Calgary Bluesfest (2009)
With the May 2007 release of Time bomb, a collaboration CD with fellow
Canadian Roxanne Potvin and American blues guitar heroine Deborah Coleman,
powerhouse singer/songwriter/guitarist, Sue Foley has once again solidified her
place as one of the leading lights of the contemporary blues scene.
Time bomb’s release comes only a year after Foley’s critically acclaimed 10th studio album, New Used Car, the most accomplished and accessible album of her career, featuring Sue’s smooth purr-to-growl vocal style wrapped around original songs, punctuated by her biting, shiver-inducing lead guitar work. She wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 12 tunes on the disc. “I feel this is the best songwriting I’ve done in my life – the songs just developed so naturally and seemed to write themselves,” says Foley, “it was a remarkable process and it is the strongest work and most satisfying album yet.”
Born and raised in Ottawa Canada, Foley hails from a large, music-loving,
working-class family. In her early years, she sang with her father, who loved to play Celtic folk songs while her brothers were in bands hammering out the hard rock covers of the 1970s. Her love of the Rolling Stones and other blues rock bands found Sue checking song writing credits on the albums, where the names like Willie Dixon, McKinley Morganfield and Chuck Berry were found, leading to her study and appreciation of the blues. For her thirteenth birthday, she received her first guitar - “it was my saving grace,” she says, and locked herself in her room until she learned how to play. At age sixteen she was gigging around Ottawa clubs, at eighteen she left home for Vancouver, British Columbia, with
nothing more than a small suitcase and her guitar.
With determined drive and talent to burn, her first band built a following playing every club in Vancouver. Word spread quickly about the young girl with a wicked guitar style and unique voice – playing blues tunes and her own unique songs. Soon Foley was out on the road playing across Canada to enthusiastic audiences. An offer to back blues Harmonica whiz Mark Hummel found Foley and her band touring the US and Canada in tandem. During her first trip to Memphis for the Handy Awards, a fated evening’s jam found her trading licks with renowned guitar icon Duke Robillard. In the audience was Austin, Texas’
blues club and record label owner Clifford Antone.
An offer came from Antone to record an album and play his hallowed nightclub – the regular haunt of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton – Foley jumped, immediately relocating from Canada. “Going to Austin had been a dream of mine I was so inspired by living and breathing the air there that I stayed for close to seven years and recorded four albums for Antone's Records.” Released in 1992, debut album Young Girl Blues set Foley’s extraordinary vocal character beside her already stunning guitar abilities. It was a solid debut, garnering critical acclaim from the press and radio. Her live performances also drew the amazement of the press. “After one
performance,” said Billboard, “she left the audience flabbergasted.”
She remained based in Austin, released Without A Warning in 1993 and Big City Blues in 1995, all while touring extensively, including overseas to Europe and Japan. And the praise flooded in. “Echoes of Earl Hooker, Bessie Smith, T- Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and other forebears of the blues filter through the cannon of singer, songwriter and guitarist Sue Foley,” said the Los Angeles Times. When she wasn’t on the road, she was over at Antone’s hanging out – “I was there every night, sitting in with everyone in town, and all the artists who would come down for the anniversaries.” She was soon sharing the stage and opening up for the likes of Buddy Guy, Tom Petty, George Thorogood, Joe Cocker, Koko Taylor. By the time she recorded 1996’s Walk in the Sun, Foley came fully into her own songwriting style. “I had to start crossing musical barriers and stop being compelled to stay within the boundaries of the blues, and stretch out.”
1997 was a year of change. Ten years of touring had worn her down. Her music career was put on hold as she decided to become a mother, and moved back to Canada to be near to her family. She later remarked, “I stopped and decided what I wanted – having a child, learning about life – a lot of that put things back in perspective.” A year later she was back in action, releasing 1998’s Ten Days in November on the Shanachie label to continued critical and commercial success. Touring took backseat to motherhood, but she still hit out for selected dates and weekenders and enjoyed a high profile on the summer festival circuit.
The year 2000 brought two new releases – most importantly the Shanachie title
Love Comin’ Down, which resulted in her winning a Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy) for Best Blues Album. She also swept the nation’s Maple Blues Awards, winning an amazing five trophies for Recording of The Year, Songwriter of The Year, Entertainer of The Year, Guitarist of The Year, Female Vocalist of The Year. France’s blues music award, 2000’s Trophee de Blues de France was bestowed on Foley for Best Female Guitarist. Britain’s MOJO magazine honored Love Comin’ Down as one of the top 10 releases of the year. The Philadelphia Inquirer remarked, “Foley has already transcended
her influences to develop an absolutely riveting voice of her own.” Her live performance profile heightened as she opened for BB King, John Lee Hooker among others. 2000 also found the resurrected Antone’s label (now owned by the Texas Music Group) releasing Back to the Blues, a compilation of unreleased songs recorded during her 1990-1996 Antone’s years.
2002’s Where the Action Is marked another highly praised recording and Foley again swept Canada’s Maple Blues Awards, bringing home five more trophies, including Recording of The Year. She was nominated for a prestigious WC Handy Entertainer of The Year Award. Downbeat Magazine said, “The real action comes when she sets down her Telecaster and picks up her acoustic guitar to make the time hallowed ‘Down The Big Road Blues’ her own.” The Hartford Advocate chimed in, “Foley digs deep into her vocal range and wrings it for all it’s worth.”
In 2003, a live performance in Toronto was recorded – with a stripped down band, the mostly acoustic show was an electrifying example of Sue Foley’s live performance prowess. The intimate and remarkable recording proved so excellent, it was released in the US and Europe in 2004 by Ruf Records and named simply Change. “We did it on the fly without rehearsing,” said Foley, “I was playing from memory and trying out songs I’d just written, and of course the songs I love to play at home.” Once again, the accolades came pouring in. The Philadelphia Inquirer stated “Foley has a killer voice – an impossibly alluring
blend of sex and innocence to go with those blazing guitar chops.” The Detroit Free Press added, “If you’re amongst those folks who get bored with the same 12 bars, this is your kind of action.”
With the completion of the Change, Foley turned her attention to a project she started in the late 1990’s, when researching women guitar players. Having been inspired in her teen years by the work of Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharp and Elizabeth Cotton, among other influential guitarists, she decided to document the relationship of the woman guitar player - from past to present and beyond. “I thought I would research this and looked around to find that there was little to no documentation it looked like the entire chapter had been excluded on purpose, or to be more polite, maybe just overlooked,” comments Foley. She decided to start work on a book – researching female musicians of the past and interviewing many contemporary guitarists. The book is still in the works and there are also
plans for tours and a documentary. “It’s almost like a new mythology for me,” she comments, “the lives of these women are unique and inspiring. Seeing as there’s no solid literature on women guitarists, I feel an obligation to share their stories with the rest of the world.” (see www.guitarwoman.com for more information)
As an aside to the book project, Foley co-produced and wrote extensive liner notes to the Ruf Records album Blues Guitar Women, released in late 2005. The compilation features two CDs, one featuring contemporary artists and the second featuring traditional players. Foley appeared on the nationally syndicated House of Blues Radio Hour touting the release and her research. The All Music Guide noted of the title “from originals to blues standards, there’s something for everyone here. What’s most surprising is how little known so many of these fine performers are, and the way the heritage gets passed down, guitar to guitar for
over 70 years.”
Sue Foley’s commitment to music is more intense now than when she first hit the road as a teenager. She continues to prove that she is one of the most creative and intriguing artists on the touring circuit and affirms her rising star burns as bright as ever.