Ask a dozen people to describe the blues and you may very well end up with a dozen different responses. For some, it’s the woeful cry of pedal steel in a traditional country song. For others, it’s a gut-wrenching guitar solo. Maybe it’s a plaintive vocal in a pop standard, the chord pattern in a classic metal song, the wailing saxophone in an instrumental jazz tune, or even an upbeat song that brings back melancholic memories. Whatever your descriptor, “the blues” in music is personal and subjective yet universal and recognizable: you know it when you hear it and by the way it touches you.
Blues music and guitars have a longstanding personal relationship. Artists such as Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi have become iconic for bringing their voices and techniques to audiences worldwide. But they aren’t alone. For generations, women have played blues guitar, spanning styles and sounds, and interpreting the genre in their own ways.
The umbrella of blues is enormous, and it’s one that every musician and music fan should explore as a fulcrum for all Western genres that have come since. Whether you’ve been enjoying the blues for years, or are just starting to dig into the genre, here’s a mix of iconic and emerging artists you’ll want to know:
Etta Baker was born in Caldwell County, North Carolina, in 1913. Proficient on piano, violin, guitar, and banjo, she got her start performing at local dances and parties with her father and music teacher, Boone Reid, and her siblings. In 1956, she met Paul Clayton, who recorded her on an album of Appalachian music, but after its release, she turned her attention to raising her family and working at a textile company. Years later, Baker decided to pursue music full time. After performing at festivals and concerts, she released her first album, One Dime Blues, in 1991—the same year she received the 1991 National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship. Three more albums followed. Baker is recognized for playing Piedmont Blues, a syncopated, fingerpicking style in which the thumb plays a bass pattern supporting the melody, which is picked on the treble strings. Baker, who passed away in 2006, was still performing well into her 90s.
Recognized as a premiere acoustic blues guitarist, Rory Block has dedicated herself to keeping the tradition of Delta blues alive with her mastery of fingerpicking and slide guitar. Block has released more than twenty critically acclaimed albums and garnered five Blues Music Awards. Her most recent project is The Mentor Series, an ongoing collection of tribute albums recorded in homage to blues artists that she knew, among them her mentors Son House and Reverend Gary Davis. Block’s goal with the series is “giving credit where credit is due, and keeping the names of these founding musicians vivid and alive in our collective consciousness.”
In 1984, Worcester, Massachusetts, native Joanna Connor packed up her guitar and relocated to Chicago. It wasn’t long before she became a regular on the blues circuit, sitting in with the likes of James Cotton, Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells, and easily holding her own, whether losing herself in wailing blues riffs or ripping into aggressive solos. In 1989, she released her debut album, appropriately titled Believe It—because Connor is the real deal—and became an internationally acclaimed touring artist. She mostly left the road in 2002, but she never stopped performing in and around the Chicago area, where she averages around 200 shows a year. In 2016, she released the long-awaited Six String Stories, her first studio album in over a decade. September found her on tour again, playing select shows on the East Coast. A Gibson endorsing artist, Connor plays a Les Paul Classic 1960 reissue that she’s owned since 1990. “It’s home for me,” she stated about her guitar. “I know it like my own skin.”
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotton
If you’re not familiar with her name, you likely know Elizabeth Cotten’s legacy song, “Freight Train,” which she wrote as a child, and which has been performed, covered, and recorded countless times. Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1893, Cotten taught herself to play guitar and banjo on her brother’s instruments, reversing them so that she could play with her left hand. She created what became known as “Cotten style,” picking the bass strings with her fingers and treble with her thumb. Her long journey from wife and mother to recording and performing artist is a must-read story. In her later years, Cotten was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as a “living treasure,” and in 1985—at age 90—took home a Grammy Award for “Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording,” for her album, Elizabeth Cotten Live.
When Shannon Curfman released her debut album, Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions (Arista) in 1999, she immediately turned heads, as she was only 14 and was already a well-versed guitarist and blues musician. The singer/songwriter/guitarist has appeared on numerous morning and late-night television programs, and has shared stages with the likes of Buddy Guy, the Indigo Girls, Carlos Santana, and Jeff Beck. In 2006, she launched her own label, Purdy Records, and released an EP, Take It Like A Man, followed by two full-length albums: Fast Lane Addiction (2007) and What You’re Getting Into (2010). Curfman is currently working on a new solo album.
While growing up in Los Angeles during the 1960s, Debbie Davies developed a passion for jazz, blues, big band, and pop music—thanks to her musician parents and their vast record collection. Women in those days were expected to play acoustic guitars, not plug in and turn it up, but Davies was having none of that. Once she discovered British blues-rock, she picked up the electric guitar and never looked back. Davies added cracks to the music-industry glass ceiling: In the mid-80s she became the lead guitarist for all-woman blues band Maggie Mayall and the Cadillacs, then in 1988 she began a three-year stint as a member of the legendary Albert Collins’ band, the Icebreakers. Since then, Davies has continued to be a trailblazer; she’s recorded a dozen solo albums, received ten nominations for Blues Music Awards, and won Best Contemporary Female Blues Artist in 1997 and 2010. Her latest release is 2015’s Love Spin.
Debbie Davies, Samantha Fish, Ana Popovic, Danielle Nicole
Samantha Fish self-released her first album, Live Bait, in 2009. Two years later, Ruf Records showcased her alongside Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde on an album titled Girls With Guitars and billing on the annual Blues Caravan Tour, which is famed for introducing new blues artists to audiences in the U.S., U.K., and Europe. That same year Ruf released Fish’s solo album, Runaway. The album was named Best Artist Debut at the 2012 Blues Music Awards in Memphis—establishing her as a rising contemporary blues guitarist. In 2017, Fish has produced two new albums, each of which find her exploring a new direction. Released in March, Chills & Fever, is a collection of 60s-70s rock and R&B covers recorded members of garage/soul band the Detroit Cobras. Her upcoming Belle Of The West (out 11/3) features eleven songs — eight originals and three covers — with Fish on acoustic guitars.
Born in Belgrade, Serbia, Ana Popovic grew up surrounded by music. She discovered the blues though her father’s record collection, and at age 15 taught herself to play on his guitar. Popovic took formal lessons in classical guitar and jazz, and while both still influence her work, her heart is in the blues. She has been nominated for six Blues Music Awards, has been a part of the Experience Hendrix project since 2014, and is endorsed by Fender and D’Angelico. Popovic’s albums have placed in the Top 5 on the Billboard Blues charts. Her latest, Trilogy, is a 23-song, triple-disc collection of funk, rock, blues, and jazz.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Toshi Reagon has been onstage since she was 17, and has performed everywhere from small clubs to Carnegie Hall. Born in Atlanta before moving to Washington, D.C., she was raised on music and civil rights. Her parents were members of the SNCC’s Freedom Singers, her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, is the founder of iconic a cappella group Sweet Honey In The Rock, and folk music legend Pete Seeger is her godfather. It’s no wonder that Reagon combined both worlds into a career. She records, produces, writes, collaborates, and since 1996 has fronted her own band, BIGLovely. She was the recipient of a 2009 Out Music Award, 2007 Black Lily Award for Outstanding Performance, and 2004 New York Foundation for the Arts Award for music composition.
With Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and the Freedom Singers at the White House, 2010
Kelly Richey began playing guitar at age 15. In her 30-year career, she has performed more than 4000 shows worldwide and released 16 albums on her label, Sweet Lucy Records. She performs as a solo artist and with her trio that delivers a hard-edge blues rock sound. Based in Cincinnati since 2000, she’s part of the TrueFire online guitar instruction roster, and is the founder of Music for Change, a nonprofit focused on maintaining music education programs in underfunded schools.
Joanne Shaw Taylor
British blues artist Joanna Shaw Taylor was discovered at age 16 by Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. Fifteen years later, she is an international success. She released her debut album, White Sugar, in 2009; both it and her sophomore disc, 2010’s Diamonds In The Dirt, made it to the Top 10 on the Billboard Top Blues Albums chart. She is a three-time winner of British Blues Awards, and in 2002, she toured Europe as a member of Dave Stewart’s band, D.U.P. Her latest album, Wild, was recorded in Nashville and released last year.
Austin, Texas-based Jackie Venson began her musical journey as a classical pianist, and picked up the guitar during her final year of studies at Berklee College of Music. After graduation she found a new home in the blues; A singer, songwriter, and musician, Venson has released two EPs, a full-length album, and maintains a video series on YouTube. Her new EP, Transcends, came out this fall.
Born in South Carolina and based in Nashville, Adia Victoria is unmistakable as a blues artist, but hers is not a blues of aching guitar solos; instead, it’s one of musical and lyrical rawness. She spent three years working on her critically acclaimed, 2016 debut album, Beyond the Bloodhounds, a haunting, emotional collection of songs that merge elements of rock, afro punk, and country into her unique phrasings and tunings.