I really had a great time interviewing Ruthie for this article. The article below was published in Curve in 2010.
The opening cut of her newest album, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, starts with a simmering keyboard, drums and then a burst of horns in a Memphis sound just like the old Stax Records, and by the time she wraps her soulful alto around the chorus and sings, “Everybody oughta have a stone love,” you might want to shout hallelujah and kiss the woman next to you. Foster’s been shouting that kind of hallelujah for a while.
“That song means a lot to me right now. I’ve been through it relationship wise and musically, just kind of jumping around.” She adds, “You know you’re alive if you keep moving — not running, just moving. That’s been a lesson for me. Yeah. I’m not running from myself. I guess that comes back to being out. I’m not running from anything.”
Singing about her relationships never seemed important. “I traveled with a woman for years — didn’t think it was that much of a big deal, really.” Even though none of the songs on her new release specifically talk about being with a woman, the theme is about speaking your truth, whatever that is.
Foster’s been speaking the truth for many years, starting as a kid singing in church. Her mother had a huge gospel record collection, including those of guitarist/singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (Tharpe played secular music, too, and was an inspiration to everyone from Elvis to Dylan.) Her mother would put Tharpe on and tell Ruthie, “Here’s a woman, baby, she plays guitar and sings gospel. I thought that was just the coolest thing,” Foster comments. “My mom wanted me to stay in gospel. I was okay with that as long as I could play guitar or piano whenever I wanted.”
Influenced by her dad’s taste in blues artists like Lightening Hopkins, and Beatles songs introduced by a guitar teacher, Foster explored many genres. She idolized Stevie Wonder and loved listening to Phoebe Snow. Later on she joined the military, performing in a funk band. “It was really really fun, with keyboards, horns, dance steps — a real show.” At the same time, she was the vocalist for a big band. She locked herself in the music library and immersed herself in Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and even Frank Sinatra. “When you’ve got 15 or more pieces of brass behind you, you will never out sing that — it’s really about phrasing.”
It was also in those bands where she learned to work an audience, a skill that came in handy when she starting gigging solo and in a duo at folk venues. So did her talent in telling stories. “I didn’t have a lot of songs so I just talked about the way I grew up, my relatives and my hometown.” She laughs when she says, “You have to find ways to get their attention, even if you have to throw in a Carpenters song every now and then.” And no, she doesn’t cover the Carpenters now except during a sound check, just to get the jaded sound techs laughing.
Her first big folk gig was in her home state, Texas, at the popular Kerrville Folk Festival. Her solo career took off from there. “I would get into these festivals because of my blues background and I could pick a little bit. Eventually I’d have a blues workshop, as well.”
Four albums later, she’s still touring like crazy, playing in all kinds of venues, from blues clubs to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. “It’s great that they have all women running this huge festival.” She had a little trouble with a member of her staff, though. “I had a guy tour manager who thought he was going to be able to invite himself and I kept telling him, ‘No baby, it’s not going to work.” She laughs. “He didn’t believe me so he brought himself on the trip and he found out that he couldn’t get in the gate at all.” Foster had a great time both years she was booked, hanging out with Melissa Ferrick and others. “It really made me proud to be invited.”
Her newest release, The Truth, with roots-music producer Chris Goldsmith, features an impressive roster of musicians who’ve worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Tracy Chapman. Add to that the legendary Memphis Horns and you’ve got soul-dripping goodness that’ll slide down your throat like great coffee. At first glance, it may seem like a huge departure from her earlier work but really, it’s an extension of her last album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster. And, as Foster notes, “So many folk fans don’t just listen to folk. They heard the blues, reggae and gospel I throw in and (they) really wanted more of those things.” Besides, it’s fun. “It’s like so barbeque.”
While most of her newest release is distinctly soul/rock, there’s also body swaying reggae with “I Really Love You” and heart-busting blues on “Tears of Pain.” She wrote or co-wrote about half the songs as well as covering tunes by Patty Griffin and others.
She still tours solo but performs with her band — Tanya Richardson on bass and Samantha Banks — on drums, whenever she can. “I love playing with my band because it gives me a little bit more freedom to be a singer and entertainer. These ladies have my back, no matter what, on stage or off.”
In addition to commanding her own shows, she’s opened for blues legend Derek Trucks, sometimes getting to sit in with his band. “It’s a high point of my night.” Remembering one night, she exclaims, “There were notes coming out of my mouth that I didn’t know I had.” She’s also shared the stage with gospel icons Blind Boys of Alabama, a group she’s followed for years.
Foster is turning 45. “There’s something about that — you get close to a certain age and you really have something to say.” She was 19 when she started singing the blues and says that older performers would advise, “You’re a good singer and all but wait until you have something to say and that’s going to make the difference. Blues performers who are looked up to have stayed in it so long. It really is about livin’ it, whatever that is, whether it’s being a woman in the blues, being gay, being out.” At a recent blues awards show, she heard Gaye Adegbalola make a big statement about being out. “It was fun to watch,” she states, laughing warmly.
Foster continues to be inspired by other musicians. On her iPod now is T-Bone Walker, Bob Marley and a box set of that early fave Rosetta Tharpe. She’s also passionate about India Aire. “I love it when you see, feel and can almost taste the growth in an artist like her. I also like my Texas songwriters — Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett — writers who can write about who they are and it’s tastefully done without a lot of chords. It’s just telling the story.”
You could say that about Foster, too — that she’s just telling her story. Whether she’s armed with only an acoustic guitar or the Memphis Horns, it’s all about telling the truth and Ruthie Foster does it very well.