Blues Route: Angela Strehli

Dean Budnick on December 8, 2022
Blues Route: Angela Strehli

“On my previous records, I would try to include as many originals as I thought were worthy of being on there. This time, though, I wanted to tip my hat to the artists who influenced and inspired me,” Angela Strehli says of her latest album, Ace of Blues.

The new release finds the renowned vocalist interpreting songs written or associated with Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby “Blue” Bland and other luminaries. However, unlike many such projects, Strehli has a personal connection to most every musician she honors on the record.

“With the exception of Chuck Berry, I knew every one of those artists,” she reveals. “I believe I had occasion to be on the same stage with everyone else at Antone’s. That’s where I got to meet a lot of my idols— everybody from Albert King to B.B. King to Eddie Taylor and Jimmy Reed. Otis Rush was another big deal for me.”

In 1975, the Texas native co-founded the Austin club Antone’s with Clifford Antone, which would go on to become a globally lauded destination for the blues.

“Clifford was probably the only one who believed that having blues seven nights a week in Austin was going to work,” Strehli says with a laugh. “But he thought there were enough college students and other young people who wanted to get hip to something that wasn’t popular at the time. Clifford would book these artists for multiple shows, so we would hang out with them during the day because they wouldn’t have much else to do. Stevie Vaughan would be sitting around, waiting to see if one of his heroes might show up. People like Albert King would come by, and we’d buy them lunch. It was like blues college for a lot of people. It was so much fun.

“The Fabulous Thunderbirds was our house band, with Jimmie Vaughan and Kim Wilson. That was really important because someone like Otis Rush could come in and be absolutely confident that they would be backed up properly. Otis was particular, and I remember he was shocked by the very first soundcheck because the band had done their homework and knew all his stuff.”

Strehli’s role at the club was expansive and often all[1]encompassing. “I would do everything that was not being done,” she recalls. “Some of it was the normal day-to-day operations involved with running a place like that—the original Antone’s was real big— and some of it involved setting up the staging and all that.”

Even so, she remained an esteemed performer in her own right. She co-founded Southern Feeling with W.C. Clark and Denny Freeman, before launching the Angela Strehli Band—receiving five consecutive Best Female Vocalist awards from the Austin Chronicle.

Little Milton, another artist Strehli celebrates on Ace of Blues, once approached her about touring with him, but the singer’s responsibilities at Antone’s kept her close to home.

“That blew my mind,” she acknowledges. “I had the deepest respect for him as a performer and just as a real classy person. It was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received but, at that point, I felt that I couldn’t leave town and do a proper tour with anybody.”

In addition to the blues selections, the album also includes a moving cover of Dorothy Love Coates’ “I Wouldn’t Mind Dying.” Strehli notes, “I have a giant collection of gospel records, and I’ve been to many gospel shows going back to Austin. I got to see and hear incredible artists, everybody from Inez Andrews to Shirley Caesar to the Clara Ward Singers. Dorothy Love Coates was probably the preeminent artist during the golden era of gospel in the 1950s. I idolize all of those people and, if I’m feeling a little on the low side, I know which section of my record collection to go to.”

The final track on Ace of Blues is an original composition, “SRV,” which pays tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Strehli had already recorded it for her previous record, 2005’s Blue Highway. However, she explains, “That record was barely distributed, and it makes me happy that more people are going to hear the song. It was hard to lose him at 35 years old. He really did raise the awareness of the blues internationally, which helped all of us.”

It was Strehli who initially taught Vaughan the words to what would become one of his signature songs, “Texas Flood,” leading her to drop the tune from her own setlists.

“It ended up being the title track of his breakout record,” she says. “So I lost a song in my repertoire but for a good reason. It was a Texas artist who recorded it in the first place, and it was never a well-known song. But it’s well-known now and that makes me happy.”

Strehli left her home state in the mid ‘90s, eventually settling in Marin County, Calif., where she now lives with her husband Bob Brown. They currently operate the restaurant/music venue Rancho Nicasio. Brown was the original co-owner of Slim’s in San Francisco with Boz Scaggs and also managed Huey Lewis and the News, as well as Pablo Cruise. He was the person who initially encouraged Strehli to record the new record, and produced it alongside her.

Brown writes, “This record was a joy to make. I very much wanted Ace to give the studio one more shot, while I thought she still ‘had it.’ She sang her heart out and, in only 12 days, we were done. My wife is as genuine and soulful a woman you will meet. Her voice tells it all.”

Strehli’s tour in support of the album will lead her back to Antone’s in mid-November. This return engagement is all the more fitting because Ace of Blues marks the first new release for a relaunched Antone’s Records, where she had once served as President.

“New West has acquired the entire Antone’s catalog,” Strehli says with admiration. “So the record will be out on New West/Antone’s, which is just so sweet and so respectful on their part.”