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Sue Foley Interview


Just released, One Guitar Woman honors eight solo acoustic female guitarists. “These trailblazing women weren’t just playing the guitar, they were living it, pouring their souls into every note. Their stories are not just about music but about overcoming barriers, setting new standards and inspiring generations of players.”

By Linda Cain

Photo: Mark Abernathy



Sue Foley interview by Linda Cain

 

I’m a force of nature/ I’m a Hurricane Girl,” declares Sue Foley on the song “Hurricane Girl” from her award-winning 2021 Pinky’s Blues album. Truer words were seldom spoken. Or sung.  Sue Foley has been a triple threat singer/songwriter/blues guitarist who has always taken the blues world by storm wherever she goes.


Pinky’s Blues features guest appearances by Jimmie Vaughan, Chris Layton and Mike Flanigan and earned her two 2022 Blues Music Awards (Traditional Blues Album and Traditional Female Artist/Koko Taylor Award).


Foley followed up the Pinky’s Blues momentum with Sue Foley Live in Austin, Vol. 1 in October 2023. Recorded during an exciting live show at the Continental Club, the  album features eleven songs culled mostly from Sue’s vast catalog of 14 albums, going all the way back to her 1992 debut album Young Girl Blues.


Photo: Roman Sobus (at SPACE, Evanston/ 4-17 2024)


And in early April 2024, Foley bestowed her fans with yet another, but very different, new release One Guitar Woman.


A native of Ottawa, Ontario who launched her U.S. career when she moved to Austin, TX at age 21, Foley began playing guitar in bands as a teenager in Canada. Now with 16 albums to her credit, and countless guest appearances on other artists’ albums, Foley continues to raise the bar of her artistry with each new project she takes on.


To that “triple threat” list we can now add: music historian/researcher plus acoustic guitarist extraordinaire of classical, country and Spanish styles.


For her new release Sue swaps out her signature pink paisley Telecaster (famously known as Pinky) for an acoustic nylon-string flamenco Blanca model crafted by master luthier Salvadore Castillo. She hasn’t settled on a name for her handmade prized guitar yet. But Sue says she sometimes calls her “Rosie,” due to the “beautiful rose inlay.”


One Guitar Woman spans a brief history of female solo guitar players whom she admires and has researched since 2001. Foley flies solo with no support from a backing band for the entire 12-track album that features her skillful and passionate interpretations of eight great acoustic guitar players of the past including: gutsy blues women Elizabeth Cotton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie, Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas; country music matriarch Maybelle Carter, along with famed French classical guitarist Ida Presti and Latina string aces Lydia Mendoza and Charo.


Yes, that Charo of comedic blonde bombshell TV fame in the ‘60s-‘70s (more on that later).


“I am deeply inspired by the female pioneers of guitar who made timeless contributions to blues music and its history,” Foley explains on her website.


“These trailblazing women weren’t just playing the guitar, they were living it, pouring their souls into every note. Their stories are not just about music but about overcoming barriers, setting new standards and inspiring generations of players.”


Foley has been touring steadily since the pandemic lifted. She and her band will make a stop at SPACE in Evanston on April 17, 2024 for a show that will include both electric and acoustic sets. Nikki O’Neill will open.


Click here for: TICKETS 


Photo: Todd V. Wolfson


In 2001, Foley started a music history project called Guitar Woman based on dozens of interviews she conducted with the world's leading female guitarists. Between 2001 and 2008, she wrote articles, organized, and promoted concerts, and worked on a book.


“This project, it’s a big pile of research that started in 2001,” Foley explained in a Zoom call with CBG’s editor Linda Cain.


“And the book will probably be the last piece of it. And ironically, the book is the first thing I started working on, but it’s probably the last thing that’s going to come out. So yeah, I’m still working on the book, but this album is definitely part of it.”


Sue and Linda enjoyed a lively conversation, as follows.


SUE: I’ve done shows and I’ve toured with some of my friends, other female guitarists, and done collaborations. And it’s just cool. There’s a lot to know about all this. And of course, the whole scene with women in guitar has just exploded, too.


LC: Yes, it has. It’s wonderful to see blues women singers and instrumentalists.


SUE: Oh, yeah!


LC: So please tell us Sue about your journey into the past and how you went about finding early recordings and how you created your own versions and transcripts for One Guitar Woman. Like you said, it involved extensive research. And maybe there wasn’t much on the internet going back a couple of decades, right?


SUE: Well when I started, there really wasn’t a lot out there. There were no books. There were no websites, really. No concise websites that had one place where you can get all the information. But now there’s a couple of magazines dedicated to women in guitar. Of course, in blues, there’s always been female guitarists, and I attribute that to pioneers like Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who really paved the way for all of us.

But even when I was coming up, there were several other female lead blues guitar players on the scene, and it’s exploded now.


LC: Who do you have in mind as your contemporaries back when you started?

 SUE: Back in when I started, it was when Bonnie Raitt really got big. And then I started seeing women everywhere playing guitars.


So I attribute Bonnie's success to a lot of it. But you know Deborah Coleman was out there, with Debbie Davies and me. And Rory Block has been there even way before us.. Whew. There's more. Ellen McElwain.  And Joanna Connor, of course. We were all kind of contemporaries in a lot of ways.


Photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau (Blues Cruise 2023)



LC: I was just curious about some other research methods that you might have done. Did you go to the Smithsonian and listen to wax cylinder recordings with the headphones and other things they offer?


SUE: No. No. No, I didn't go that far, but you know there's YouTube now, so I can access all this stuff pretty readily.


But you know when I started working on the book in 2001 and interviewing other players, when I thought about my role musically in this thing, I just thought because I'm a traditional artist, I would probably be most curious about doing the music of the pioneers. And that's the women who really, really started it. And this project is across genres. Of course, it goes from blues to Piedmont to classical to Spanish and country music.


So there's a lot of meat on the bone when you think about some of the great females that really did pave the way for us and made a mark in guitar culture.

 

LC: I was going to say, you've got all those different styles on there, but it all sounds surprisingly good together. It's not weird to hear acoustic blues and Spanish, classical and Latin styles mixed in.


And I was just wondering what you think Spanish songs and American blues songs have in common musically and thematically?


SUE: Well, you know the curious thing about this, and what I think is really interesting, is as a blues player, it's easy to go to other genres, like to go into country, to go into Piedmont, because to have the background of a blues player, you really have a good foundation musically.


So even going into Flamenco and Spanish guitar, there's elements that really struck me where I could find common ground. I mean, classical is probably the farthest stretch. So I picked a piece by Niccolo Paganini  (“Romance in A Minor”) to cover that. To me, it sounds kind of bluesy. And it has a free time. There wasn't a structured time signature in it that I had to adhere to.

 

So I was able to sort of stretch out parts and  could even improvise in it. So you know it's interesting that as a blues player, you can really go into a lot of different places. You can go to jazz, you can go to rock. You know blues is just such a great foundation musically to have for any musician. And you can't really say it's easy for a classical player to go to blues. You know what I mean?


 Or even jazz to go to blues because it's easier to go from blues to jazz because blues is so simple that a lot of jazz players get hung up on that. They can't play blues because it doesn't have all the technical aspects, doesn't have all the chords and everything. It's more simple music. So sometimes a lot of jazz players can't play like a simple slow blues, you know, which is really funny.

 

LC: Blues is the root. Everything else is the fruit.


SUE:  It's the basic. And you know it's such a great thing really.  Well, you love blues, so you know. It just kind of encompasses everything.


Photo: Dave Specter (April 17, 2024 at SPACE, Evanston)

 

LC: And I thought it was interesting that you included Charo's version of the famous flamenco song, “La Malaguena.”  So how did you know about her? Because I remember seeing her on TV when I was a kid.


SUE:  Well, that's me too. That's how I knew about her.  She has been on variety shows my whole life. I grew up with Charo.


She's the first and I talk about this in my liner notes. I believe she's the first woman I ever saw play guitar, like really play guitar,  which was always a big thing for me because I knew I really wanted to play guitar, but I wanted these role models. I didn't need the role models to play, but man, did it ever help to know that they were there. It's a real comfort. And that's why I've done this album, just to highlight that there's this rich history for women guitar players.

 

And it's something they can really be proud of. They don't just have to say, "Oh, we were just there." No, these women really made a strong mark on the whole in guitar playing. And that's important. It's important to have role models


LC: Unless you have role models, it never occurs to you that you can do it.


SUE: Exactly. It's definitely a comfort. Yeah. It's important.



Photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau (Blues Cruise 2023)


LC: So getting back to classical music, I read that you didn't  transcribe the Paganini piece to a guitar yourself. You used a version by famed French guitarist Ida Presti. I imagine that must have been challenging for her to transcribe the classical music piece written for the violin to the acoustic guitar. Is that something you would ever tackle? What is your background in classical music?


SUE: I have no background in classical music. Zero. I just had to listen to the piece, listen to her version of it, and pull parts of it, pull it apart piece by piece, and learn little bits at a time. And it took me a while.  This whole album of studying different guitar styles taken me, I don't know, six, seven years of practice and study.


And you know it didn't just happen. I was working at it for a while. And then you know the classical piece was pretty challenging. And I was just so happy to get it under my belt, finally, because I was really working on it for a long time. It's not natural for me at all. And I really did have to study, but it felt really good to do it in the end, you know to get it done. Oh, yeah. Very fulfilling.


LC: Yeah, I can only imagine how much time and effort and work and study and practice you put into it. And so congratulations!  I think One Guitar Woman is fantastic.


Before it was released, I saw one of your Instagram posts. And you said:


"Upon listening to the official vinyl test pressing of One Guitar Woman, I'm thrilled to say it sounds absolutely pristine.

And we wanted to make an intimate album that felt like you were in the room with me while I was recording live in the studio. I was imagining I was singing to one person to create something that felt immediate and connected. I'm very excited about this album, and I can't wait to share it with you.”



Photo: Roman Sobus (at SPACE, Evanston/ 4-17 2024)


LC: And I just wanted to say, I agree with you. It does sound pristine and intimate. And I'm guessing this is quite different from your past recordings, at least the most recent ones. Have you recorded much solo acoustic material before?


SUE: I've done bits of acoustic work throughout my career in solo. And I've always done a little bit of solo work, but it's never been anything I've featured as a whole project like this. So this is definitely a standout project, standalone project, don’t mind the pun.


But most definitely, it's the first time I've done an entire album and have sculpted an entire show where I can sit there for 75 minutes and just tell stories. So yeah, it was a bit of work to get, but I love it. You know I really enjoy it. I love the freedom in solo playing.


LC: I wanted to ask you about your upcoming One Guitar Woman Solo Multi Media Show. Can you describe that for us?

 

SUE: It's still in the works because we haven't actually toured the solo album yet.  We're actually working on the backdrop with an artist right now. So I can't say a lot about it except it would have some pretty beautiful visuals to go along with the music. It would be me solo.


LC: So would you play guitar and talk about the historic women?


SUE: Well, it's not really a talk. I like to mostly play the music and tell a little bit about each artist.

 

LC: Oh, I was thinking that it would be a great show to book during Women's History Month in March.


SUE: Oh, yeah, for sure. It would be. Absolutely.


LC: And I think it would be a big hit on college campuses and NPR broadcasts.

SUE: Exactly. I agree. Completely.


Photo: Roman Sobus (at SPACE, Evanston/ 4-17 2024)


LC: I was just curious… during your research of these blues women, that became so influential even today, who influenced them? I mean, were they all alone? Did they have female role models?


SUE: I really don't know. Somebody like Memphis Minnie who did she listen to? I think they just listened to whatever was happening around them and whatever they could have access to.

It's not like they had anything at their fingertips like we do now. We can just hear anything we want at any time. So it would have been more very local music and the odd record or a little bit of radio, if they could actually get to a radio. Yeah. So very little or probably no female role models at all.

That's why they're such remarkable people, because they're just so self-made, self-created, self-invented, and it just shows so much vision and courage on their part.


LC: They had to have guts.


SUE: Yeah. For sure.


LC: Well, I'm sure you're familiar with Rhiannon Giddens, and she has found songs and poems that were written by slaves, and she's built songs around them.


And I was wondering if you came across any of her research or findings in your studies?

SUE: Yeah, yeah!! You know what? She did a couple of the same songs I did on this album. So there's definitely some cross-pollination there. And I'm not really familiar with everything she's done, but I really like what she does. And she definitely has her own spin on it.


LC: You're both nominated for Blues Music Awards this year. Congratulations!


 SUE: Thank you so much.


 LC: Are you going to the awards ceremony in Memphis?


SUE: I will be going. Yep. Hopefully, I’ll come home with some more statues.


Note: If she scores awards again, Sue will have to make room on her already crowded display shelf. She has been awarded: at least 17 Maple Blues Awards in Canada (a record setter), one Juno Award, three Trophies de Blues de France, two Austin Music Awards, and four BMAs.


SUE: It’s going to be fun to go.


LC: Yeah. That’s the thing about awards. You know the people who are nominated are all so great and you don’t want to feel like you’re competing against them. And there’s winners and losers and all that.


SUE: No, it’s all good. It’s all friends. It’s nice to go. And you know it’s voted on by the fans, so that’s really nice.

 

LC: You've worked with a who's who of blues artists, mostly men. Are there any living blues musicians that you haven't played with that you would like to? Do you have a wish list?


SUE: Oh, boy. That's a tough question.

I can't say exactly who, but I think probably some of my next projects will be collaborative. That's what I predict. Just because I love the idea of being able to mesh minds together and get new ideas. But yes, there's a lot of people I would love to work with.

 

LC: Can you mention who is on your wish list?


SUE:  I don't know. I don't really have a wish list. I'm just going to see how things unfold, you know, but I'm open to it, for sure.


Photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau (Blues Cruise 2023)


LC: And you've written songs with strong, fierce, almost mythical female characters like the Ice Queen and the Hurricane Girl. And I'm wondering, are they autobiographical, at least in part, because those songs are definitely giving the men a warning?


SUE: They are. And you know, I always say I don't write fiction. So everything I write is true to me in some way. So I would say yes. Those characters are definitely a part of me, and I write from personal experience. So that's a big yes on that for sure.


Yeah, you never know how personal some songwriters can be, or if they're just making up fictional characters. I mean, some people do write fiction and have a great imagination for stuff like that. Personally, I can only draw from my personal experience or things I've seen and come close to, let's say.

 

LC:  I'm sure you're familiar with the Queen of the Blues in Chicago, Koko Taylor.

 And I was just wondering if any of Koko's songs, like “I’m A Woman”  inspired you to write empowering songs with strong female characters?


SUE: I don't know if the songwriting inspired me, but I used to tour with Koko Taylor, and she inspired me. I mean, she was like the title of her album, Force of Nature!I love Koko Taylor. She was amazing.


LC: Well, that's so cool. You got to tour with them.


SUE: Yeah, we did. We got to tour with her. We got to watch them every night and watch her every night. And she's really a force. Oh, yeah. Powerful!

 

LC: And then like Koko, you turned the tables on the men and you turned Slim Harpo's song about a king bee into “Queen Bee,” which I love because there's no such thing in nature as a king bee!


SUE:: Right. Exactly. I did that on my first album, Young Girl Blues. So the one on Live in Austin is a remake. But yeah, I've been doing “Queen Bee” my whole career.

 

LC: And you had mentioned how you have a lot of female guitarist contemporaries on the blues scene now. I was wondering which ladies you admire? The first one that comes to mind is your fellow Texan, Carolyn Wonderland. She was just in town.

 

SUE: I love Carolyn!  I love her so much. She's a good friend. I love Laura Chavez. She's a fantastic player. I think she's probably the best. You know I mean, I don't want to say female or male, but she's one of the best guitar players out there right now. She deserves everything she's been getting (awards, recognition). Yeah, I love her.


LC: I saw Laura many times with the late great Candye Kane. Also with Nikki Hill and Vanessa Collier.


SUE: She (Candye) was a good friend of mine as well. And I introduced Laura to Candye, so.


LC: Wow! That was Laura’s big break.

 

SUE: Yeah! Because Candye called me looking for a guitar player, and I thought, "You should check out Laura.”  She'd never heard of her. And yeah, the rest is history.  And Debbie Davies told me about Laura when I was researching my book. So there you go. Everything goes full circle there.


LC: Oh, yeah. And it's nice to see women in music, or in any field, supporting each other instead of being cut throat.


SUE: Yeah. We don't need to be cut throat. We really need to take care of each other.



Photo: Todd V. Wolfson

 

LC: Anytime you play in Chicago, Sue, do you get inspired, thanks to our rich blues history?  You must have some favorites, in addition to Koko Taylor?


SUE: Yeah! Earl Hooker!!


LC: That's your guy?


 SUE: Yeah, Earl !!


Earl Hooker's my guy, man. That's my guy, my favorite guitar player. Earl Hooker. Yeah. I love that. I love everything about him. Unsung hero of slide and every kind of music. I just love Earl Hooker to death.


But I love Chicago Blues. I mean, I really love Buddy Guy, obviously, and Magic Sam is one of my favorites. Koko Taylor, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Pine Top Perkins.  And Luther Tucker.  Matt “Guitar” Murphy. Lonnie Brooks!


I mean, we kind of came up with all those Chicago people. They used to play at Antone’s in Austin a lot.

 

LC: So do you live in Austin now?


SUE: I do live in Austin. Yeah.


LC: So I was wondering if you ever performed with or shared the stage with my old pal, Willie Nelson?  He's 90 years old and still touring.

 

SUE: No, I have not. But I would love to. He's fantastic. And of course, he's such a big name here.  But I've actually never met him. But I was gone for a long time. You know I've only been back for a few years. I was in Canada when I was raising my son. So I've only been back in Austin a few years. I did see him not too long ago. He sounded great. He sounded fantastic.


LC: Which leads me to my next question. You just mentioned doing collaborations in the future. And I was wondering if you might be like Beyonce and do a country album?


SUE: You never know. You never know. I mean, this album is pretty close to country music. It's been getting a lot of play on Americana and stuff.

 So, everything's pretty related and relatable, so you just never know.


LC: You wouldn't it rule out?


SUE: But I'm definitely open to it.


LC: Women like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, they wrote some great, timeless songs and paved the way for women in country and other music.


SUE: Oh, yeah! It's all the same to me. It's all good music.  It all relates to blues in so many ways. Yeah, it really does.



Photo: Roman Sobus (at SPACE, Evanston/ 4-17 2024)


LC: Thank you Sue, for taking the time for this interview. See you at SPACE!

 

About the Author: Linda Cain is the Founder/Managing Editor of Chicago Blues Guide.

 

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I am a fan of her, the works of Sue Foley are very good with the sound of the guitar.

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