Throughout the blues world, almost everyone identifies Ruthie Foster as one of the most laid-back artists on the circuit, something that’s clearly evident in a trophy case that contains dozens of honors, including the two most recent Blues Music Awards as traditional female vocalist of the year.
After all, anyone who’s crossed paths with her knows she’s as downhome as her Texas roots, and her music – which mixes blues, gospel, soul and more – carries forward the songster tradition established by the first generation of bluesmen a century ago. Usually backing herself on acoustic Gibson guitar in a small-band setting, her golden pipes deliver a potent musical stew that warms both your heart and soul.
Don’t be fooled, though. Ruthie’s got plenty of uptown cool in her, too.
It might come as a shock when fans discover that she’s fronting a 14-piece orchestra and backup singers and swinging from the hip old-school on her latest album, which was recorded live in Austin. And believe it or not, it’s the culmination of a longstanding dream to break out of the mold she’s establishing during the past 20-odd years and to return to the roots that longtime listeners haven’t a clue exists.
A gentle, friendly, welcoming person whose manner makes you comfortable the moment she opens her mouth, Blues Blast caught up with Ruthie by phone recently. Instead of being on a tour that would have taken her to Memphis, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., as she’d planned, she was relaxing at home with daughter Maya as the world around her quickly screeched to a halt.
She remained calm, cool, collected and soft-spoken despite the troubles that are currently sweeping the globe, clearly exhibiting the positive energies she exhibits on stage as she moves confidently from one song to the next and leaving folks in even the cheapest of seats feeling like they’re the only folks in the room.
Considering that she was raised in a family of gospel singers and blues lovers, though, it’s not surprising.
“I grew up in a family of churchgoers, for sure,” she says, “and everybody sang. In fact, singin’ solo in the choir was kinda a rite of passage in my family. Everybody had to do it.”
It was an accomplishment she achieved at age 14.
Foster spent her childhood growing up in the unincorporated town of Gause, Texas, a hamlet with more churches than schools and about 400 residents who live in the Brazos Valley about 150 miles southeast of Dallas and a half-hour west of College Station.
Her earliest influences came through the recordings of gospel superstars Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson as well as Aretha Franklin and the Rev. James Cleveland, the man credited with updating the artform in the ‘30s after it had been created by Rev. Thomas Dorsey –formerly known as the blues singer Georgia Tom, a decade before. Cleveland’s work laid the groundwork for modern gospel, which incorporates elements of soul, pop and jazz today.
“My mother used to listen to all those albums,” Foster says, “especially Sister Rosetta and the young Aretha, when her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, put out albums and Aretha was part of the service. I grew up listenin’ to that.
“And my dad had a pretty fair collection of blues cassette tapes, and would make sure I’d have access to those. He’d actually make up a playlist of different songs for me to listen to…Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins and others.”
The most heavily recorded country bluesman of his era, Hopkins grew up in Centerville — not far in Lone Star State terms from Gause, and Ruthie actually got to meet several members of his Houston-based family at the dedication of a statue honoring him in neighboring Crockett, near the site of a juke joint where he used to play.
The songster tradition – a mix of folk songs, ballads, dance and minstrel tunes – came to her “by osmosis,” Foster says. “It’s in my DNA, for sure!”
Despite that influence, however, the seven-time winner of the Blues Foundation’s Koko Taylor Award consistently delivers music in a contemporary manner despite being rooted in the sounds of previous generations. And all of her albums reflect what’s going in her personal life and the growth she achieves along the way. Take her most recent previous CD, Joy Comes Back, as an example. It was a vehicle that celebrated her recovery following an extremely difficult romantic breakup.
Ruthie’s first instrument was piano, not guitar, and she was taught by her great uncle, her grandmother’s brother. “He played piano in the church,” she says. “So he worked with me on playin’ the organ next to him. And then I took formal lessons when I got into fifth- or sixth-grade all the way through high school.”
She turned to guitar after discovering Phoebe Snow — the singer-songwriter-guitarist from New York with a four-octave range, whose first two albums went gold in the ‘70s – and someone who left Ruthie speechless when they finally met.
“The ‘70s were all about musical variety TV shows,” Foster remembers. “I remember seein’ her on The Midnight Special (which ran late-night on Fridays on NBC between 1972 and 1981). I said to myself: ‘Oh, my gosh! This is awesome! I want to do that!’
“Janis Ian – (best known for the monster hit ‘At Seventeen’) – was another influence. Seein’ a woman play a guitar — just by herself…without a band – really stood out. It was kinda like watchin’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”
In that era, Ruthie notes, it was an extremely rare event to see a woman performing on her own, adding: “I come from a world where men play guitar – even in the churches. When the groups would come by, you didn’t see very many women playin’ guitar at all where I lived.
“But things have changed. Today, I love goin’ on the blues cruise and hearin’ women just wreck the place on guitar and bass!”
After high school, Ruthie relocated to Waco to attend McClennon Community College, graduating from its commercial music program with a concentration in vocal performance. She also studied audio engineering for a couple of semesters and fronted the Joe Silva Blues Band, which was composed of fellow students, too.
“It was fun – and a big lesson on how to front a band,” she says. “We played smaller towns in the area, but never Austin, opened for the Fabulous Thunderbirds a few times and played quinceaneras (15th birthday celebrations) a couple of times, too,” she laughs. “That was our call to fame right there!
“Okay! We’re great! We’re makin’ it now!”
Foster’s life changed dramatically when she enlisted in the Navy.
“I really wanted to do somethin’ other than music,” she says now. “I got to a point where I kinda burned myself out. I was still livin’ in Waco for about a year after graduating and workin’ in clubs as either a side person to the audio guy or just workin’ the bar or just playin’.
“The recruiting officers are usually all lined up with each other – Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines. I looked through the window of the Navy office, and the guy had his feet up on his desk and he’s readin’ a paper. I thought: ‘Okay. That’s pretty relaxed. Let’s try this! I can do that!’
“I can still remember my recruiter, Gail Chandler. It was the one office where everyone seemed relaxed. Officer Chandler introduced me on how to chill – and get paid for it, too! (laughs)”
But Foster didn’t stay away from music for long. After boot camp, she attended the Navy School of Music in Norfolk, Va., before being stationed in Charleston, S.C., where she became part of Navy Band Southeast, an operation that oversees 15 individual musical groups.
Ruthie was assigned to Pride, a show band whose duties include playing pop and funk at recruitment drives and much, much more. But she could have had a higher calling.
“There’s another unit called The Commodores, which plays in Washington, D.C.,” she says. “I tried out for it and was accepted, but turned it down. I’d just gotten married, and just went to see if I could get in. Am I good enough for this?
“When they told me I was, I figured out right in front of the admiral: I don’t really want this (laughs). No disrespect, but I really hurt my commanding officer when I turned it down because there was an automatic pay increase for him, extra two stripes…extra everything.
“For me, though, it was like signin’ up for another four years plus – and I really wanted to do things on my own terms – to sing what I want to sing and play what I want to play.
“And I did! I got busy.”
While still in uniform, she returned to college in Charleston, studied broadcasting and ran sound as a production assistant during TV news broadcasts there, too. After her discharge, Foster moved to New York City, where she tried her hand at being a folk and blues singer, quickly drawing the attention of executives from Atlantic Records who wanted to sign her to a developmental contract.
“Who’s gonna pass that up?” she asks.
“I got in there and got a really good lawyer who counseled me on what happens to artists when they’re handed a contract that’s really not a record deal – it’s a wait-and-see to a what’s-gonna-become-of-this-artist deal. It’s not the best deal, but it’s got the Atlantic stamp around your name.
“I got out and I used that, and it got me into any club I wanted to play and into the front door of any songwriter…any Grammy Award-winning songwriter’s living room…to sit and play and learn how to write songs.
“That’s how I got to meet Guy Davis for the first time. He was playin’ at Terra Blues down on Bleaker Street and my husband at the time introduced us. Guy let me play during his breaks. That’s how I got my break, really, playin’ the Bitter End and all those great clubs.”
Foster’s time in Manhattan — and her relationship with Atlantic — came to a sudden end in 1993 when she returned to Texas to take care of her mother, who’d been battling lupus for years and was experiencing kidney failure that would eventually claim her life. Ruthie became a camera operator and production assistant at KBTX-TV in Bryan, which was located down the street from where her mom was being cared for in assisted living, and sang locally.
In 1997, a year after her mom’s passing, Ruthie finally released her first CD, entitled Full Circle, initiating a relationship with Blue Corn Music that endures today. Joy Comes Back was the tenth release in her career, which includes three Grammy nominations, 2019 induction in the Texas Music Hall of Fame and work with Papa Mali, The Blind Boys of Alabama, William Bell, the Funky Meters horns, Derek Trucks and a host of others.
The honors have come fast and furious, including selection as Living Blues magazine’s Critics’ Poll blues artist of the year honors after the release of The Truth According to Ruthie Foster in 2010 and the prestigious Berresford Prize – an unrestricted $25,000 award presented by the United States Artists organization, acknowledging the significant contributions she’s made toward the advancement, well-being and care of other artists.
Through it all, she’s remained humble and grateful – so much so that, when she captured her first BMA award, she wondered if she really deserved it because of all the diverse influences that color her music.
That feeling ended quickly, however, when she crossed paths with Koko Taylor for the first time at the ceremony. After being introduced by Koko’s daughter, Cookie, Taylor quickly complimented her and asked: “When are you gonna write something for me?”
Instantly, Ruthie realized that not only was she worthy, but that she’d truly become a keeper of the flame when it comes to delivering traditional blues for future generations.
Foster takes a break from her stellar touring band and takes step back into her Navy past for her new CD, Live at the Paramount, which is due out on May 15. It’s a tour de force production arranged by John Beasley, who’s worked with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Sergio Mendes. The orchestra includes a ten-piece horn section as well as a trio of backup singers.
“For folks who don’t know my history,” she says with a chuckle, “that’s what I did with the Navy. One of the things I did was to front a 15-piece big band, and I also was in a funk band as well.
“I so-o-o loved it!
“One of the things I did in Norfolk at the School of Music was spend a lot of time in their library archives. No one else would do that. I don’t know why because there’s so much history there. These guys still have the archives from the USO shows with Bob Hope, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Edie Gorme and Robert Goulet, Nancy Wilson.
“I was in there, puttin’ these reels (of tape) on the machine and just listenin’ to all of this music that you just don’t hear any more – live recordings that no one’s heard. I just fell in love with the music and the way big band singers sing.
“The biggest lesson I learned,” Ruthie says, “was that you’ll never out-sing horns because they’re brass and they’re blowin’ right at you the entire time. The secret is to find those in-betweens and just keep it swingin’, and Frank Sinatra and Ella were just brilliant in that. So I studied them for six months, and never got the chance to do it (sing with a big band) again.
“This CD gave me the opportunity to do songs – most of them — that I had recorded before and get a top arranger in Mr. John Beasley out of L.A.
“I got a chance to do his arrangements with a band over in Europe a couple of times and decided to just go ahead and record it here. I used Austin players for this, a couple of whom are professors at the University of Texas, and it turned out really well.”
Squeezed in among such Foster favorites as “Death Came a-Knockin’,” “Runaway Soul,” “The Ghetto,” “Stone Love,” “It Might Not Be Right” and her smoldering version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” among others, are covers of the Quincy Jones/Tony Bennett take on Sinatra’s “Fly Me to The Moon” and Ella’s version of Bobby Darin’s standard, “Mack the Knife.”
Fear not, however. Despite the big band arrangements and pop classics, all of the tunes in the set come complete with the true bluesy feel that Ruthie always instills in her work. There’s a huge connection to gospel through it all, too, she says, because the same elements that make gospel singers so great makes crooners shine, too.
“It’s the same energy,” she says. “It’s about movin’ the room.”
That show was so much fun that Ruthie’s thinking about doing something similar with her regular band of merrymakers somewhere down the road. Right now, however, she’s more concerned about their well-being and that of their families now that they’re no longer working and on the road.
Meanwhile, she’s busy at home, talking with family, singing karaoke with her daughter — who’s about to turn age nine and introduces her on the new disc — and thinking about the multitude of friends and fans she’s made circling the globe.
“I think I’m in trouble,” Ruthie chuckles. “I’ve got a little singer on my hands!”
On a more serious note, she says: “These are tough times for all of us. Stay strong. Stay positive – and put some music on. Dance. Move. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find some solace in the music that I make, too!”
Find out more about Ruthie, her tunes and where she’ll be appearing traveling when the world returns to normal by visiting her website: www.ruthiefoster.com