Sue Foley on the raw, stripped-down honesty of Pinky’s Blues

Award-winning guitarist and singer-songwriter Sue Foley is an iconic figure in the Canadian blues landscape.

Foley has been wowing audiences with her skills on the guitar for more than 30 years. This past October, she released her latest album Pinky’s Blues, a raw, guitar-driven adventure through the backroads of Texas blues — with her signature pink paisley Fender Telecaster at the wheel.

Since the release of Pinky’s Blues, it has been No. 1 on the roots music report Canadian chart for 12 non-consecutive weeks and counting. Featuring her original songs along with several tunes by her favourite blues and roots artists, Pinky’s Blues has been nominated for three Blues Music Awards, including album of the year, and a Juno Award for blues album of the year.

Foley joined us to talk about the inspiration behind the album — and to play a song from the record live in our studio.

Take me back to the beginning of making this album. This started in the midst of all the craziness. Where were you at musically?

Like everybody, we were keeping a low profile. We had to get into projects that were keeping us at home. Recording was great. The producer Mike Flanigin made an album called West Texas Blues where we went into the studio with a stripped-down unit, and I played guitar … we kept it to three of us and an engineer. On the heels of that, I decided, Well, I might as well do that too, because we’ve got a lot of time on our hands. I went in with a similar unit: just bass, drums and guitar, and a little Hammond B3 organ. It’s a stripped-down album. It was recorded live in the studio. There were no overdubs. It was fresh-sounding because all the blues and jazz albums we grew up listening to were never tracked or overdubbed — people just recorded live in the studio. We wanted to do something that had that spontaneity. It came alive that way.

There really is an energy with live-off-the-floor recording like that, isn’t there?

Absolutely. You’re in the moment, and you really have to be comfortable playing live. We’ve been doing this a long time, and we’re used to it. You’re working off the moment. A lot of the songs I brought in, the band wasn’t even familiar with them. I was just showing them the tunes and then we were cutting them. Everybody’s listening, everybody’s tuned in, and you can hear that anticipation.

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What is it about specifically Texan blues that really calls to you?

I became a blues fans when I was in my teens. I realized after I discovered blues through bands like the Rolling Stones that I had actually heard blues from my older siblings who were into Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. All of that is very blues-based — the early guitar hero stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s that I heard as a child. I realized that that was blues, it was just the young white kids taking the blues and doing their own thing with it. I became a traditional artist later on, because I just kept digging in and digging in and digging in. If I like the Stones, who were they into? Muddy Waters. Well then who was Muddy Waters into? Robert Johnson. Well, what was Robert Johnson listening to? That’s the way I worked, and I still work that way. Texas blues is of course a regional sound, and when I was starting my career as a 16-year-old, Stevie Ray Vaughan had just broken out and everybody had their radar on Austin, Texas. It’s not even just Texas blues, it’s particularly the Austin sound. What was cool about that was that it was a new blues sound. Blues is such a traditional art form, but there really was a sound that came out of Austin and I was really enamored with it. I ended up going down there and recording my first four albums down there. Now I’m back there. I’m known as a Canadian artist and a Texas artist at the same time.

You have a song on this album called Dallas Man. Was there anyone in particular that you were thinking of when you wrote this tune?

Several people, actually. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is really rich in guitar history. Guys like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Frankie Lee Sims, Lil’ Son Jackson, Anson Funderburgh, and some of the more obscure guys like Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien. That area has this insane guitar lineage. So, that song is about that.

When you’re standing on the shoulders of these giants of blues, what’s it like trying to find your own voice within all of that?

That’s a really good question, because blues is a traditional art form: You have to learn the art form, and you have to emulate your heroes in order to find your voice in it. Your voice is tied to your story. I know where I’m from. I’m not from Texas. I’m not from Mississippi. I’m from Canada. I had a certain upbringing. The music requires you to be honest. It requires you to dig deep into your heart and soul. These are very important aspects of it that make you not only a well-rounded musician, but it also helps with your path as a human being. You need to do that inner work as you get older. What is my story? What makes me special? We all have this story that makes us special. That’s where blues hits me.

Speaking of stories, Pinky has been in your life for quite a while.

Pinky is my pink paisley Fender Telecaster. I got it brand new in around 1988. She was with me on every album, almost every gig I’ve ever done. That guitar has a lot of miles on it. She’s really special. Honestly, it’s my longest relationship, when I think about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.