Sue Foley Interview: Celebrating Blues’ Long History of Female Guitar Players

A challenging album years in the making is heading for release later this month, and according to the artist behind it, live audiences are seemingly thrilled by how the music came together.

Sue Foley’s One Guitar Woman drops March 29 on Stony Plain Records. The 12-track album shows Foley pivoting from the electric guitar style fans know her for to her first all-acoustic project, recorded entirely using one very special nylon-string guitar. Comprised of 11 covers and one Foley original, this album pays tribute to many of the women who helped pave the way for artists like Foley, who is on this album heard challenging herself to incorporate their specific styles into her own playing.

The album’s first single, “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” introduced the album concept upon its release last month by revealing one of the women Foley has been particularly inspired by: Elizabeth Cotten. The left-handed folk and blues guitarist had a style that was “so distinct,” Foley said during a recent phone interview with Blues Rock Review. “That Piedmont fingerpicking—there’s a lot going on with that,” Foley said. “Once you get it under your belt, it’s really fun to play. All your fingers are going, it’s lyrical, and the leads and the melodies are all intertwined.”

Maybelle Carter, who Foley pays special tribute to in the album’s one original song, “Maybelle’s Guitar,” is another woman Foley recognizes on One Guitar Woman. Covers of songs by Memphis Minnie, Tejano star Lydia Mendoza, Elvie Thomas, French classical guitarist Ida Presti, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Geeshie Wiley and Charo also appear on the album.

Though Foley grew up within a family of musicians, most of the guitarists she heard of through her father and brothers were men, so she paid close attention when she saw women playing. Despite the limited exposure in those early days, Foley knew blues had a long history of women players, which she largely attributes to the lasting influence of Memphis Minnie’s playing in the 1930s and 1940s.

“In blues especially, we have her to thank, and then Sister Rosetta Tharpe, of course, in rock and roll and R&B. She kind of came up on the heels of Memphis Minnie,” Foley said. It’s “trailblazers” like them who have “always fascinated” Foley. “I’ve always had a pension for old timey stuff,” she said.

Foley has researched these women and other pioneers like them for decades for various projects in music and academia. Her research paired with her lifelong study as a songwriter and performer meant that she had a lot of material to choose from when it came to picking the track list for One Guitar Woman. In some cases, she decided to pick an artist’s most “iconic” song, like Mendoza’s “Mal Hombre.” With others, like Tharpe’s “My Journey to the Sky,” Foley picked the song she “always liked.”

“There’s a little bit of rhyme and reason, but mostly it’s stuff that resonated with me or something I think just put them on the map,” Foley said of her selections, citing Charo’s “just perfect” song “La Malagueña” as another example. “Her expression of that song and the way she plays it—I just wanted to capture a little bit of that,” Foley said.

To bring the songs to life, Foley decided to use a nylon-string guitar she picked out in 2022 while visiting Paracho, Mexico, a small city known for its guitar craftsmanship. Foley said her trip was “like heaven.”

“If you love the guitar, this is like going into Disneyland for the nylon-string guitar,” Foley said. “The whole town is builders, they’re all craftspeople. They all have a unique spin on how they build. They use beautiful woods—it’s just wild.”

Though Foley recalled checking out several guitars while in Paracho, she wound up choosing the first one she saw, a flamenco Blanca made by local guitar builder Salvador Castillo. That instrument became the lone guitar she used on One Woman Guitar.

“It’s really a beautiful experience to actually go down, handpick an instrument that was just made, and there’s only one like it in the world,” said Foley, who has a “long love story” with nylon-string guitars.

In addition to relying on one guitar, Foley challenged herself by embracing the specific playing styles performed by the women who inspired the album. Cotten’s Piedmont-style fingerpicking pops up, as do flamenco techniques and the Carter scratch. Learning Presti’s classical guitar style in particular to cover “Romance in A Minor” was tough but enjoyable for Foley, who praised Presti as “an astoundingly good guitarist.”

“Doing a classical piece was really rewarding for me,” Foley said, adding that she enjoyed “stretching that way musically.”

Another tough task was tackling the Carter scratch, which Foley said she “worked really hard on” and has compared in promotional materials for the album to “rubbing one’s head and patting one’s belly simultaneously.”

“I went through a lot with Maybelle, believe me,” Foley said during our interview. “She’s a big study.”

The Carter Family matriarch has been credited with transforming the guitar from a rhythm instrument into a lead instrument through her distinct playing style. Foley described her amazement at how visually undetectable that playing style is in old Carter Family performances.

“If you listen to her, it sounds effortless. It’s even more humbling,” Foley said. “When you watch videos, she barely looks like her fingers are moving, but it’s quite specific and forceful, and you’ve got to be right on top of it. It’s a real assertive way of playing guitar on the beat—it’s steady and forceful and kind of like a train.”

Foley references that train comparison in the song she wrote for One Woman Guitar, “Maybelle’s Guitar.” She also mentions The Carter Family’s popular song “The Wildwood Flower” in her lyrics and deploys the Carter scratch.

“I just wanted to write something about her guitar, first of all, because it’s said to be one of the most important instruments in the history of country music,” Foley said. “And I believe that to be true, because she was a big radio star and that guitar was so prominent, so strong.”

One Woman Guitar comes together as a careful and creative study of several women who influenced generations of guitar players. The challenges Foley embraced in mastering each artist’s unique playing styles also give the album real stakes by pushing it beyond what most tribute albums try to achieve.

Foley has already begun road-testing the material and has been pleasantly surprised by her audiences’ positive reactions. Now that she’s learned the new styles incorporated on One Woman Guitar, she will “absolutely” use them moving forward.

“Once you learn stuff like that, it just kind of sinks into your playing,” Foley said. “I’ll be carrying these girls with me my whole life.”

One thought on “Sue Foley Interview: Celebrating Blues’ Long History of Female Guitar Players

  • Penchant…not pension. Geez.


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