Ruthie Foster knows the blues inside and out
By Kevin Ransom
Make no mistake – Ruthie Foster knows the blues inside and out. And her peers heartily agree: Foster’s last three albums have been nominated for Grammy Awards in the Best Blues Album category, and she won three straight Blues Music Awards from 2011 – ’13.
But her music does not hew to the confines of the blues genre. Instead, she consistently cooks up a simmering roux of blues, gospel, classic-soul, country music, folk and roots-rock.
And when choosing songs to cover, she reaches far outside the confines of the blues genre as well. She has put her own, singular spin on songs like The Band’s “It Makes No Difference,” Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Long Time Gone,” Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” The Staple Singers’ “The Ghetto,” and songs by Lucinda Williams, Los Lobos, The Black Keys, and Patty Griffin, among many other writers / artists who fall outside of the blues idiom.
Tying it all together is Foster’s powerful voice, which can raise the rafters -- and, when called upon, can be soulful, seductive, pleading, yearning and / or insistent. “When I sing, what usually comes out of my mouth is closer to gospel,” says Foster. “That was my first experience with singing, in church, as a child.
“But for me, the way I make my music, in a way, it really goes back to when I was a kid, sitting on the floor, with my albums spread out, picking out things that I wanted to hear – some of it was blues, some was gospel, some was soul, it was just a little bit of everything,” says Foster.
“And I often feel like I’m more in the singer-songwriter category. I want to record and perform strong songs, that tell strong stories. When I do live shows and I put together my set list, they’re mostly my own songs, but I will also play great songs by Lucinda or Patty or the Staples, songs that are close to me, that speak to me.
“When people leave one of my shows, I want them to feel like I spoke to them the way the songs speak to me, and that they went someplace with me,” says Foster from her home in Austin, Texas.
Foster’s influences are far-flung, from blues pioneers like Mississippi John Hurt and Jessie Mae Hemphill, to gospel greats like the Staples and Sweet Honey in the Rock, to the classic soul of O.V. Wright and Bobby Womack.
But another important “influence” was her uncle, Vernell Johnson – a truck driver who went on long hauls from their native Texas into Louisiana, Arkansas and other Gulf Coast regions, and compiled a large cache of records along the way.
“He’d come back from one of his trips, and he’d have 15 or 20 new albums, and he’s stay at my mom’s house for a while, and when he went back on the road again, he’d leave them with us. I spent many many hours over the years listening to those great blues, soul, gospel and Cajun albums he’d bring back. So, because of him, I was able to hear things you could never find in a small town like Gause (her Texas hometown).”
“And this started right about the time I was learning to play guitar, when I was 11 or 12, so it had a big influence on how I was developing my own musical style. I have thanked him many many times over the years, and when he comes back, he still likes to play the DJ at parties,” she adds with a laugh.
Her latest album, “Promise of a Brand New Day,” was released last August, but she’s already sorting through songs for her next album.
And she’s going about it a bit differently this time. On her last two albums, she mostly turned over the reins to her producers – who, in both cases, were high-profile producer / artists. Her 2012 release, ‘Let It Burn,” was helmed by noted roots-music producer John Chelew, who has produced the likes of John Hiatt, Richard Thompson, Charlie Musselwhite, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, and many others.
And “Brand New Day” was produced by Meshell Ndegeocello, the acclaimed bassist / singer / songwriter whose own music is also an eclectic mix, drawing on funk, soul, rock and hip-hop.
“On both of those albums, I just wanted to get a sense of how these producers and musicians heard my music, and where they thought they could take it, and get their ideas of what other songs that would suit my voice and my guitar playing and my general feel,” says Foster. As a result, those two albums each had several cover songs, although she did write or co-write seven songs for “Brand New Day.”
“But this time, I want to do more writing, and I’ve been going into a studio here in Austin and putting down some ideas, and finishing some songs I’ve been playing around with for a year or two, and just getting more songs under my belt. I want to be more involved in the pre-recording aspect this time.”
One reason Foster is doing more writing now is that she decided to take some time off the road, in order to spend more time with her four-year-old son, she says. “It’s easier to write when I’m at home than when I’m on the road, so I’ve been getting more done in that regard than I had in the previous few years.”
One “Brand New Day” collaboration, “It Might Not Be Right,” is a song she penned with Stax stalwart William Bell. It has a languid, slow-burn, classic-soul feel, and the song is a personal one for Foster, although it could be applied to other situations. It addresses gay marriage – Foster is gay, “and I’m presently in a relationship with a woman,” she says – but it could just as easily have been about other couplings that were once controversial, like interracial marriages. ‘It might not be right for the world, but it’s all right for this girl,” she sings sweetly and seductively.
“My Kinda Lover,” a Foster original, channels the aforementioned Wright, with its strutting, funky-blues groove – plus a sweltering slide-guitar solo from Doyle Bramhall, a veteran Austin guitar slinger whose main gig the last few years has been playing in Eric Clapton’s band.
“O.V. is always a big influence on me – his music is all over my iPhone,” she says with a laugh.
But the centerpiece of “Brand New Day” just might be “The Ghetto,” which was co-written by Homer Banks, Bonnie Bramlett and Bettye Crutcher, but was famously recorded by the Staple Singers and became one of their, well, staples in concert. She and her band give it a yearning, gospel-soul treatment that would do the Staples proud.
“That song really spoke to me, with the story it tells, and the imagery. I lived on the black side of town in Gause, and even though it was a small town and not the inner city, the song still reminds me of scenes from my youth – lying in bed at night and hearing the train go by, people on their porches and washing their car on Saturday nights, getting ready for church the next morning,” Foster recalls.
“It’s such a visual song, and we loved recording it. And I loved doing a song that is so strongly associated with the Staples. Mavis (Staples) is another hero of mine, and I tell her that every time I see her.”
Kevin Ransom is a longtime music critic and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in The Detroit News, Guitar Player magazine, Rolling Stone, the Ann Arbor News and Musician magazine, among others.