Interview: Sue Foley

KGNU’s Joanne Cole speaks with blues artist Sue Foley about her new release, “One Guitar Woman: A Tribute to the Female Pioneers of the Guitar”. Sue shares her journey to becoming a blues guitarist, influenced by her family and the rock music of the 70s. She talks about her extensive research on a few of the female guitar pioneers who paved the way.

Joanne Cole: Welcome to KGNU, Sue. How are you? This is a new release. Let me grab it. It’s really cool.

It’s called One Guitar Woman: A Tribute to the Female Pioneers of the Guitar. We just heard that one “In My Girlish Days”. Who made that one famous, Sue?

Sue Foley: That’s a Memphis Minnie song. She’s a blues icon. Great blues artist, great guitar player. She’s my hero because I’m known as a blues artist. Learning about Memphis Minnie meant a whole lot to me when I was a young girl, trying to figure out how to be a blues guitar player. She had already done it in the 30s and 40s and into the 50s.

Joanne Cole: Obviously, I need to do a little bit more learning about Memphis Minnie. I don’t know anything about you, Sue, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to play the guitar and how you came to blues?

Sue Foley: Sure, I’m actually originally from Canada. I live in Austin, Texas now. I’ve been based out of Austin for a long time. But I’m from Canada originally and grew up in a family of guitar players. My dad and my three older brothers all played guitar. My dad was into Irish and country music, but my brothers were all into that hard rock, heavy guitar music: Zeppelin and Cream and ZZ Top and all that, what’s known as Guitar God music from the 70’s.

I grew up in that, and I was always musical. I knew I’d be a musician. I figured it would be guitar, because that’s what we did but I was always looking for the women who played. And I wanted to see the women playing like the guys played, I was always curious about that, and I wanted to be one of those women.

My journey in life was to be a guitar player like that. And I have become that and the blues was my way, it was my method and my genre I loved the most. So I’ve just made my life as a lead guitar player and this project is the work of a few decades of research and studying different guitar styles from blues to Piedmont folk, fingerpicking, to country, to honor people like Maybelle Carter and Elizabeth Cotten.

Even some more obscure artists like Ida Presti, who was a great classical musician, one of the first female classical guitar players that really made a mark in the classical world.

Joanne Cole: When we leave this interview, Sue, I’m going to play the “Malaguena” that you do, because it’s one of my favorite songs.

I want to hear you play it, because I love that song. So you’ve been at this for quite some time. How many years?

Sue Foley: I’ve been at this a long time. My first album, Young Girl Blues, came out, and that was recorded here in Austin, on Antone’s, so that was a pretty historic well known blues label. I came down from Canada to Austin because the blues scene was so rich here and I really wanted to be part of it. My first album, Young Girl Blues, came out in 1992, so I’ve been at it a while, and we’ve been on tour the whole time and of course we’re coming up to Colorado.

Joanne Cole: Where are you right now?

Sue Foley: Right now I’m at home in Texas. I’ve got gigs, I’ve got local, regional gigs this week and then next week we start out in Utah and then we go to Denver Monday the 17th at HQ. And we’re playing Grand Junction.

Joanne Cole: Yeah, on the 16th, and we want to give a plug.

For all those Western Colorado fans that are listening, perhaps, online, you’ll be in Grand Junction at the Mesa Theatre on June 16th. And then the following day, here in Denver, at a place called HQ. Which I have not been to, but it’s located at 60 South Broadway.

I’m sure over the years you’ve visited Denver and it’s quite lovely right now. We are having a heat wave, but hopefully that will break and it’ll be a beautiful early summer for you while you’re here. And we’re going to give a pair of tickets away, Sue, to that show.

You mentioned some of the people on here, some of my favorites like Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

And how did you make the cut for only 12 people to go on this?

Sue Foley: This is pioneering women, and there’s not that many. Let’s be honest. There’s a few more I could have added to the mix, but I really picked it because it’s a solo album. So I really wanted traditional music that could be played for solo guitar.

So there’s classical pieces, there’s some fingerpicking folk music. There’s Maybelle Carter’s Curtis Scratch. I really wanted to dig into their style. But these are sort of seminal figures in the guitar world and it’s not just because they were women.

They were historically really important figures in their genres and in their cultures. And there’s different cultures represented. Lydia Mendoza, I do a song of hers. She’s a famous Tejano Mexican immigrant. Tejano artists are also really important, especially in Texas.

Joanne Cole: Indeed. And, I don’t know anything about Geeshie Wiley, but that came upon me one time, digging into music and things like that. What can you tell us about her?

Sue Foley: Geeshie Wiley is, these are the two more obscure outliers: Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. They only recorded six songs between them.

They’re pretty obscure, but the two songs I picked for this album are actually really important pieces of work that they left behind, and have been covered by many artists, especially the Geeshie Wiley track. Geeshie wasn’t her real name. These two traveled around in the 20s, and they traveled up from Texas in the south, all the way up to Wisconsin to record for Paramount.

These two black women traveling together, recording on each other’s pieces. They both played guitar and wrote their own songs, which is really interesting, but Geeshie wasn’t her real name and apparently there’s a mystery around Geeshie.

Elvie Thomas was interviewed once and talked about those days. It’s a little mysterious what they were up to. Geeshie might have been on the run for a stabbing incident, they said, maybe.

Joanne Cole: Interesting. Later in the show, I thought, oh, it’s Pride Month.

Maybe I should do an hour of gay and homosexual blues performers. It turns out they’re all women and very few men. 

Our guest is Sue Foley. Her newest CD is titled One Guitar Woman. She’s going to be in Grand Junction on the 16th and Denver on the 17th.

Thank you, Sue, so much for taking time out of your busy day and joining us. It is an important piece of work and I’m so glad you’re out there shining the light on women performers and all that we do in this world.

Sue Foley: Thanks very much. And I’ll remind people if they do come out, I’m going to be doing some of their one-woman guitar stuff, acoustic. 

But I also have my band. So we will also be rocking it like we like to do.

Joanne Cole: Is there anything else you want to leave our audience with tonight, Sue, while we got you on the phone?

Sue Foley: No, nothing, but thanks for the chat. And I’m looking forward to coming back to Colorado.

Joanne Cole: Excellent. Our guest, Sue Foley, performing on the 17th. So Sue, I’m going to let you go and we’ll do this ticket giveaway, but thank you so much for joining us tonight and it’ll be a great gig on June 17th at the HQ in Denver. Sue Foley, One Guitar Woman right here on KGNU. Thanks Sue.

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