A potential list of famous male/female musical duos might look like this: Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, Ike & Tina. Recognizable names from country, soul, and rock. It’s tough to think of one from the blues.
Peter Karp & Sue Foley, one of the more dynamic musical duos on the scene today, could squeeze onto this list as blues. But since they consider themselves primarily as songwriters they will have to think up their own blues guitarist songwriter, co-ed team entry.
“We play blues guitar but we’re also songwriters,” Peter Karp said. “Nobody thinks of blues as singer/songwriter. Maybe it’s because there is a notion that the blues is filled primarily with instrumentalists like guitar players and harmonica players.”
Sue Foley made her name in the roots music scene of Austin TX in the 1990s. The Kingston, Ontario-based singer released several well-received albums before joining Karp.
“The idea of a male/female blues duo is not really a popular thing I guess,” Foley said. “It’s even more unusual as singer/songwriters.”
Peter Karp went from a mobile home park in Enterprise, Alabama to artsy-fartsy film school at NYU. He says the under-appreciated fact about the blues is that storytellers have been around since the beginning.
“You listen to Robert Johnson and Robert Johnson was the original Bob Dylan,” Karp said. “His guitar playing supported what he was doing but he told such great stories that people are still playing and singing his tunes eighty years later.”
Part of the reason blues duos like Karp & Foley aren’t often pegged on the AAA radio dial is because the music industry is so micro-categorized. Karp is careful not to differentiate himself between the seemingly competitive but highly similar styles of folk and blues.
“I never distinguish between songwriting and blues,” Karp said. “Today everything is niche marketing. They want to know if you are Americana or what. Are you contemporary blues? Traditional blues? It’s ridiculous. You have to sell stuff, sure, but in the end its all music.”
Karp & Foley are one of the few artists from the blues world who can walk into the Bluebird Café in Nashville, an intimate listening room famous for acoustic music performed by the composers, and hold their own. Their most recent release, Beyond the Crossroads (Blind Pig), contains 12 original songs written individually and together. That fact alone seems to fit one definition of singer/songwriter.
“The thing about original blues was the story,” Foley said. “It was not as much about the instrumental prowess so much as telling the story of what was happening. Memphis Minnie, who is my favorite artist ever, was a singer/songwriter. She wrote her own songs and she just happened to play guitar.”
There are facts to suggest that some blues “purists” want to keep the tradition by keeping it airtight under glass. Karp agrees there’s nothing wrong with that. But he also says the genre has to breathe to survive.
“It’s all about communicating and connecting with people,” Karp said. "You can either make them cry, laugh, or dance. But we’re all doing this together. That’s the beautiful thing about music.”
“Originally we were going to call ourselves Butterbeans & Susie but that name was already taken,” Foley said with a laugh. “If you’re telling your own story in song why not count all the early blues artists as singer/songwriters.”
Peter Karp & Sue Foley and band, 9 pm (8 doors), Sunday at the Tip Top Deluxe in Grand Rapids. $10
Visit Peter and Sue’s website: http://www.karpfoley.com/