Blues singer/guitarist Sue Foley's Pinky's Blues is a cohesive tribute to the Texas blues masters. One that came together without a lot of deliberation.
"It was sort of off the cuff," Foley says. She and producer/organist Mike Flanigin had previously gone into the studio to see what happens, resulting in Flanigin's 2020 West Texas Blues. Foley liked the approach and decided to use it for her own album. "We went into the studio fairly suddenly and just brought in tunes that we liked, so I didn't actually write that many tunes," she recalls. "When I say suddenly, I mean without a lot of preconceived thought, like I said, 'Okay, let's go in the studio and do something; see what happens.' And we're really happy with the results."
Beyond that, there wasn't a formal process for making the album. Foley wrote three songs, including "Dallas Man," a laid-back blues. "'Dallas Man' is pretty conceptual, and it was based around all those great guitar players from Dallas that I love, like T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Frankie Lee Sims, Jimmy Vaughan, and Stevie Vaughan." The rest of the tracks are covers highlighting lesser-known-beyond-Texas blues artists, like the aforementioned Sims, as well as Lavelle White and Jimmy Donley. Foley reaches for deep cuts.
And while the recording wasn't forced, Foley entered the studio with a plan. "When you go ahead and you're paying for studio time, and it's $500 to $1,000 a day and you've got all your gear in there and you're paying musicians—good musicians—and they're showing up, you better know what you're doing," she says. "I don't tell the band members what to play, but I hire band members for who they are and how they play. And I trust them. And then there's just minor tweaking, when we're actually playing in time, we might listen back and go, 'Well, maybe try this.'"
When Foley says her band members know what they're doing, she's serious. Jimmy Vaughan plays rhythm on "Hurricane Girl," another Foley original, and Chris Layton, beloved drummer for Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble, played on the entire album. Reaching back to the people and songs that shaped Foley's musical evolution, it would be easy for her to lose herself, either to reverie or deference, but the strength of Pinky's Blues is how much Foley's unique voice comes through. Her tone is just about as big as Texas, giving her a presence on every track. And her playing is electric and tasteful. Even without the vocals, you recognize Foley in a few measures.
Foley sounds pure Texas, but is actually Canadian, coming down to Austin at age 21, with the legendary Clifford Antone, owner of the legendary Antone's blues club, as well as a record label, taking her under his wing. She wound up back in Canada in 2015, but subsequently felt the gravitational pull of the Lone Star State, boomeranging back to Texas. Even if Foley's birth certificate or tax returns don't indicate Texas, every sonic inch of her music does. She's connected to the region in a way that transcends paperwork.
In this interview, Foley discusses the making of Pinky's Blues, as well as how she selects covers. And while Foley didn't write the majority of Pinky's Blues, she still has a lot to say about songwriting, and what makes a strong song and lick. Perhaps because she's not from Texas, and had a bit of an indoctrination into its special strain of blues, it makes her effective at articulating what causes a blues song work, and why some leave you feeling empty.
Working Mojo: What was your process for choosing the covers? I thought they were very well-selected.
Sue Foley: We started digging into a lot of the Texas blues stuff that we were kind of reared on. I guess I could say that because Mike Flanigin and I go all the way back to our early days at Antone's and my early days at Antone's Records, we're old friends. We were schooled on the same stuff, that Frankie Lee Sims, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. People like Angela Strehli, who wrote a couple of the songs on the album. She was somebody I saw a lot and really loved and admired. Same with Lavelle White, whose song ["Stop These Teardrops"] is on there.
The Lillie Mae Donley song, "Think It Over, is actually a Jimmy Donley song, but it's credited to his wife. He's a swamp pop artist that Clifford Antone had [told me about]. It's all stuff we started digging back into and that was more the thing. I just wanted to pick really strong songs and stuff that we liked, and I was like 'Hey, let's try this.' And the things that worked really well, we just went with.
WM: You mentioned some of those earlier songs. To me it felt like almost like an album within an album: 50s stuff, but also the more familiar blues. Was that a thread as you were recording and thinking about the songs?
Foley: Well, it wasn't necessarily a 50s thing. It was more of a Texas/Florida/Louisiana thing. So it was more like, Frankie Lee Sims, a well-known Texas blues guitar player—well-known in certain circles, I should say [laughs]. But Lavelle White, she's out of Houston, and Jimmy Donley's right down there from Louisiana, the Gulf Coast. So I think it was more of a regional thing than an actual time stamp.
WM: How about playing with Jimmy Vaughn and Chris Layton? Did that impact the writing or the covers that you were thinking about?
Foley: Not as much. Jimmy guested on the one song, on "Hurricane Girl." We needed a little extra rhythm guitar on that. And Chris Layton, I guess the way it would factor with him is he's one of the greatest blues and blues rock drummers alive. So if you're going to call in big guns on that kind of stuff, I mean, calling Chris Layton, if you want to Texas blues, you want Texas blues rock, he is the best.
WM: And what what makes him that good?
Foley: Well he's been doing it a long time. He's played at a really high level for a long time. The thing that people don't always remember, but I remember it because [of] being from Canada, when Stevie Ray Vaugahn broke out in the mid 80s, I was just discovering [this music], and he turned the whole scene on its head. It was Stevie. And then the Fabulous Thunderbirds came up, pretty much close to that time, too, so the two Vaughan brothers. But from Canada, and all over the world, this sound resonated, and there was a new blues sound out of that.
So, they invented that, [and] Chris had a hand in that. It's a real specific way of playing blues and blues rock, and drums, and blues shuffles, Texas shuffles, and I don't know where Chris got all his influences. I couldn't tell you that, but I do know that they were inventing something brand new. That's a huge thing. That's a big deal. For inventing a whole new sound right? In blues? Because blues is very traditional music. It comes from a long history of tradition, so that's very rare that you hear a new sound. And they did that.
WM: I was curious, because I just read the Stevie Ray Vaughan biography and one of the recurring themes, especially early in his career, is they're always telling him to get rid of his rhythm section, and that he can do better. Obviously Stevie felt differently, and so does everyone else now.
Foley: Yeah, I mean, Chris has got a ton of energy and he just hits really hard. He's in his 60s now, and he's just got this intensity, and you can hear it on the album; he doesn't let up. That's inspiring for me, like when you see somebody—he's a little older than us, and he's still playing with that intensity—it's very inspiring. But they did invent a style. And that's probably why Stevie didn't want to lose both guys [including bassist Tommy Shannon], because they all invented that together.
WM: You were saying before, that the blues is so established. How do you personally find something new to say within that?
Foley: Well, I think that's why I'm so enamored with this genre of music, and so enamored with this journey, because it's really hard to do that, right? It's hard to do your own thing in the blues. Because you are in a traditional mode here, or you're in a box in a way. How do you establish yourself within that framework?
I think I've written some really good blues that talk about my own experience and my own story. And I think that's where you kind of jump off your heroes: 'What's my blues? What's my story? What am I [going to] say?' I think it's a really cool challenge. That's why I stay really inspired by it. It's always really cool that you can keep going into the same well, and finding these things, and figuring [things] out, and you learn a lot about yourself, because blues has to be honest, right?
You can't even get across to an audience. You might try and you think, but then you're like, 'Well, I'm not really getting across.' Well, maybe you're not being completely honest to the audience. They pick up on that. So you kind of have to be honest, and you learn a lot about yourself in the process. It's really cool. It's the whole philosophy, the whole thing.
WM: When you talk about honesty, do you mean lyrically or musically or both?
Foley: I mean both, but lyrically especially because if you sing words that are dishonest, I really think people know. I feel like I know. I can tell if I see an artist sing something, I'm like, 'Yeah, you didn't go through that. You do not know what you're talking about. You shouldn't be singing that.'
You should always keep your words really pure. They should tell your story, not somebody else's. So that's a big jumping off place where you can jump off from your heroes, or you pick material that you can really sink your teeth into.
WM: Does that factor into how you choose covers?
Foley: Yeah, absolutely. And I knew that a long time ago, you have to be able to somehow live by those lyrics, like, find yourself in there, in that situation. Or have the level of empathy, or usually what's even better is the actual life experience that you can say, 'Yeah. I've been through this. I can tell this story.'
Which is why, for instance, I can tell Angela [Strehli's] story on "Two Bit Texas Town." That her story, but I felt like I could get in there and make it my own, because I had a similar experience in Texas. I didn't have the same experience she had, but her words resonated with me, and resonated with my experience coming to Austin and experiencing the blues from this place.
WM: And how about in terms of finding your guitar voice?
Foley: Well, I think that's just been time. I think it's just time honestly, and developing and thinking about it. I teach a little bit, I have a Patreon site that I started last year, and I kind of teach a bit, and I do these instructional videos. And that has also taught me again, how I learned and how I conceptualize this stuff, because I have to actually vocalize and explain it to somebody else, what I'm thinking.
But I really think listening to good stuff makes a huge difference. You've got to watch out what you listen to. I was really lucky. I had great mentors. Clifford Antone had excellent taste in music. And he said, 'Listen to this, this, and this, and you've got to check this out. You've got to hear this. What are you hearing? Listen to that,' you know, he'd be like 'Listen to that' and you'd be listening to a guitar solo or anything you know, piano or whatever. He'd be like, 'Just listen!'
You're deep listening and you've got to absorb it. First of all, you've got to listen to good stuff. And then again, it's the same with writing or expressing words or singing; you've got to somehow find your own story in there. But guitar? I don't know. It's not easy because there [are] so many great ones, right?
WM: And how about your singing voice? Is that something you work on too?
Foley: I have over the years, off and on. It's not a big priority for me right now. I feel comfortable where I'm at and I just kind of do what I do. I think the most important thing for me right now is getting the storyline right, and really being able to connect with people through the words I sing, and the words I write, how I play. And that all is sort of reflected in my story. But I've worked on my voice. I didn't really want to be a singer at first. I kind of was forced into it. I'm not sorry I did it, but it wasn't my number one priority. I really like being a guitar player [laughs].
The good stuff
WM: Do you remember anything Clifford recommended where you felt a switch flip?
Foley: Oh, yeah. A million things. He hipped me to that Jimmy Donley stuff, so that song "Think It Over," that I play on this album. He turned me on to Jimmy Donley. He was like 'You ever heard of swamp pop?' And I was like 'Swamp pop? No.' Well swamp pop is from the 50s and 60s in Louisiana, and they call it swamp pop because [of] these 50s-style rock and rollers, but they all had this Louisiana vibe. Bobby Charles, Jimmy Donley, and all these guys, and so he hipped me to that. He hipped me to a lot of stuff.
One of the greatest things he hipped me to was this Chess compilation album called Drop Down Mama. It's one of the most lowdown albums you'll ever hear. You can see it on YouTube or you may even be able to still buy it. It's Johnny Shines and Robert Nighthawk and all these guys on [it]. It's very, very low down early blues and there's a song by Robert Nighthawk, "Anna Lee," and of course I recorded "Jimmy Lee," but that song "Anna Lee," that original by Robert Nighthawk, and that guitar solo, that is haunting. That will stay with you forever. And Clifford showed me that. But he showed me a million things, but that thing stands out to me because [of] that guitar solo on Robert Nighthawk's "Anna Lee." That guitar solo is insane.
WM: What's so insane about it?
Foley: Well, it's insane because he only plays one riff the whole time and he keeps going back to that one riff and he keeps digging deeper every time he goes back and it just gets deeper and deeper and more intense and you realize he's not gyrating all over the neck, it's not like pyrotechnical.
Some people might hear it and just think, 'Oh, it's boring,' but noooo! It's really deep and he keeps digging deeper and it shows you some really main principles of blues guitar playing: The tone. The sound. The intention. The depth. The digging for your deepest place. He's making the guitar cry. It's a wild ride. That's one of my favorite guitar solos ever.
WM: Is it easier to get your story across when you're also singing as rather than just playing guitar?
Foley: Oh, yeah. Because not everybody relates to instrumentals. Some people relate to vocals. Some people related to words. A lot of people are drawn in by words. So yeah, I think it really helps. Definitely.
WM: Do you typically start a song with a lyrical idea? Or a musical idea? How does that work for you?
Foley: Different ways. I don't really have a set method. So sometimes it's just a line or a concept and I'll bounce around that. I write a lot from concepts.
Like "Hurricane Girl" for instance, is a concept. "Dallas Man" is a concept. "Dallas Man" was about those guys in Dallas and I was trying to figure out this Frank Lee Sims song, and I was coming up short. That's how I kind of got it. I was like, 'Awww. Those Dallas men, man. Dallas.' And I got that riff. Which was an idea that bounced off of a riff I was hearing him do, [but] that I wasn't quite getting. But then I wrote my own riff.
And "Hurricane Girl" is similar. There was a hurricane a few years ago, came through Austin, and it did a lot of damage, caused a lot of flooding. And I thought about that, I thought 'Wow, a hurricane,' and I thought about maybe a girl that would be destructive like that, that wants to go in and wreck somebody's life, and cause them a bunch of problems. So I thought about that. I get concepts when I write.
"The Ice Queen," that's another concept. I thought that's funny that people call people ice queens. And then I thought 'Well, I'm from Canada, and I love Albert Collins, he was the Iceman, I play a Telecaster [like Collins]. Kind of icy cool sometimes, and that's how I got that song.
WM: Do you need electric guitar tone to be there for you to write and to interpret or do you hear it in your head?
Foley: Well when I'm just playing at home I rarely plug in. I plug in a little bit but I developed my tone over years, the Fender guitar through the Fender amp with four 10-inch speakers, and then the rest is in your hands, right? So it's just a very pure approach to guitar playing. Less is more. Less effects is more. Less [effect] boxes.
Don't overwhelm yourself with boxes and effects; that ruins your tone. You want your tone to be pure or at least develop your tone first, before you add the effects. I really worked on tone because I was never super fast or super technical [laughs]. I learned a certain amount. I still try to learn a little as I go, but mostly what it's been, I learned this much, and then I really worked on getting my sound [together].
Tone is really important. And I've listened to all the tone masters as well, like Albert Collins, and Jimmy Vaughan, and Stevie, and Freddie King and so many. Tone is a whole thing. If your tone sucks, I mean who cares [laughs]? It doesn't matter how many great licks you have, if your tone sucks, it sucks. It's not going to be very good. You've got to get your tone.
WM: Bad tone is like a poor quality film, where you can see the boom in shots. It just pulls you out of the moment.
Foley: Yeah it does. And it just doesn't hold you. There's a lot of players [that] can play a lot of stuff but I hear them and I can't [listen to] their tone. But I've heard the best so can I say ruins it you for everything else. Because you're never the same. You hear Albert Collins and that's it.
WM: Do you refine a lot?
Foley: Yeah, I do refine and I'll take my time with it. Especially now, I've learned to write better over the years, and I do take my time a little bit more and do more editing. I've learned where editing is really important. Don't just put out sloppy stuff; hang in there and edit it. Get it right. Refine those words.
I wouldn't say I'm a master songwriter, but I'm pretty happy with a lot of the stuff I've written. I feel pretty good about it.
WM: What's your editing process? Are you listening to demos and taking notes? Are you looking at it on the page?
Foley: Usually I just hack around with it. I'll just have it written out. I actually handwrite my songs on a paper, on a page. And then I just play it, sing it, see what feels right; if it's not sitting right, or the rhythm isn't on, or the words don't ring true. You kind of have to sing them out, and then you think, 'Would I play this for anybody?'
There's a good question. Because if you don't feel comfortable playing your song for anybody, it's probably not worth showing to anybody. Sometimes we fall in love with the song in our own house, we love to play it, but we don't want to show it to anybody. So there's a sign right there that it might be too personal, or you might just be too self-conscious. Or it might not ring true.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.