Telecaster Sovereign Sue Foley Lands Back in Austin
The Ice Queen is on fire
A maple Telecaster with multicolored paisley, Sue Foley's signature guitar bears splintered chips of pink that give way to the wood underneath.
"I've had that guitar since 1989," she nods.
A year later in 1990, upon Clifford Antone's invitation, the Northerner touched down in Austin, helping usher in a new era of torchbearers for the blues city reeling from the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the end of Jimmie Vaughan's reign in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Foley quickly proved her mettle with 1992 debut Young Girl Blues and the breakout Big City Blues in 1995, joining the ranks of blues royalty like Barbara Lynn and Marcia Ball on the Antone's label.
After eight years, Foley moved back to her native Canada. Recording multiple albums including Love Comin' Down (2000) and New Used Car (2006), she also became a mother, a professor at Catawba College in North Carolina, and began long-term book project Guitar Woman on the history of women guitarists. Austin, meanwhile, suffered the sudden demise of Clifford Antone in 2006 and a decline in blues that culminated with the two-year shuttering of his nightclub in 2014.
Now Foley, 50 next month, comes full circle as she makes plans to move back to Austin and drops newest album The Ice Queen. Accompanied by heavyweight Texans Jimmie Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, and Charlie Sexton, she cries blues laments ("The Ice Queen"), brassy R&B ("If I Have Forsaken You"), and flamenco ("The Dance").
Austin Chronicle: In 2015, you had a group of songs when you moved back to Canada from North Carolina. Why record them in Austin?
Sue Foley: Just kind of a fluke. I was in limbo as far as what I wanted to do back to Canada. Then randomly, Mike [Flanigin] contacted me. We were friends 25 years ago and came from the same social group at Antone's. We were all of Clifford's kids. Mike told me about how Antone's opened again [in 2016] and how I should come back and play. I was surprised, and I looked him up just to see what he was up to.
I found out he put out this album The Drifter, and I really dug it. I missed this whole block of time where he became a virtuoso on the B-3 organ [see "The Drifter," Aug. 14, 2015]. I told him great job on the album and he said, "What are you up to? You should come back to Austin." I told him I'd been writing songs and I played him some, and he said I should come to Austin to record them. I realized then that I hadn't made a solo album in over a decade and it just seemed right to go back.
AC: So you returned.
SF: I missed it a lot. I believe people in Austin really take things for granted, and I want to put that on record. There's a sound and a history here that's not anywhere else. I played and toured in Canada, but I got a specific kind of training and playing that's only done here.
AC: How did it feel becoming integral to the blues scene of Nineties Austin?
SF: Cinderella. I came from Canada, which in the blues world is essentially nowhere. And being female, I was a cat among dogs. Albert Collins was one of the guys that blew me away more than anybody though. That's another play on the title The Ice Queen. I play a Tele and so did Albert, who was called the Iceman. I always associate the Telecaster with him.
AC: The shape of a Tele is my favorite.
SF: It's a really good shape for women. Strats feel huge for my small body. At my height, forget it. It's like more guitar than me.
AC: On your first weekend in Austin, Clifford Antone put you up onstage with the Iceman.
SF: Clifford would do this thing every night that when the show ended he'd look at everyone who was there and tell them to get up onstage. He would not shut the bar down for anybody's business. If the show finished at quarter to 2, he'd be like, "Who's here? Sue, Doyle Bramhall, get up there and play." He'd get up with his bass and we'd play as long as the crowd was there.
That night, Albert Collins taught me how to shoot dice. I was like 21. That was actually cooler than sitting in with him. Imagine that, I had like $20 and he took it from me. He was like, "Don't you dice with the master."
AC: How did you hear about Austin initially?
SF: I saw an Antone's roadshow come through Vancouver with Angela Strehli, George Rains, Denny Freeman, and Chicago blues from Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, and James Cotton. I was like, "I have to go see what's happening in Austin." I knew the T-birds and Stevie Ray was huge too, but there was this other scene that was mythical. I was a young little Canadian dork. Nobody gave a crap about me.
AC: So you went from a Canadian dork to shooting dice with Albert Collins in no time flat.
SF: Not to sound corny, but it was meant to be. I wished it so hard and I loved it so much that it came true. After Angela told Clifford about me, I ran into Clifford and he told me to send him some stuff. Then I got off the road after touring a year straight and took some time off on the coast of Vancouver. A week later Clifford called, "Hey what are you doing?" I was like, "Nothing." He said, "You want to come to Austin?" and of course I said yeah. He says, "When?" and I said, "Tomorrow." We always laughed about that.
AC: On Big City Blues, you sounded so in your element.
SF: I just enjoyed playing guitar. I could shut people down with it more than I could with my voice. It's power and it's fantastic. Playing electric guitar is fucking awesome, and that's why more women are doing it.
AC: You've interviewed all these Guitar Women for your book. What do women offer to guitar that men don't?
SF: If I play with all women, I notice a complete difference, like maybe a little bit more receptiveness. It's scientifically proven women hear better. I was reading books about gender, trying to find a common thread for Guitar Woman. I interviewed so many people, from different cultures, ages, styles of music, and types of women, too: gay, straight, old, young, married, unmarried, mothers, or childless. I couldn't quite find a thread except that we were all female. It was hard, but I know that when I play with women, they're a little more supportive and less aggressive and competitive.
With a guy, you go up against them, and I don't mind it. I like to do that, too. I don't mind being aggressive or competitive. But I play with wonderful women musicians like Carolyn Wonderland and Cindy Cashdollar. They'd do a rippin' solo and they'd look at me like, "All right, your turn," and I'm like, "Ah man, I have to do that, too." At the end of it all they're like, "You sounded great too!" It didn't feel like, "I'm gonna cut your ass."
AC: You're not flashy in your soloing. With Stevie Ray, there's this flourish, but on the other side of the blues, there's rhythm and pulling back.
SF: I love Stevie Ray, but Jimmie was just the dude. Jimmie is just the man of pulling back, and not showing all your cards, and not giving it all away. In fact, like maybe don't give it away at all. He's so enigmatic. I watched Jimmie so many times and it felt like his philosophy. And everyone in the world reveres Jimmie Vaughan. My approach has stemmed from watching people like him.
AC: When did you first see him play?
SF: I saw the T-birds in Canada when I was 15, and I don't think I was the same ever since. I saw Jimmie Vaughan, Albert Collins, Lou Ann Barton, and Angela Strehli in the formative years of my life when I really needed it. I hate to focus on people in just Austin, but it's true when I say you can't find anything in Austin anywhere else. That's what I mean by taking Austin for granted. You can see Jimmie Vaughan almost every weekend at C-Boy's for $15. Nowadays, that's the cost for a smoothie, but I'd rather see Jimmie Vaughan. This is a gift, and he was huge for us and the city.
AC: Jimmie duets with you on the new album via "The Lucky Ones," which reminded me that some people who were in Austin in the Nineties aren't here anymore.
SF: Jimmie was able to get into that song right away. The words I wrote, "Walking through the flames and we're still standing," when he heard them he was like, "Yeah, I want to sing that line." I think it resonated with him. The beat sounds happy, but it can also be bittersweet about we're still here. We're still going and we're still lucky to do this.
And yet, it's actually written about me and Mike Flanigin, because Mike and I felt that even though we drifted apart for a while, our lives ran parallel to each other. He had been through a divorce and wrote The Drifter, and I was in this situation where I went through a huge breakup and now I'm making The Ice Queen. We were talking about how lucky we were to still be playing. Mike brought Jimmie into singing it with me. It also has a little to do with the fact that we're both Irish and the shamrock, so we're the lucky ones.
AC: The title track seems to be about this badass, but it's a really sad song.
SF: Yeah, it's a sad song. It's about someone who got their heart broken and can't relate to the world or intimacy anymore. I mean who doesn't experience that? A lot of people judge bitchy women and they'll say, "She's a fucking ice queen," but what is it that cut them off and what's that story? I know a lot of women that vibe on that song because women my age have been through some shit. So I think that's where you have to be compassionate, because they could possibly be really sweet inside.
AC: You nabbed Billy Gibbons for "Fool's Gold." What's it like working with him in addition to joining his annual Jungle Show at Antone's?
SF: What a dream come true that was and what an incredible musician. Mike was working with Jimmie and Billy, so he brought them into the fold. Like how I lucked my way into coming back to Austin, I lucked my way into the Jungle Show. Billy needed an extra vocalist and I just happened to be like, "Hey, I'm here! I'm all right, I'm good!" So we hung out with Billy and then started doing the record right after the Jungle Show last year. Billy heard about it and knew that Mike was doing it, so he wanted to get on board.
AC: You close The Ice Queen with the Carter Family's "Cannonball Blues." Why that song?
SF: We were just cutting tunes and I was doing some acoustic songs. I had that take of "Cannonball," and I was just screwing around. I love Maybelle Carter. I think she's the most influential woman guitar player ever. Her scope is massive, and that's not to say anything about Rosetta Tharpe or Memphis Minnie. Actually, Memphis Minnie is my favorite guitar player.
Jimmie Vaughan, Charlie Sexton, Mike Flanigin, and more join Sue Foley for her album release at Antone’s on Thursday, March 1. She encores Friday, March 2, with an acoustic performance at the Cactus Cafe, and topping off the run is a Waterloo Records in-store Sunday, March 4.