scene at the time. A lot of those guys are still there, like Drew Nelson. Back Alley John was there at the time, and Terry Gillespie who’s still out touring, he’s great, one of my favourites. He has that band Heaven’s Radio and I used to follow them around. All those guys taught me—and Tony D. of course, who’s now with Monkey Junk—he had a band called Saints and Sinners. So I go way back with all those guys. Tony gave me my first blues guitar lessons. And the other thing that was cool about Ottawa at the time was that a lot of Chicago bands and bands from the States came up there and toured. My first real blues shows were—and this was before I really saw anybody else—I saw James Cotton live at age 15. And that’s what really put me on the trail of wanting to play blues music.

Sue Foley @ Finley's 3 lo-res copyAs far as training goes, did you do a lot of formal study, or was it more a case of listening to records and learning to play the songs? Or just sitting in with musicians and learning that way? Yeah, all of the above. No formal training. I took some lessons from Tony D. and he basically taught me the most important lesson is how to teach yourself. He taught me how to pick up stuff off records and teach myself. And the rest of it was just from playing with other musicians. Playing with other players is how you learn the most. And if you can play with players that are better than you, even better, because that’s how you really start to rise above your own limitations.

So what about mentors in the blues, whether it’s people you were personally taught by or mentors among the great blues artists? Early on, Ronnie Earl reached out to me. He’s one of my very favourite guitar players of all time. I met him when I was about 20 on our first tour across Canada as the Sue Foley Band. And he really has been a mentor my whole career as far as being like a big brother figure, somebody I could always look up to and always admire his playing and count on for advice if I needed it. And then there’s people even now—to this day, I hang out with Lou Ann Barton in Austin, who I consider a mentor. And Jimmie Vaughan—I consider him a mentor figure as well.

And what about your attraction to the Texas blues? From what I remember reading online, your early forays into the blues were more Chicago blues, but more recently you’ve been leaning toward Texas blues. Well I think since I started my recording career I’ve really leaned toward Texas blues, it’s more where my specialty lies. When I first started learning blues guitar, I studied what I consider Chicago 101, all the Chess Records catalogue, from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmie Rodgers, Little Walter—all that stuff. But then when I went to Austin I really started to study people like Jimmie Vaughan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, and all the Texas blues musicians and guitar players. And I think Clifford Antone was really a mentor, because he signed me to my first record deal in Austin, he taught me a lot about Texas blues, even the stuff from Louisiana—all that really influenced us.

What would you say distinguishes the Texas blues from Chicago? Well, the interesting thing about the way Texas blues has evolved is that Chicago blues and Texas blues evolved together at Antone’s because all those Chicago blues artists were coming down to Austin. Muddy Waters was coming down, Jimmy Reed was coming down, Eddie Taylor was coming down, Buddy Guy. And so I think that Chicago style infiltrated the way Texas blues guitar is played now. Earlier on, before that happened—before the 1970s—a lot of Texas guitar players were influenced by horn players. Clarence Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker and guys like that were really influenced by playing in a band with horns. And then Lightnin’ Hopkins, that’s country blues that comes directly from Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Sonny Rhodes @ Finlay's lo-res copy

Sonny Rhodes at Finley’s, July 21, 2018

I was talking to Sonny Rhodes about how, blues in the earliest days was a form of protest music, how the earliest lyrics were written in a kind of code about how the ‘man’ was oppressing them, because they were slaves. And then you get some of the early preacher musicians like the Reverend Gary Davis who were both ministers and blues players, so they were concerned about what was going on in the world. I don’t know if Sonny mentioned him but Bill Campbell, who lives outside of Austin, was one of the most important figures in blues guitar. He came up at the same time as the Vaughan brothers, but he’s pretty obscure. So he and Sonny were like, buddies, at the time when blacks and whites were still not allowed to hang out together.

How did you meet and end up working with Peter Karp? We had a good run; we met at the Ottawa Blues Festival and recorded two albums together that was more singer-songwriter stuff, or mixing singer-songwriter with blues. So I think that was a good experience as far as developing my songwriting. I was doing some other collaborations too; that’s why I haven’t done a solo album in ten years because I got involved in those projects. But it was good, yeah. It was a different kind of project but I was happy to return to what I do best, my own stuff.

Do you think the blues in North America is in a good state or a bad state right now? I always focus on the positive; you can always find negative things to talk about that you don’t like. But I’d rather focus on the people that are still playing and doing great work, like Jimmie Vaughan who I go see all the time, and Lou Ann Barton. Gary Clark Jr. is really super cool, doing some great things for the blues. I just saw a great kid called Kingfish, a Mississippi black guy that’s tremendous—wow, what an amazing guitar player. There’s a lot of interesting young people out there right now.

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Sue with drummer Tom Bona.

So much of the music industry right now seems to be skewed toward demographics, where it’s targeted toward specific age groups. We’ve had that experience in the Kootenays with the Kaslo Jazz festival where, in the past two or three years they had to change it up to suit a younger audience, with only a handful of blues and jazz acts. Salmon Arm Roots and Blues was another one that had to modify their approach a little bit. Well they do, because all those guys have died off, and the blues demographic has become older. That’s not to say that it can’t be young. I think a lot of the bands that do blur the lines a little more, like say Tedeschi-Trucks, are more successful with a younger audience. Obviously they’re also fantastic blues musicians. But it’s not just blues, and they’re wildly popular. And I mean you look at Gary Clark Jr., the same thing, he does a lot of blues style, but he’s not just a blues musician and he wouldn’t call himself that. I don’t think blues has ever been commercially viable music. It’s always been somewhat underground.

So hopefully we can attract a younger audience to the blues. I think it’s about inclusiveness and mixing other styles with blues. I mean, even Jack White and people like that love blues and they play it and talk about it and turn a lot of people onto it.

Do you think that can happen in a culture where the reality of poverty is very different, compared to a hundred years ago? When I interviewed Sonny Rhodes he said: “The blues is about pain and suffering and how to overcome that.” So if you have a culture of people that were raised with a certain amount of privilege, then how do they sing the blues? But there’s no less pain and suffering now, and I think there might even be more, in spite of having all this material wealth. Just look around—I don’t think there’s any less pain and suffering in the world than there ever was. That’s why our work is never done.

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Foley’s new album has a stellar guest cast.

Let’s talk about your new album, The Ice Queen. What has you excited about this recording? It was recorded live, so we’re able to pull it all off at the show, and that really excites me because I’m able to play all the songs from the album and represent them live accurately. I love all the concepts of the songs, I’m really proud of it. Of course, I’m tickled to death about all the special guests that have been on the album. It was such a shot to my system. I was talking to somebody today saying, this is what we do this for, because we look up to these heroes, these mythological figures and we try to step into their shoes. So when any of them even acknowledge that you exist it’s one thing, but if they actually play music with you, wow, it’s something else. I’m really proud of it; I stand behind it one hundred percent.

So your special guests were—Jimmie Vaughan—name some of the others. Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Chris Layton from Double Trouble, Charlie Sexton, Mike Flanagin the great (Hammond) B3 player, and he’s our producer; George Bigby Rains, one of the greatest Texas blues drummers ever, and the Texas Horns. It’s a great line-up of musicians but it’s also a great mixture of songs and styles. And it’s fun to play.

And the concept of the Ice Queen, where does that come from? Well it’s a threefold concept, there’s the song The Ice Queen, because I was thinking about the idea of the Ice Queen and what people think about her and would say about her, what’s really going on inside. And I think a lot of women can relate to it. Anybody that puts a shell around themselves relates to that song, but I think women in particular relate to it. But it’s tongue-in-cheek too, it’s got a little humour in it. And the Ice Queen is also representative of me being Canadian—my Canadian roots—where I’m from. I’m a northerner from the land of ice and snow. And then it’s a tip of the hat to Albert Collins, the ‘Ice Man,’ fellow Telecaster player and one of my very favourite guitar players of all time. Watching him play changed my life, changed the way I approached the instrument, changed my conception of what blues was, what guitar playing is, how powerful it can be. It’s a tip of the hat to him.

Sue & Art @ Finley's 07.26.17

The author with Sue Foley, who generously offered autographs and selfies between sets and even after her show.

Closing thoughts: what would you like to see for the future of the blues? Welll… I just wish there were more venues that we could play at on a regular basis, so we could just be out playing all the time and people would be coming out. I think it’s changed a lot, so you kind of have to play more festivals or listening rooms, and there aren’t as many clubs as there once was. It’s not really a club culture anymore. And I really enjoyed my youth, being able to play clubs, I feel very lucky to have done that. I just wish we could keep doing it forever. It would be great to see things like that again—people going out again, getting off their phones, listening to live music.

Thanks very much for taking time out before your show. Well, thank you, it was a great interview, great questions.

FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT: http://suefoley.com / https://www.kootenaybluessociety.com

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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