After some 17 years, Angela Strehli’s fans had nearly given up hope that she would put out a new album.
It’s not like the Texas blues star has been slacking for the past two decades. For one thing, along with her husband Bob Brown, former Huey Lewis manager and Boz Scaggs’s original partner for his nightclub Slim’s, she’s been running the Rancho Nicasio roadhouse, an oasis of blues and American roots music in the West Marin hinterlands. She also spearheaded the Blues Broads, a veritable supergroup featuring Strehli alongside blues great Tracy Nelson, church-reared belter Annie Sampson, and gospel pioneer Dorothy Morrison, the lead vocalist on the 1968 Edwin Hawkins Singers single “Oh Happy Day,” gospel’s biggest hit ever.
But as a celebrated songwriter and vocalist who played a pivotal role in jump-starting the 1970s Austin music scene, Strehli hadn’t made a statement of her own since her little-heard 2005 album Blue Highway (M.C. Records). With a break in the pandemic and some spousal encouragement — “Bob said, ‘Don’t you think your fans might appreciate hearing from you?’” Strehli recalled — she decided to get back in the studio. The only thing she knew she needed was her trusty guitarist, Mighty Mike Schermer, and the result was one of year’s most satisfying sessions, Ace of Blues (New West).
“Mike was the one element that had to be there,” said Strehli, who celebrates the album’s Nov. 19 release Thursday, Dec. 1 at Yoshi’s and Friday, Dec. 2 at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center with a band featuring Schermer, bassist Timm Walker, keyboardist Tony Stead, and a three-piece horn section: tenor saxophonist Rod Sudduth, baritone saxophonist Doug Rowan, and trumpeter Steffen Kuehn (the Grammy Award-winning co-leader of the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, which plays its annual Yoshi’s engagement Jan. 6–7, 2023).
“I need a really strong guitarist,” Strehli said. “That’s what inspires me on stage. The recording experience itself was very natural. Perfection was not my goal. It’s more the energy and putting the story across. I prefer the first take. That’s the freshest. After that it gets away and starts being about you and perfection. My favorite records are full of mistakes. I was very comfortable in that studio.”
The story that Strehli is telling on Ace of Blues encompasses the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South and the proliferation of Black idioms that took root in northern climes, particularly Chicago, where younger white musicians embraced the blues masters and their music. Rather than introducing a batch of new originals, Strehli turned the album into a tribute to elemental stars such as Bobby “Blue” Bland, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Otis Rush, and Jimmy Reed — “all people I knew and cared about,” she said.
Mentored and encouraged by some of the formative blues stars, she gives particular credit to Muddy Waters, who welcomed the entranced white players (many of whom then made their way to the Bay Area, a tale well told in filmmaker Bob Sarles’s 2020 documentary Born in Chicago). She first heard Mud in Chicago in 1965, and a decade later she was opening for his 60th birthday celebration at Antone’s, the club that became a cornerstone of the Austin music scene.
“Muddy was really important,” she said. “When we white middle-class kids started trying to learn blues and play it, a lot of people thought either we couldn’t or we shouldn’t. I didn’t disagree with that, but it didn’t deter me. The person who encouraged me was Muddy himself. He realized that we were actually going to fill a gap. Blues being a folk music, it’s passed on. Muddy and the older guys, they didn’t see the younger people being interested. It was grandpa’s music. I think that’s why we were embraced by the real masters. They saw we studied what we were doing and respected it.”
The emotional power of Strehli’s delivery remains as potent and stirring as ever, though longtime fans might notice some changes. Most conspicuously, her voice has settled into a lower pitch, which means she can now sing the tunes in the keys of the original recordings. Strehli also doesn’t stray from the touchstone arrangements, covering a wide array of blues styles with complete authority. While still inextricably linked to the Austin scene even after decades in the North Bay, Strehli is fluent in many blues dialects.
“For so long so many people kept her in a little Texas blues box,” said Schermer, who’s been serving as her instrumental foil for three decades, since shortly after he graduated from UC Santa Cruz. “She did stick to a smaller set of grooves when she was touring more, that sound with twanging Strat and harmonica. But as I started working with her, what’s always impressed me is her knowledge of American music, not just blues but gospel, soul, and R&B. All the great singers that I know are great listeners, musicologists, and collectors.”
Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, Strehli ran with a highly musical crowd. She played cello in her middle school orchestra next to Joe Ely on violin. He went on to form the Flatlanders with two other neighborhood kids, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. While attending college in Minnesota, Strehli started making regular trips to Chicago, checking out as much music as she could. One of her earliest experiences was hearing gospel legend Dorothy Love Coates, who she evokes with a roof-raising rendition of “I Wouldn’t Mind Dying” backed by the Sons of the Soul Revivers (the great Vallejo gospel combo that recorded an electrifying live album at Rancho Nicasio for Little Village Foundation).
“She was in the classic gospel quartet era that I liked the best,” Strehli said about Coates. “I loved the interaction that those groups had vocally. I went to church a couple of times to check things out, and it was always a mind-blowing experience. And it did start me thinking. I never considered I could have a career singing. I didn’t make high school choir. I’m sure they were begging people to be in it, but they didn’t want me. It’s not a matter of being a great singer. In blues and gospel, it’s more about the other kind of energy you bring and the straightforward stories you tell.”
Ace of Blues isn’t just a statement about Strehli’s formative influences. The album marks a commitment to the blues by Nashville-based New West Records, which was launched in 1998 by Cameron Strang as an outlet for the newly emerging Americana umbrella. The label has long curated an excellent roster that encompasses indie rock and alt-country acts, and since 2007 New West has released select recordings from Austin City Limits broadcasts on CD, DVD, and vinyl. The label recently acquired the treasure trove of music documented by Antone’s Records, which Strehli started as an outlet for her first album. The label went on to record veteran masters like James Cotton, Ronnie Earl, and Pinetop Perkins and rising artists like Sue Foley and Kim Wilson. With Strehli’s album New West is relaunching the Antone’s label.
“They really came to the party,” Strehli said. “They’re not just businesspeople. Even the owner is a music fan. They really love music. I felt like I was in really good hands. They’ve acquired the entire Antone’s catalog, which I started back in the day. Part of it was selfish. I had a record. What do I do now? Back in those days, there wasn’t a lot of music business in Austin.”