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She's Got a Good Case of the Blues

Singer-Songwriter Sue Foley Transformed a Year of Emotional Trial Into Impressive Body of Work

February 28, 2001|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Echoes of Earl Hooker, Bessie Smith, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and other forebears of the blues filter through the canon of singer, songwriter and guitarist Sue Foley. But with her latest release, last year's "Love Comin' Down," the Canadian-born, Texas-bred musician makes great strides to move beyond her key influences.

Similar to how these legends parlayed their life experiences into art, Foley draws from personal upheaval in crafting a body of work with significant depth and revelation. The painful end of her marriage within a year of the birth of her son, Joseph, now 4, provides not only much of the album's lyrical fodder, but it ushers in a maturing voice all her own.

"I had spent the better part of 10 years on the road, and I was so out of it. . . . That lifestyle can just eat you up," said Foley, 32, from a tour stop in Portland, Ore. "Suddenly, after the breakup, I was this single parent, and I had so many emotions to sort through. Many of the new songs were totally an emotional release for me. That's the beautiful thing about the blues . . . when something nasty happens to you, you can turn it around into something constructive. I'm lucky to have this outlet."

Effectively stretching the boundaries of the blues, "Love Comin' Down"--her second release for Shanachie Records after four for the Austin, Texas-based Antone's label--incorporates a variety of Foley's other musical influences, which range from rock 'n' roll (the Stones, Deep Purple) to punk (the Clash, Sex Pistols) to jazz (Miles Davis). More a roots-oriented than straight blues album, the 12-song collection features a mix of styles and hybrids, including country blues, blues-rock, Southern-fried blues, R&B, pop and even flamenco.

Foley insists you can respect the blues without being a slave to it.

"The blues is about paying homage to the guys who paved the way, like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon," she said. "But at the same time, in their day, they were the innovators who were dangerous, loud, scary and moving forward. I'm not saying I'm here to change the blues or anything, but it'd be nice to see that kind of wildness, or at least some coloring outside of the lines. We can learn and borrow from the past, but we also need to add something to the legacy."

Defies Typecasting

Blessed with a slightly nasal voice that is sexy, vulnerable and rough, Foley defies typecasting. She can croon a slow, tender ballad (the Dobro-tinged "Let My Tears Fall Down"), belt out a defiant boogie number about reclaiming your power ("Let Me Drive") or offer something completely unexpected like the only recorded, female-sung version of "Same Thing," a sexually charged Willie Dixon tune made famous by Muddy Waters.

"Normally, I wouldn't touch a song like that. . . . Muddy sang it just beautifully," Foley said. "I'm not in to covering well-known songs, but I've never heard a woman do it, so I figured it would change the meaning slightly to offer the female perspective. It was really a challenge, but my thumbprints are all over it, and I think I breathed some new life into it."

As a teenager in Canada, Foley sang blues covers and songs made famous by Memphis Minnie, but she later blossomed under the wing of blues impresario Clifford Antone. Arriving in Austin in 1990, the auburn-haired, blue-eyed woman--then only 21--was at first intimidated by the thriving but tradition-minded, male-dominated scene. But after honing her chops routinely at Antone's nightclub, Foley found her self-confidence growing in surroundings she describes as "supportive and nurturing."

"There are these stereotypes out there . . . that only one gender or race can really play the blues," she said. "I'm white, female and Canadian, so according to that mind-set, that's three strikes, right? But music isn't about that. What I've found is that the best players don't judge you by that criteria or those boundaries. While I was in Texas, the other musicians pushed me to improve and treated me like one of them. It's about closing your eyes and listening--if the playing moves you, it moves you. Nothing else matters."

Foley is a dexterous guitarist, kicking out stinging riffs alongside slower-paced, warm tones and textures that seem to emanate from a deeper emotional place. Her well-placed solos communicate ideas while smartly working in service of the song rather than the ego.

"Whether you're writing songs, playing the guitar or singing your heart out, the thing about the blues is that the truth of the matter has to pour through--or you'll be exposed as a fraud," Foley said. "It's real music for people who've turned to the blues because they don't want to be fed the processed [music] that dominates today's airwaves."

"I'd be happy when I'm 75 to be just like Gatemouth Brown--a wicked guitarist and ornery," she added with a chuckle.

Balancing Demands

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