Sue Foley thinks Memphis Minnie was like the female Robert Johnson

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 19, 2001

When she was just 21 years old, Ottawa native Sue Foley moved to Austin, Texas, to be where a promising blues artist oughta be. She made her mark down there, being taken under the wing of local blues mogul Clifford Antone, playing her butt off with some of the top bluesmen around, and releasing four albums on the Antone’s label.

Three years ago she returned to Ottawa, and although that move did separate her from the fabled roots mecca, it also brought her closer to Colin Linden, the Toronto-based musician and producer. He helmed Foley’s latest CD, Love Comin’ Down, and it’s been rave reviews and awards ever since.

“I’ve known Colin since I was about 16,” says Foley from her Ottawa home. “We just sort of hit up a camaraderie in a way. I’ve watched his career, and I think he’s been watching mine, so when his name came up to produce it was like a light goin’ off in my head.”

As well as garnering five of the 16 prizes at this year’s Maple Blues Awards—an annual event organized by the Toronto Blues Society—Love Comin’ Down took the 2000 Juno Award for best blues album. The previous year another Linden-produced disc, Ray Bonneville’s Gust of Wind, took the same honour. Coincidentally, Bonneville and Foley cowrote two tunes on her CD, one, “Empty Cup”, being Foley’s personal fave. “That’s the only cowriting thing I’ve ever done that really worked out,” she points out. “It’s on the playlist at my house a lot.”

One of the reasons Foley is so enchanted by “Empty Cup” is that it includes background vocals by acclaimed Nashville singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. Turns out that Linden, who’s been commuting between Toronto and Music City, USA, had done some recording projects with Williams, and brought up the idea. Foley wasn’t about to let it slip by. “I’m a huge fan of hers,” she raves. “I just saw her in Montreal about two weeks ago, and she’s a very profound artist, you know. She’s just profound—that’s all I can say.”

While Foley’s wild about Williams, her favourite artist of all time is Memphis Minnie, a trailblazing singer-songwriter and guitar ace who recorded back in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. “She played lead guitar and she wrote all her own songs,” explains Foley. “She travelled around, she played with the guys, she was tough. When I first heard her I was about 16, and she struck me as like the female Robert Johnson.”

As well as that of Memphis Minnie, Foley has studied the guitar styles of Sister Rosetta Tharp and Elizabeth Cotton over the years. She’s also been pursuing flamenco guitar, “off and on”, and thus was able to pull off some nice nylon-string guitar-playing on her current disc’s “Mediterranean Breakfast”. “That song is just a little taste of the [flamenco] sound,” she points out, “it’s not flamenco by any means. What I was trying to do with the flamenco study is apply some of the techniques to my blues playing, and mix the genres together, ’cause they actually are very complementary.”

Apart from the dobro and slide-guitar work, which was handled by Linden, Foley performed all the guitar solos on Love Comin’ Down herself. “I think it’s great to be a player,” she relates. “For me, if I was to give advice to any upstart, like a female singer or somebody who wanted to enter into the business, I’d say definitely play an instrument. It enhances your ability to communicate musically with other people in the band, and it also gives you a lot of respect.”

Foley will be up there earning regard at the Burnaby Blues Festival at Deer Lake on Saturday (July 21), in the formidable guitar-playing company of Joe Louis Walker, Big Bill Morganfield, Duke Robillard, and Colin James. And you can bet she’ll be holding her own. “When I really want to get down to brass tacks and express myself as deeply as I can,” she says, “I do it with my guitar. I write and sing as well, but when it comes down to really layin’ into it, it’s my guitar that talks, you know. Yeah.”

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