Q&A with "The Queen of Texas Blues" Angela Strehli, her voice has coursed through the genre akin to blood through a heart

"I think it is too hard for a human to understand who they are. Maybe somebody outside of them can look at you and maybe they understand who you are. But I think it’s very hard for us to have that kind of perspective ourselves. So, he had it right because that would be the way that you can express it, for example in my case blues music does reveal who I am, even to me."

Angela Strehli: The Queen Sings The Blues

Angela Strehli returned with her new album “Ace of Blues” (2022) via Antone’s / New West Records. The 12-SONG set is her first album in over 17 years and was co-produced by Strehli & her husband Bob Brown. For over five decades, the 76-year-old Strehli’s voice has coursed through the genre akin to blood through a heart. Her influence can be felt in the legacy of Antone’s - the iconic Austin blues club she helped found with the late Clifford Antone and where she performed & became friends with the likes of Muddy Waters, Albert King, Otis Rush, Jimmy Reed, and countless others. Ace of Blues pays tribute to the artists who inspired her throughout her career and features renditions of songs made famous by Elmore James, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Clay and more.  It concludes with “SRV,” a beautiful and personal tribute to the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. As the only original on Ace of Blues, the song celebrates their friendship, creative connection, and musical bond with one of the most heartfelt, hypnotic, and hard-hitting performances on the record.  

(Angela Strehli / Photo © by Paul Moore)

Angela Strehli was born in Lubbock, TX in 1945. Shortly after graduating from the University of Texas in Austin, Strehli joined James Polk and the Brothers, a Soul/R&B group, and went on to form Southern Feeling with W.C.  Clark and Denny Freeman, which became a local favorite. Her next move was to start The Angela Strehli Band which led to five consecutive awards from the Austin Chronicle for Best Female Vocalist. The “Queen of Texas Blues” was born. In 1975, Strehli co-founded the blues club Antone’s which became internationally famous and still exists today. The venue became home to then long neglected blues masters including Muddy Waters, Albert King, Otis Rush, and countless others, and its house band was the newly formed Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring Jimmie Vaughan & Kim Wilson. Vaughn started playing “Texas Flood,” a song Strehli would perform regularly, and it became the title track to his debut album with Double Trouble in 1983. Vaughan would then have Strehli perform with him at many of his important appearances - Carnegie Hall, the CBS Records Convention, Austin City Limits among them. Strehli would then help establish Antone’s Records & Tapes, serving as President, and releasing her debut solo album Soul Shake in 1987.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Transcription by Katerina Lefkidou

Special Thanks: Angela Strehli & Brady Brock (New West Records)

What does the blues mean to you?

Angela: For me, it was something that when I first heard it, had a big impact, it was on the radio and I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what to call it, it just grabbed me. So I had to find out, what it was and where I could find it. And that’s what I started doing.

Too many experiences in your life, too many experiences in music, what are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience?

Angela: I sort of felt, actually I had some opportunities when I was young, I would say twenties, to record, but I felt that I had not had enough life experiences to really be able to sing blues. Even though, I was drawn to the music, I felt I needed to live a little bit, so that I would really know where I was coming from and what I was talking about, because blues really is about life and it’s about the truth.

Of course, you’re a musician and a degree in sociology and psychology. What is the impact of the blues, what is the impact of the blues culture on the sociocultural implications?

Angela: That’s an important question thank you. I feel that for one thing, unfortunately, I grew up in a part of the United States, where I wasn’t exposed to certain things like, music that came from the black community. Until I was old enough to discover things on my own, so I felt that Europe especially and also Japan, I felt that all of those people had been exposed to the music that I discovered much later in life than I would’ve preferred to, right? Cause I grew up in west Texas and it wasn’t played on the radio there. So I felt that it was not acknowledged in certain parts of the country and I felt that race had something to do with it. Things are different now, thank goodness. But not when I was young. It wasn’t out of prejudice, there just wasn’t acknowledgement of something that is part of American music and should be appreciated and respected. And now it is of course, but it took a while.

"Happiness for me is, I get to work with wonderful musicians, who inspire me to sing, otherwise I’m a very reluctant performer. But the other thing is that it’s the people who want to hear it. I don’t like when I’m on stage and the stage lights keep me from seeing people, that I’m singing to, I don’t like that, I like to look people right in the eyes, because I’m singing to them, I’m singing for them and that’s the joy for me." (Angela Strehli / Photo © by Paul Moore)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past?

Angela: Oh boy. The people. My idols that I got to know. They were so, they’re the ones who really embraced us, who were just trying to learn, and they embraced us because they wanted to see the music carried on, you know? And carried on in a respectful way that really, obviously had educated about the roots, where the music came from and all the people who gave us that wonderful music. We had to discover it in my day.

You talk of all these great musicians and personalities and I’m sure one of the biggest was Clifford Antone. Are there any memories from Clifford, which you would like to share with us?

Angela: Oh sure. Clifford was so very much into blues. When he started to come out and listen to people like myself, he was trying to do it then and he realised we didn’t even have a proper venue to play our music. He thought oh that’s just wrong. And he thought well, maybe if I just educate people by having the real masters that are still living come here, maybe the younger musicians who are trying to do it, they can open for their heroes and get to be on the same stage and get to know them and all of that. So that’s what he did, what we did I should say because I was part of the founding of Antone’s, the venue and the record label too, the music company. 

What does it mean to be a female artist, a female musician, in man’s man’s world as James Brown says?

Angela: That’s true, that’s a very good point. I don’t know if I want to say predicament. And in the back of my mind I’m thinking, I don’t have any examples to follow. I’m a woman trying to do this music and of course people like Muddy Waters and many others were my heroes and of course that was comforting, but I didn’t have a lot of examples as a female vocalist. There were wonderful women back in the ‘30s and ‘20s even who did that style of blues, but I had never followed them, I had never been grabbed so much by the classic, I think they called it classic blues back then. I liked the music that came from the country and ended up in places like Chicago and that’s what kind of grabbed me for whatever reason.

What is happiness for Angela? What do you think is the key to a well lived life?

Angela: Happiness for me is, I get to work with wonderful musicians, who inspire me to sing, otherwise I’m a very reluctant performer. But the other thing is that it’s the people who want to hear it. I don’t like when I’m on stage and the stage lights keep me from seeing people, that I’m singing to, I don’t like that, I like to look people right in the eyes, because I’m singing to them, I’m singing for them and that’s the joy for me.  And also, the musicians, the musicians around me, I’ve always tried to have the best musicians I possibly could afford to have, because I couldn’t get it out without them bringing it out of me by their wonderful playing, so I’ve been very fortunate. And that’s why with this record I had sorted two different bands, according to the style, so that made it interesting to me.

"Clifford was so very much into blues. When he started to come out and listen to people like myself, he was trying to do it then and he realised we didn’t even have a proper venue to play our music. He thought oh that’s just wrong. And he thought well, maybe if I just educate people by having the real masters that are still living come here, maybe the younger musicians who are trying to do it, they can open for their heroes and get to be on the same stage and get to know them and all of that. So that’s what he did, what we did I should say because I was part of the founding of Antone’s, the venue and the record label too, the music company." (Photo: Angela Strehli with Little Milton & Clifford Antone)

17 years since your last solo album. What are the differences and what are the similarities between your musical progress?

Angela: I think I have a lot more confidence in what I’m doing, I have also you know, my husband and myself and his family we have a venue, so that has been a wonderful place for me to interact with other musicians, all kinds of musicians. And the other thing is that I put together a group of four women, called ‘’The Blues Broads’’ and they were just wonderful singers and we’re just great friends now. It was such a good experience to bring that together and feel that we, we just had the best time on stage together and we were talking about women and not being able to feel that I got that experience, well I’ve had it now and I’ve been a part of it, so that thrills me and I do have younger women that look to me, people like Sue Foley is a good example because she’s recorded a few song of mine, so it’s lovely to think that the tradition goes on. You might lose some people to other things, other styles of music or just other occupations, but it’s not gonna die out, it’s gonna be kept going by younger people who still see the value in learning and performing it.

You’re now in California but your name is synonymous with Texas. From Blind Lemon Jefferson to Peppermint Harris to Johnny Winter, Albert Collins to 70s bluesmen to Kim Wilson, Jimmie Vaughan, SRV and many others, why do you think the Texas blues continues to develop such a devoted following? 

Angela: That’s a great question. I think we can just be so grateful for our history there. Texas is a big place with all kinds of people and in fact I was away from Texas going to college somewhere else and I realized I thought what am I missing here? I was missing all of the black people, the Latino people, that were just as much a part of Austin as the rest of us. And having that cultural mix. I think it’s been wonderful for Texas. There are Czechs there, people from Czechoslovakia, and other places that settled in Texas and they brought their instruments, the accordion and the tuba and so forth and that’s popular and mixed with all the Mexican music and all that stuff made it really, you know a lot of jazz players are from Austin and Dallas, so it was a lot to live up to. I consider that a real goal, a real inspiration to have all of those different styles of music represented in one space. And this was a thing to aspire to, to be able to be a part of it.

What is the balance in music and especially in the blues music between technical skills and the soul’s emotions?

Angela: Yes, things have advanced so much in the technology way, but I don’t go all the way there. I’ll see if I can explain. When I was recording this record, once the band was comfortable with their settings, their sounds in the studio, well I just went for it on the first take. You know what a take is? It’s the first time that people in the studio record, so usually the first take is a throw-away I would say, they’re still maybe adjusting some things and they encourage you to continue doing the same song because they want to do further things. Well I had discouraged that, I’d say look, unless there’s something drastically wrong, let us go, let us go, because I felt the energy and the inspiration of the song the best when I first sang it in the studio. And so that’s what I wanted was that first idea, that first inspiration from the song itself. After you do this, if for whatever reason you have to repeat that again, to me it loses something every time. And most artists are not like that, they want to do it until they feel like it’s perfect, but I didn’t think that perfection was as important as the feeling and the energy that the song gave me.

"Well, actually, I enjoy sort of scientific study. As I understand time, the past, present and future all exist right now. We don’t necessarily see the future, but it does exist now. I think if you let go of your own desire to control things, if let go of that and let your other senses which we don’t necessarily acknowledge take over, they will lead you somewhere. If you just open yourself up to that possibility, there are other forces out there that can lead you to the right places if you let them. I try to do that." (Photo: Muddy Waters with Angela Strehli and Kim Wilson, Antone's in 1975)

You have met so many legendary names, mythical names. Which meetings have been the most important and what was the best advice anyone ever gave you and you keep it like a motto in your life?

Angela: Well Muddy Waters was one of those and he did, he’s d take us under his wing, is a phrase that’s used sometimes. Because he knew how serious we were about trying to do those styles right. And for that reason, he took a little time to observe us and to suggest a couple of things. And if you wanted to be specific, nobody’s ever asked me this, one thing Muddy said to me was, “You know when you’re singing, you need to hold on to the last part of the phrase.” Don’t just jump to whatever the next sentence or the next whatever, just hold onto that for a few seconds. And that was wonderful advice. It works, it makes sense now, of course. It was a wonderful little inspiration to the rest of us. I think he thought it was important to give that knowledge to the people who were going to be carrying on his music. Because for one thing his kids, grandkids, their generation they weren’t interested in learning it necessarily, they weren’t interested in doing it. In devoting their lives. Of course, youngsters are going to do their own thing, so they weren’t going to necessarily be carrying on the blues the way we had it in our hearts. That’s what he recognised, that we will do our best to do this music right and be respectful of it and it will live on. Because there are lot of kids that simply aren’t interested, that’s how kids are, they want to do their own thing.

What are your hopes and what are your fears about music, especially the blues?

Angela: I have a lot of hope. I think a lot of people are doing things for the right reason. I think there are some good record companies. I feel fortunate to have such a good record company, I didn’t know what I was going to do with this recording. My husband simply encouraged me and said: “Look, you really should record, you know great musicians, your voice is better than ever and all that kinds of stuff, so he kind of pushed me to it and said ‘’Look, Your fans will appreciate hearing from you.” So, when he put it that way, I did think, Well Gee, I always thought I should try to give something back to the music and even if I don’t have any originals I to give back I have all these other songs and I of course did end up having an original of mine which was inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan, a dear friend. So even though it came out in a previous record of mine, that record was not heard really, it wasn’t well distributed and all that publicized. So, I had another chance to have that song heard and that meant a lot to me in this record. And then I got to do a gospel song, as usual on every record I have a gospel song, because that music is a great inspiration as well, songs that came out of a black church.

"For me, it was something that when I first heard it, had a big impact, it was on the radio and I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what to call it, it just grabbed me. So I had to find out, what it was and where I could find it. And that’s what I started doing." (Photo: Angela Strehli &  Stevie Ray Vaughan)

So, you are a musician, an impresario, a wife, you have your own ranch, you are a multi-talented person. Where does your creative drive come from?

Angela: I consider it something that’s like a spiritual force, that comes to you through no effort of your own. It’s just a fortunate tap on the shoulder from somebody, somewhere. I can’t explain it. I am just glad that it happened and that I followed through with it, but I never would have dreamed that I could have a career singing. When young singers are discouraged or something I tell them that they didn’t want me in high school choir, they didn’t want this voice in high school choir, I could have been very discouraged by it, about even thinking that I could have a career in music, but I just let it happen, it felt right and I had a lot of help along the way. I was encouraged by other people and other artists and that’s something I take on as my own responsibility now, to encourage others who have it right in their heart, what they want to do.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. So where would you really want to go with a time machine, past or future?

Angela: Well, actually, I enjoy sort of scientific study. As I understand time, the past, present and future all exist right now. We don’t necessarily see the future, but it does exist now. I think if you let go of your own desire to control things, if let go of that and let your other senses which we don’t necessarily acknowledge take over, they will lead you somewhere. If you just open yourself up to that possibility, there are other forces out there that can lead you to the right places if you let them. I try to do that.

John Coltrane said, “my music is the spiritual expression of what I am”. So how do you understand the spirit, the music and the meaning of life?

Angela: I think it is too hard for a human to understand who they are. Maybe somebody outside of them can look at you and maybe they understand who you are. But I think it’s very hard for us to have that kind of perspective ourselves. So, he had it right because that would be the way that you can express it, for example in my case blues music does reveal who I am, even to me.

"I have a lot of hope. I think a lot of people are doing things for the right reason. I think there are some good record companies. I feel fortunate to have such a good record company, I didn’t know what I was going to do with this recording." (Photo: Angela Strehli & BB King c.1975-80 in the Antone's green room)

What were the highlights of you career and what were the bad times of your career?

Angela: Well, the highlights actually even back when we started playing blues not many people wanted to hear it. What I mean is, even in the black community, blues had been dropped from radio, I think disco had taken over the airways. You know, that’s what happens, the styles move on in popular culture. So, all that stuff had gone away in popular culture and people sort of doubted what we were trying to do or why we were doing it. But the people who encouraged us, some of those musicians I talked about, was the black community and older people who still wanted to hear that music. So, we were embraced by them and that was just so much fun. Also, I want to mention, no other venues were begging us to play there, they didn’t get it really, there were other things that were more popular at the time. Anyway, it was such a beautiful life experience to spend time with the black folks who encouraged us and enjoyed what we were doing and made us feel like home. It’s just an indescribably wonderful experience. You know, I was a backing vocalist in a band that was led by a wonderful musician named James Polk and he could play every instrument you thought, various kinds of music. He was just so knowledgeable about everything, that was my opportunity to sing in a band that had a professional leader, I think he had just left being the band leader for Ray Charles. He had so much knowledge and was generous to pass it to us. We got to open for James Brown because he was a friend of James Brown. That was a highlight right there, to get to open for James Brown. Because nobody opened for James Brown, if you think about it, if you ever went to a James Brown show, there was no opening act. That was not a part of the deal, so that was one of the honors.

I was also honored because Stevie Ray Vaughan appreciated our friendship so much that when he got big and for instance went and played to Carnegie Hall, I was definitely on the show. That’s something that I can tell my folks about, I got to perform on that stage.

How do you want your new album to affect people?

Angela: Well, besides my desire to really sing a heavy blues or two, there was the fun aspect, I did that Chuck Berry song, you know he was such a poet, that’s what amazed me about him. I don’t know if I can answer that right. Cause I think every person they all relate to it a different way for different reasons, so to me that is fascinating in itself. And people do, they want to tell you, they want to talk you about your record and how  it affected them. So, I am always amazed to me. Cause I might have thought that I put something across a certain way, and it meant a certain thing. Well believe me everybody receives that kind of stuff in a different way, you can’t predict or even explain what they get out of it. I think that’s really true. You can’t be certain about what someone felt when they heard me do that. I think the listeners contribute as much as I do.

“I love the life I live” (Willie Dixon), may be the most philosophical song in the world. What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as an artist that has helped you become a better blues musician?

Angela: The one thing I sort of mentioned was the so-called purists who said we either couldn’t do that music well or that we shouldn’t. We were not that qualified where we came from. I talked about being middle class and not having gone through misery the way a lot of people did who sang blues. But I knew enough about misery that it meant a lot to me, and I tried to get inside of it. And what came out is what I hoped would come out, so that other people could really relate to what I was doing.

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(Angela Strehli / Photo © by Paul Moore)

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