Lady Slings the Blues

From Ottawa to Austin, guitarslinger Sue Foley follows her blues muse

Sometimes the years of practice and perseverance, the putting up with crap from club owners and slacker sidemen, all come down to one defining moment: being in the right place at the right time. And baby, when that time comes, you better have the goods. Guitarslinger Sue Foley did.

In 1989 Foley accompanied California blues harpist Mark Hummel at the high-profile W.C. Handy Awards Show in Memphis. A big jam with infamous axman Duke Robillard followed. Record-producer/club-owner Clifford Antone was in the house. He was impressed. "He came up and introduced himself and said, 'Send me somethin','" Foley recalls in a yeah-I'm-still-in-bed-but-it's-okay-'cause-I'm-a-musician voice. "So I did and he called me right back and said, 'Why don't you come down here [Austin]?'"

After four years in the Texas music capital, Foley has just released her second album, Without a Warning, for Antone's, and predictably, it's a scorcher. Seven tough originals burn side by side with tunes by the likes of the great Magic Sam and a slowgrinder from Jerry Wes and Leslie Johnson. Although inspired by boogie players such as Earl Hooker -- to whom she pays homage on the original instrumental "Hooker Thing (Tribute to Earl)" -- and Freddie King, Foley has a style distinctly her own, shaded by her Texas heroes ("Stevie Ray had an incredible impact on every guitar player") as well as her Canadian roots.

Like four-fifths of the Band, Foley started out in the Great White North, catching some of the blues legends that blew through her native Ottawa, and eventually heading south to the source of the music she loved. At age sixteen Foley began trekking the frozen sidewalks of Ontario, six-string in hand, sitting in at whatever club would have her. And most bands had no problem allowing the underage Foley to step up and play. "I'm really lucky," she says. "I was never discouraged by anybody. Everybody just said, 'Keep doin' it.'"

Credit Mick and Keith with first painting Sue's canvas blue. "Once I got into the blues," she explains, "I kind of laid the Stones records aside for quite a number of years and just listened to black music. I might have become a bit of a snob about it for a while and said, 'You know, well, these guys discovered it and I'll only listen to them.' But now I like everything again. I enjoy the Stones as much as ever."

Foley remains true to her true-blues predecessors, even borrowing some picking and strumming techniques. Watch her hands during a live performance -- it's an education. "I like to use my fingers and I use a thumb pick," she says. "I got that off of watching Gatemouth Brown. I think he's got the most amazing technique I've ever seen. He's my very favorite living guitar player. I think he's just outrageous." Also like those who went before her -- notably Robert Johnson proteges Johnny Shines and Robert Jr. Lockwood -- Foley learned plenty from watching the hands of others. "I've been shown things from a lot of great players. I hang out and watch a lot."

Although Robert Johnson may have been more guarded with his guitar deviltry, Foley has found that her fellow musicians in Austin have been supportive. "It's kind of like a community of musicians," she says, "and they have a lot of great guitar players that you can watch and pick up sounds off of. It's not cutthroat." Austin is also rife with role models for a young woman coming up in the blues: Marcia Ball (also appearing at the Riverwalk this weekend), Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli. "I was really impressed with that," Sue says of her in-town mentors. "It's nice to have someone to refer to."

Tangential to Chicago or Delta blues, Texas is rich in its own musical tradition. "I just fell in love with the Texas sound of guitar," Foley says. "And as far as what I like about blues, I think they're doin' it down here more than in any other town. 'Cause I don't really like the real rocky, new Chicago style. It's not my bag. I'm more into the shuffles and the Jimmy Reed-style stuff. They really do that well down here." Foley fits right in with the Lone Star continuum that includes Lightnin' Hopkins and Johnny Clyde Copeland.

And don't even think about suggesting that women guitarists are "biologically inferior" -- as Juliana Hatfield did in a Rolling Stone article. "Well, shit! I'm a girl!" Foley protests indignantly. (And by the way, no, she's never heard of Hatfield.) "You don't need anything but a couple of hands and the will to do it. There's no biological dick that you have to have to play guitar."

When pressed for a reason more women don't go for the Gibson, Foley relies on a Freudian-Hendrixian interpretation. "The guitar is kind of a phallic symbol. A lot of women don't want to sit up there and stroke a guitar like a phallic symbol," she chuckles. "It's sexual and there's something about it and a lot of women are afraid to just dig into a guitar. They're not encouraged to -- there's not a lot of role models. And the ones that there are are kinda hidden. Except for Bonnie Raitt." Nonetheless revelation of the Hatfield comment still rankles. "That girl, whoever she is, should just shut up."

The East Coast tour behind Warning will be just one week old by the time Foley and her tour band -- Jon Penner on bass, Fredd E "Pharaoh" Walden on drums -- hit the Riverwalk. Fans and soon-to-be-fans await stops in New York, Maine, Boston. Yeah, she's still young, but Sue Foley appreciates how far she's come in a decade. "To play an instrument well," she says after pausing to think about it, "you really have to be driven by it. You have to give up a lot of stuff. I mean, I had no social life ever. Until I started gigging. And then everything bloomed. But when I was first practicing, I'd just stay in my room and play. And that's what I wanted to do. And it paid off. Big time."

Sue Foley performs at the Riverwalk Blues Festival at Bubier Park, Las Olas Boulevard and Andrews Avenue, Ft Lauderdale, at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, 761-5813. Admission for the festival is $10, or $25 for a three-day pass.

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