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Angela Strehli’s ‘Ace of Blues’ pays tribute to the artists she admires, and the Texas scene that nurtured her voice

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Paul Moore
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Angela Strehli's new album "Ace of Blues" is the Lubbock native's tribute to the artists and performers she admires most.

When Austin’s Antone’s nightclub became a nationally known home for blues in the 1970s and 1980s, Angela Strehli was a big part of it. In those days, many in the capital city called her “the Queen of the Blues.” The Lubbock native released several albums, performed around town and beyond, and served as president of Antone’s Records.

Strehli left Texas for California more than 20 years ago, and it’s been almost that long since she’s released a new album. “Ace of Blues” is her tribute to the artists and performers she admires most, including Bobby Bland, Otis Rush and Muddy Waters. Strehli told Texas Standard the idea for the album came from her husband. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: After so many years away from the studio, what motivated you to get back behind the mic now?

Angela Strehli: My dear husband, Bob Brown, looked at me and said, shortly after my last birthday, “Look, don’t you think it is time for you to make a record? I think your fans would like to hear from you after 16 years,” or whatever it was at the time. So I didn’t have a comeback for that. And I started thinking, and I said, “Well, I don’t have any original material.” But that’s when Bob came up with the concept of tipping my hat to the people who had inspired me by doing one of their songs that was not well-known by people so that they would be hearing something fresh.

Let’s talk a little bit about how you were there at the beginning of that blues renaissance in Austin. A lot of people will tell you that it started with Clifford Antone and his club in the 70s. What was it like in Austin back in those days, and how did those of you who cared about the blues get fans excited about music?

Well, that was the trick. There weren’t a lot of venues, but we did get to end up entertaining Black folks who were sad to see that the blues was not being played so much on radio. They just thought that connection was going to be lost. They saw that we were trying to do this, the thing that they were afraid of losing. And it was the same thing with the older musicians, in particular Muddy Waters – he realized that his kids and grandkids, so to speak, were not learning his music because that was not new. That was not the young people’s music.

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Bill Cross
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Angela Strehli with Muddy Waters in 1975.

Were you a blues fan to begin with, growing up in Lubbock?

Well, I had a shortwave radio, so I was getting Shreveport and Nashville. John R. and the Hossman had a show, a blues show, late at night. I didn’t know what you call that music. I had to just start educating myself. I didn’t find it. I think it found me somehow.

People called you the “Queen of the Blues,” but you had another nickname – how did you become “Ace”?

Well, I tell that story in the song “Ace of Blues” and how when my blues heroes would come to Antone’s – I mean, “Angela” is a lot of syllables, if you’re yelling at somebody across the room or something. And so a friend of mine, I think, had started calling me “Ace.” And it has a great connotation of doing something well.

Say something about the rhythm section. Where did you find these players?

They were all friends or just people that I knew or knew of. And Bob Brown, my husband, really helped me put together two different bands for the studio. The only player that was the same all the way through was ‘Mighty’ Mike Schermer, the guitarist. I have to have a strong guitarist to be able to sing blues.

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Angela Strehli with Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983, photo by unknown fan.

There’s a song at near the end of the album, “SRV” – of course, a lot of folks know that stands for Stevie Ray Vaughan, someone you knew when he was just starting to play in Austin. What did Stevie mean to you? And can you say a little bit more about how you mentored him in those early days?

When he came to town, he just started hanging out at Antone’s during the daytime because he was hoping that some of his heroes might show up for whatever reason – maybe a soundcheck or just because. And that actually did happen: Albert King was one person who happened to come in, and they got connected there. And that turned out to be a wonderful thing for Stevie.

The same thing happened with Stevie and I. He had been playing in a band, but he realized that if he wanted to do what he wanted to do, he would have to strip it down to a trio. And that meant he had to be out front singing. So one day he came to me, and I was just working on something on the stage or something, and he said, “Look, I don’t know where to start.” So I said, “Stevie, just think of one song that you love. Just one song. And start singing it. Sing it around the house. Sing it loud and proud for as long as it takes until it just becomes a part of you.” The song he chose was something I used to always have in my setlist, “Texas Flood.” And eventually, there was no need for me to have that in my setlist anymore.

Angela, imagine how history would have been different if you had not had those conversations with Stevie Ray telling him to go after that song that meant so much to him.

And of course, I miss him terribly. It took me years to write a song that was a tribute to Stevie and I. I’m still happy with it.

You’ve sung so many of these blues classics over the years. Do you have a favorite on the album, one that you never get tired of singing?

Hmm. Well, that’s a hard question to choose. But I do love what some people call the “hard blues.” And so the Otis Rush song is one I could really get my teeth into. It’s just something about the intensity that I love. And he sang and played with such intensity to me. He was a true hero of mine.

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