Austin’s Ruthie Foster brings her rousing blues-gospel-soul-rock fusion to the Grammy Museum
By Bliss Bowen 01/27/2012
Growing up in Gause, Texas — population 500 — Ruthie Foster sang in her family’s church (one of five in town) and dreamed of seeing the world. After studying music at Waco’s McClennan Community College, she joined the Navy, where supervisors swiftly realized she could best serve by adding her powerfully expressive voice to the unit’s band. It was neither the first nor the last time that music exerted its gravitational pull on her life.
Her military service was followed by three years in New York, a heady time when she signed a development deal with Atlantic Records and immersed herself in songwriting. Family called her back to Texas; by the early 2000s, she was releasing critically lauded albums and racking up Austin Music Awards. Her 2009 Grammy-nominated “The Truth According to Ruthie Foster” was followed by 2010 and 2011 Blues Music Awards, honors based in no small part on her reputation as an awe-inspiring live performer.
“Pete Seeger always said to me, ‘You involve everybody,’” she says. “Music is to be shared. We have an obligation as performers to bring everybody in to what we know music can do, and that’s open up and heal. I try to meet everybody in the middle.”
Singing in churches with no PA systems taught her how to project and how to move a crowd, she says. Playing Texas’ roadhouse circuit showed her how to win over tough audiences.
“I [opened] up for Jack Ingram at this little steakhouse/dancehall, and these people had no idea who I was and didn’t really care. I remember doing one or two tunes and then finally looking up to see if anybody was out there; the lights were out and all I could see were cigarette butts moving. And one lone handclap from the bartender. [laughs] But we got great steak dinners that night.”
Foster has come a long way since those late-’90s dues-paying days. Her stirring music draws deeply from gospel as well as blues, soul, rock and folk, but previous albums often felt too contained for the magnitude of her voice. “Let It Burn,” recorded in New Orleans and coming out Tuesday, comes closest to capturing the exhilarating spark of her live performances. She credits producer John Chelew, bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Russell Batiste for helping her reinvent songs like the June Carter Cash-Merle Kilgore chestnut “Ring of Fire,” Los Lobos’ “This Time” and the Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light.” The Blind Boys of Alabama’s soulful call-and-response harmonies recreate “that old church feel” from Gause on her “Lord Remember Me.”
“I always come back to just calling [gospel] ‘spirit music,’” she says. “To me, that entails all aspects of the wholeness of what I end up doing. Making music for me is kind of like prayer — it’s an opportunity to do this thing I feel I was put here to do.”
Ruthie Foster performs at the Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown LA, 8 p.m. Tuesday; $15. Info: (213) 765-6803. Ruthiefoster.com, grammymuseum.org