Featured Interview – Ruthie Foster


Any discussion of this country’s armed forces will usually bring the word ‘discipline’ into the conversation at some point in time.

Without it, our armed forces would essentially be nothing more than a collection of bodies gathered together. Discipline helps keep a unit functioning as a successful one.

The discipline garnered in a tour of duty in our armed forces has also proven it can have a positive effect on a person’s success in the civilian world, as well.

For Texas dynamo Ruthie Foster, the discipline that was engrained upon her during a stint in the U.S. Navy has paid huge dividends in her rise through the ranks of the blues world – even if at first glance there doesn’t seem to be much common ground between ships and the Navy and guitars and the blues.

“I think there’s a whole lot of correlation in how I went about it. I actually went into the Navy because I was a little burnt out on what I was doing musically,” she said. “I was just out of college, and I took a year off being around so much music. And I got back into music in the Navy band and I toured with them for the rest of my term (in the service). And that really did set me up for what I do right now. It taught me how to be a leader in a band and deal with different personalities. It taught me a lot about how to tour and how to rehearse a band. It really set up to be a working musician, successfully.”

Foster burst upon the scene in a big way with 2007’s The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, a release that served notice that a major new talent was set to light up the sky.

Buzzing with Foster’s off-the-chart soulful vocals, while also showcasing her impressive skills at working up and down the neck of a six-string with gut-wrenching intensity, The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster helped pave the way for a pair of nominations (2008-9) in the Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year category at the Blues Music Awards. A year later, at the 2010 BMAs, Foster was named as the Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year.

And if that, or 2009’s The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, didn’t make blues lovers sit up and take notice (it was nominated for a Grammy Award), Foster’s newest album, Let it Burn (Blue Corn Music), is certainly poised to do the trick.

More than just a thrown-together batch of songs that have been played to death in the blues realm, Let it Burn is an interesting collection of songs from all over the map – including works associated with Johnny Cash, Los Lobos, The Black Keys, Adele, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young and Pete Seeger. A challenging collection of songs if there ever was.

“A lot of it was (producer) John Chelew’s ideas. He sent me a list of songs he wanted me to listen to, then I also had a few songs of my own that I’d been sitting on,” said Foster. “We knew we wanted to make this record very different – as in more of an interpretation of songs. It kind of all started out with the arrangement that I had for “Ring of Fire” and then we took it from there. Some of the songs (on the album) had been recorded before, but we did them in a different way – took them in a different direction.”

That different direction the tunes off Let it Burn took also included a bit of a left turn for Foster’s role in the proceedings, as well. For the first time on one of her CDs, she left her guitar sitting in the corner and just solely contributed vocals to the recording sessions.

“This album came together as more of a vocal album for me, because I didn’t really play anything on it, I just sang,” she said. “We wanted to put the emphasis on the vocals on this one. The plan was to concentrate on vocals first and then just let the instrumentation wrap around that.”

Lending a hand to Warren Haynes’ latest solo offering, the excellent Man in Motion (Stax Records), played a bit of a role in determining how Foster approached Let it Burn.

“It kind of worked that way. I’ve always been a believer when it comes to my career, to just stay out of the way when opportunities like that come around,” Foster said. “And the opportunity to do background vocals and tour with Warren – I didn’t want to pass that up. And that just kind of flowed into this project. So (just singing background vocals for Haynes) it really did help prepare me for this project. It really did set me up and helped to keep my head in the game and focus on what I had to do vocally. And Chelew made it a point to let me know months before we went into the studio that he didn’t expect me to play (guitar). He really wanted me to concentrate on singing.”

While Foster certainly hit another home run with her amazing voice on Let it Burn, the cast of musicians that took care of the backing tracks also knocked it clean out of the park, too.

That’s no surprise, considering George Porter Jr. played bass, Ike Stubblefield laid it down on the Hammond B3, Dave Easley took care of the guitar chores and Russell Batiste kept the groove going on drums. That’s a dream team if there ever was one.

“Going into the studio with this great group of musicians from New Orleans was a nice plus. With their background, we just kind of let them do what they do,” Foster said. “I was familiar with George and knew of Ike’s reputation as this master on the B3, but I had no idea just how much of a beautiful, musical mind-reader he is when it comes to playing with others. I’ve never worked with anyone of that caliber on the B3. He really does know that instrument. He wanted the B3 to speak with my voice and I really appreciate his approach to playing.”

While she may not have been immediately familiar with Easley’s guitar work before hand, consider Foster sufficiently impressed with the end results.

“Dave Easley was someone I had never heard of, because we had Derek Trucks and even Warren (Haynes) in mind – but we heard him and then he came in and added some phenomenal atmosphere to the album,” said Foster. “All the fellas were really excellent to work with. Russell was a great add to the mix, as well. He’s a little younger than some of these guys, but he added a little edge to what we were doing. I’m really happy with the way the album turned out.”

William Bell guests on his smash hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and the Blind Boys of Alabama show up to sprinkle a dose of their undeniable magic on four tracks.

“I love the Blind Boys. I’ve had a chance to tour with them a few times and they were gracious enough to come down to New Orleans and put their shine on everything,” Foster said. “You know, when they walk into a room, they really light things up. They came down just to sing on a track or two, but we played them some of the other stuff and they ended up being on quite a bit of the material, which is a really nice plus. I’m really grateful to them for sticking around and doing that.”

Foster’s association with the eclectic Papa Mali (Malcom Welbourne), who produced and played on guitar on her Phenomenal album, might have had a bearing on some of New Orlean’s finest lining up to play on her new disc.

“In a round-about way, I think it did. We’ve been friends for a long time and he had a lot to do with my eventually moving to Austin to live,” she said. “And his background is New Orleans – Louisiana – so I think that was a connection to me getting these guys to play on the new record.”

Truth be told, even though she was born in central Texas’ Brazos Valley, if you looked deep inside Foster, you’d probably find a good deal of blues from Chicago, jazz from New Orleans, soul from Memphis, country from Bakersfield and folk from Greenwich Village, all just waiting to come out through those incredible vocal chords of hers.

And one way or another, by force or by their own choice, those influences do find their way to the surface.

“Usually, I just let that happen (melding of vocal styles), but with this project, we went in with the conscience decision to bring all those elements to the table, because I was just going to focus solely on vocals for this album,” said Foster. “And that was a huge thing for me, to be able to really just focus on how I was going to deliver a song, vocally. And I had a few folks in mind – Cassandra Wilson, who I’m a huge fan of and Norah Jones, I listen to a lot of her music and Mavis (Staples), for sure. She’s at the top of my list. It’s really a precious moment to do a tune and have her in mind, vocally. In fact, on the song “This Time,” the Los Lobos tune, I really had The Staple Singers and Mavis in mind – just to keep it low and not really growly, but just straight-forward with the soul bubbling and simmering.”</p >

Although Foster just had a hand in penning two songs on Let it Burn, she’s constantly got her ears and eyes open for new inspiration that will lead to a song, no matter which direction it might come from.

“I use a lot of my own experiences. And I hope to focus on that in the upcoming year or so, really focus on writing about my experiences,” she said. “But I do also use other people’s stories, like friends’ or families.’ If it’s an extraordinary story, that’s something I can use and try to put my own spin on. And sometimes, it’s taking a title or even a great guitar riff and building off of that.”

With music playing such a significant part in life from such a young age – from singing hymns with her mom, to watching country music shows on TV with her grandfather, there was probably little doubt that Ruthie Foster would end up making her living just like she’s doing these days.

And Foster wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When I do what I do with my music, or come to town with my band, we’re there doing what we love to do. It’s what I truly believe I was put here to do,” she said. “To make music and use music as a healer, because that’s what it’s done for me. It’s gotten me through a lot of things in life, and it still does. And I hope that comes through in my music, no matter what I’m singing about. I believe there’s a way of reaching people in how your approach a song, or how you approach a note. It’s all about the message inside the song. I hope people get a little bit of something they’re missing when they listen to one of my songs.”

Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2012MJStringerPhoto.com

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