Posted July 2017
Rarely does an artist grab one’s attention right out of the musical chute. Sometimes, their music must grow on you. Other times, you’ll love some aspects of their work but other parts turn you off.
In the case of Texas born and bred Ruthie Foster, her voice, musicianship and songwriting mastery will grab you from the git go and won’t let you go. Such is the case with Ruthie Foster. To say that the woman has the voice of an angel my sound a bit hokey but it would, in fact, be an understatement.
Her amazing talent has placed her on stage with the Allman Brothers as well as singing with such greats as Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi. The accolades and awards she’s received aren’t too shabby, either. She’s received the Living Blues Critic’s Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year, the Grand Prix du Disque award from the Académie Charles-Cros in France, seven Blues Music Awards, and three Austin Music Awards.
I caught up with Ruthie while she was on tour. She’d literally just stepped off the hotel elevator and walking into her hotel room when I called. After she got settled in and caught her breath, I asked about her church related musical background and influences while growing up in Gause, Texas.
“Well, it was Baptist – the Missionary Baptist Church. The artists that I did a lot of were Dorothy Norwood on guitar, a lot of
Andre Crouch. So, yeah, that was the stuff that I was listening to growing up. And, of course, the staple songs that come out of the church. We had a youth choir, I guess you could call it, that would take the songs and spin ‘em around, which is really where a lot of that comes from when I do that on my own albums. Just take a song and put a little spin on it so that it doesn’t sound old timey. Try to give it a little something.
“We would take songs like Pass Me Not Oh Gentle Savior and speed it up a little bit and give it a little guitar riff. We’d push the limits as far as we could go with the sisters in the church. They kinda liked it, though. They were glad to see us involved in the church. We made it fun because we were there all the time. I grew up with a lot of cousins and we were always involved with the church, whether it was helping keep it clean, keeping the graveyard clean, or just cleaning the church, even. I was always there – choir practice on Wednesdays. It was just down the road from my grandmother’s where I spent a lot of my summers and a lot of my time. It was just another house. It was our other house. Yeah, very much part of the family.”
I was curious as to what or whom had pushed her towards playing the guitar.
“I grew up watching a lot of TV and it was during that time when everybody had a variety show. I remember watching the Glen Campbell Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Midnight Special Olivia Newton-John had a show for a minute and I loved that. The Mac Davis Show. A lot of these people were musicians that played guitar. I just thought that that was the coolest thing to play guitar. Plus, it’s portable. So, I could do that to bring something different to the gospel music I was doing as a kid, traveling from church to church. I had played piano but bringing a guitar, that was something really different. And, it kind of opened me up to different types of churches. The Church of God in Christ, they were more contemporary instruments that they would use. And what we called, ‘Holiness Churches,’ that’s where any instruments were used. It really opened up my world to going to being in a different type of denomination when it came to playing the songs that I did. So, I loved that! I played piano, but guitar became my mainstay because it was something really different.”
If you haven’t heard Ruthie’s latest CD, Joy Comes Back, do. Order it now. It’s that good. I asked Ms. Foster why she chose that title for the disc.
“Well, it was the title of one of the songs on the CD. We looked through them all and thought, ‘Well, this one pretty much says it all’ because this CD came about in the middle of a big transition. My personal life was changing. I was moving out of a long-term relationship and trying to figure out how to co-parent a small one in a respectful way. Turning into my fifties, getting well into my fifties, that was a big transition, has been. Turned fifty-three a few weeks ago. That was the age that my mother passed. So, getting to that age was something really different.
“And, quite frankly, I was really working a lot on the road and I needed a break from recording. I didn’t spend much time in the studio all at once to make this record. I kinda went in when I was actually rested. That way, I was able to find my joy, if you will, in recording again. It didn’t feel like, ‘Well, it’s time to make another CD.’ I was able to do it in my own time. I paid for it myself, the recording part of it. I felt more in control of what I wanted to do on this record. Not to say that I never had control, I just felt more in it even though I didn’t write much for it. I did write a lot but a lot of the songs I had, I wasn’t ready to share that just yet.
“Dan and myself just had a pow wow and decided to put the one about opening up to a new relationship on the CD because that was part of my transition: coming out of a relationship; being single – learning how to do that, again. And, then, meeting someone I really wanted to be close to – a really, really delicate part of my life. Learning how to navigate around that and having a kid and having an ex – all of that.
“I had some difficult times but I had music and I had this studio, this little, tiny studio that Dan had around the corner and I just kind of found my way back to music, to recording, to being okay with where everything landed and where everybody landed, and my personal life, and just my own journey, being in my fifties and all.”
Ruthie shared about the process of putting together Joy Comes Back.
“It took about two and a half years to do because I didn’t sit down in one week and just record. I really took my time with it. On a few days when I thought I was ready to record, Dan knew enough about me to just hold that space for me and let me just kind of sit and drink coffee and watch funny videos for a while so I could come down from being on the road. So, it took a while. I didn’t go into it ready, I really didn’t, to record. I spent a lot of time just doing side work – as a background vocalist or doing commercials that he (Dan) was working on. It gives a chance to meet a lot of side guys – side men like Joe Vitale, the drummer on this album, was working on another project when I met him. We met at the studio. He was working for someone else.
“So, it gave me a chance to kinda be a musician and be a listener. I did a lot of listening to a lot of different songs and different types of genres. So, yeah, it took a while – about two and a half years. And, this was different because, I guess, because of that. I took my time with it. I didn’t write it and I do get a little beef about that sometimes but I’m over it. You know? When a song – when it just says what I want it to say, there’s just no reason to not re-record these tunes. They were done so well! Like the two written by Grace Pettis who happens to be the daughter of somebody I actually toured with. I toured with Pierce Pettis for a while – a few shows in Texas, anyway. So, first of all, getting the chance to see Grace, again. I had met her a few years ago and see how her songwriting has just come full-blossom was exciting to me! And to even to hopefully be a part of her career as it grows and to honor her writing, that was just huge for me to be able to do.”
When asked which song would she use as a calling card, so to speak, to entice them to purchase the CD, Ruthie said:
“Hmmmm. Probably War Pigs just because it’s different. Ha! Ha! My version! A lot of them, really. Good Sailor that was written by Grace because that, again, is saying what I wanted to say. Working Woman is another great one. That’s my Phenomenal Woman. It’s the new version of woman power. Yeah, those are the ones that stick out.”
Since Ruthie revealed that the CD is revealing and introspective, I asked which song was the most personal to her.
“Oooh. Probably Forgiven - the last cut - because it really started with that song. Dan asked me to go along with him when The Weepies came to town to play there in Austin. I’ve been a big fan of theirs. I didn’t even know that they were on the road. So, we went to go see them and had a great time at that concert. I met up with Dan a few days later and he let me hear this song because he’s a good friend of Deb Talen.
This song just floored me. He put this song on and by the end of it, I was in tears because it said exactly where I was. This is the song that started the whole recording process for me. Up to that point, I was just in his studio doing backup work. But, then, it occurred to me that that was where I was in my life – with my personal life. It was just time to let go and just gently move out of the dark side of it all. I pushed myself to just go through it. I tried to go around it. I tried to close the door and avoid it. But I just gently pushed myself through it. That song is exactly that.
“That song has a way of opening up – it had a way of opening up my spirit and touch me in a way that I didn’t expect at all. So, it kinda started with Forgiven. Learning how to forgive myself. All the shame and blame that goes along with leaving a relationship – especially with a kid involved. It was HUGE.”
When I offered that one finds out who their true friends are in situations like a divorce, she said, “Yeah, you find out who – I had friends who held me up. They definitely kept me up right. That’s very true.”
The compelling question that was weighing heavily on my mind and I was dying to ask was what made Ms. Foster choose to cover the Black Sabbath classic, War Pigs. Don’t get me wrong. She does an amazing, bluesy, acoustic version of the tune that won’t let you go. I just couldn’t get my head around what provoked her to cover that song and what would the ladies back at her childhood church think about her singing it.
“Ha! Ha! It’s not a statement at all for me. I always thought the song was a blues song to me. It’s like, what would it be like if Son House was in a room somewhere with his resonator and stompin’ the floor and doing what he does with that big, booming voice and just sing it and Ozzy walked in and they decided to just sit down and have a little acoustical moment. I just thought the song really needed that. Throw it down. Let that melody in how it starts really ring out. I happened to have the resonator on. I think that I had just done Richland Woman Blues. I’d been sitting on the idea but I put my slide on and asked Dan to roll some tape because this could be fun. And it turned out that it really worked. We stocked the tape, set up the mics, and recorded it for real. It really was an experiment. It was something that was in my head. The idea was in my head – just seeing if it would even work or just fun. And, what it says, I found it interesting because it’s pretty much right on time, too, as far as what it’s talking about. For whatever it’s worth, hopefully that song – I can do my part in putting it back out there and letting folks realize that the song is very relevant, even now. Very interesting.”
As for what she hopes people take away from Joy Comes Back, Ruthie said:
“That this is my journey and that I am a real person even though I do these kinds of inspirational songs and I know that a lot of our shows are very uplifting. But, at the same time, I want folks to know that, yeah, I’ve been there and I’ve been there recently and had to re-learn to get myself back up again. If anything, to give people permission – it’s okay, it’s okay to be down. But the deal is to surround yourself with true friends, first of all, and know that time is huge healer. And that time, plus music, is a beautiful thing! Keep music in your life. I think it’s really important.”
Looking ahead, Ruthie shared what is on her radar for the next year to five years.
“Mmmmm. Goodness gracious! Well, watch my baby girl grow up and come up with more exciting costumes for Halloween that blow her away. Every year’s a challenge. I hope to keep recording because I’m finding my love for that, again. I like travelling. I would like to get to where I’m actually doing more work within communities that I’m visiting and actually get a chance to visit with people when I’m there. That means less shows and more time really engaging with schools and all that. I’m fine with that. I hope to become more of a teacher because I’m learning a lot. That’s the best way to learn is to teach through my music. That may just be to keep doing what I’ve been doing. I’m cool with that.”
As we wrapped up our chat, I asked Ms. Foster how she wanted to be remembered and what she hoped her legacy would be.
Yeah, that’s really close to what I just said. I want to make every day count. I want to be remembered for putting out the healing aspect of music can do for you. Just reminding people that music can heal in any situation – whether it’s my music or someone else’s. I just think it’s really, really important. And these are things that I’ve learned over the years with being able to have conversations with folks like Pete Seeger and Odetta and Peter Yarrow – people who’ve been there when music was a huge part of change within the government. These people stood up and put their own careers on the line in order to be a part of that change with what they do and that was music. That says a lot – so the rest of us can get out here and sing songs like Phenomenal Woman and Working Woman and just be true to who we are. We’ve had these people come before us and they stood up for change and they used their music – they threw down a gauntlet through song and voice. That’s a beautiful thing.
“So, yeah, just that folks remember that music has played a huge part in our history and our culture – in any culture, and that starts healing.”
Enjoy Ruthie Foster’s healing music on her latest disc, Joy Comes Back, and keep up with the latest on her at RuthieFoster.com.