2010 Blues Fest -- Just Keep Saying “Yes”: Ruthie Foster (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Tent Stage) Print
Music - Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 23 June 2010 05:52

Ruthie Foster

The numerous plaudits for singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster include O magazine calling her "a blues powerhouse" and Paste magazine raving, "There's no denying the power of Foster's monstrous voice," and she received a 2009 Grammy Award nomination for her CD The Truth According to Ruthie Foster -- which is about as confident a title as one could imagine.

Yet during our recent phone interview, the Austin, Texas-based musician admits that power and confidence were by no means inherent traits.

"I knew early on that I wanted to be in music doing something," says Foster of her professional goals, "but being a singer out front was not my idea of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be support. For anyone. I was kind of shy, so I didn't really see myself doing what I'm doing now.

"So yeah, I wanted to be in music, but to this capacity?" she continues. "I just kind of learned how to be out in front of people and how to entertain. You know, you just keep saying 'yes,' and all these opportunities come up."

Foster (who doesn't reveal her age) says her first opportunities arose during her upbringing in the central-Texas town of Gause -- estimated population: 400 -- where the future blues headliner's love of music developed through piano and guitar lessons and "mostly the church. My mother, and her mother, and all my aunties and uncles, they all sang and worked in the church."

Her solo debut, at age 14, even took place in her uncle's church choir. "That was intimidating," Foster says, "because I grew up around all these great singers -- lots of cousins -- and I didn't want to be a solo singer. But I kind of got pushed in that direction. It was kind of my turn to do it."

Following that performance, says Foster, "I knew that going to school for music was a major part of what I wanted to do, because I was really kind of excited about teaching." And after high-school graduation, she enrolled in Waco's McClennan Community College, and took courses in music, audio engineering, and voice, where she was "immersed in every genre there is. I was actually classically trained, learning how to sing in French and German, doing arias and all of that."

Her evenings, however, soon became focused on an altogether different style of singing, after friend Joe Silva asked her to join his ensemble as a lead vocalist. "I went to school and ended up in this blues band, of all things," says Foster with a laugh. "That definitely kept my voice teacher on edge."

Foster's stint with the Waco-based Joe Silva Band was her first serious exposure to the genre she'd later make her name in. "I had no idea what the blues really meant," says the musician of her early performances with the group. "But I learned that it's what Buddy Guy used to say -- blues is about feelings. And the older I got and the more I sang, the more I could put my own feelings into singing blues."

She stayed with the band through graduation, but then decided to do something unusual for a newly minted graduate with lead-vocalist credentials and an adoration of music: She enlisted in the Navy.

"I was so immersed in music from a young age," she says, "and in college, you know, forget about it -- when you're in music school, that's all you do is practice and perform. And I think I wanted a break. I wanted a break from music, and I had always wanted to be in the military."

During her first year in the Navy, which Foster spent stationed in San Diego, the musician says she "kind of floated around at a helicopter squadron, ordering parts. Kind of like Radar on M*A*S*H, where you're kind of a do-it-all person because you don't really have a destination as far as what you want to do yet." Yet while Foster may have enlisted, in part, to escape the world of music, it wasn't long before music found her.

"My company commander had a party," she says, "and there was a band there, a makeshift band, where he played guitar, and a couple other guys played drums. They were doing a blues number, and I was like, 'Well, you know, I sing a little bit ... . Can I do something?

"And I did Jimi Hendrix's 'Red House,'" Foster continues. "And my company commander pulled me aside the next day, and he demanded that I go try out for the Navy band. He said, 'Why are you here?'"

Laughing, Foster adds, "So I was busted."

Her tenure with the Navy band (for which she served as a percussionist) found Foster stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, touring the southeast, and traveling to such locales as Puerto Rico and Iceland. She also joined, as a vocalist, the Navy ensemble Pride, which Foster describes as "a top-40, funk-band branch of the military band. Those guys are the best musicians I have ever played with, and I've played with a lot of great musicians. They're very, very sharp, and can read and write their asses off."

Armed with a newfound passion for music, Foster finished her four years in the military and, after a brief stay in Charleston, set off for New York City. "I wanted to do music on my own terms," she says of the decision. "You know, I didn't want to run away from music anymore, and New York was definitely where I needed to be."

Foster admits that New York "kicked my butt" but adds that "I kicked back," and she was eventually contracted as a songwriter for Atlantic Records.

"Atlantic was a great umbrella to be under while I figured out what I wanted to do, genre-wise," she says. "If I wanted to play guitar, or just sing in front of a band, or what. So I did that for three years, and I wrote with some great people." Foster also continued to perform, frequently playing small clubs and venues in Greenwich Village, "in places that Bob Dylan played in. It was beautiful. I was livin' the dream."

In 1993, though, she opted to relocate yet again -- this time, back to her home state. "My mother [who passed away in 1996] wasn't doing too well," Foster explains, "but I was also homesick. Really homesick. So homesick that the only thing I wrote about in New York was Texas."

And it would be hard to argue that her return hasn't been a boon to Foster's professional success, as her 1997 debut CD Full Circle -- and the three albums that followed -- were all produced there.

"For a first project," says the musician of Full Circle, "I think it was great. You know, it was all home-done. I had friends to take the [CD cover] picture, I had friends do up the artwork ... . It was done well, and it was a relatively easy process ... although the people behind it would probably say it wasn't, because they know how much I really don't like going into the studio."

Foster laughs. "When it's my project, I kind of have to be dragged. I love doing projects with other people; it's just when it comes time to making decisions, it's really good for me to have a great producer."

Which, says Foster, is exactly what she got in Chris Goldsmith, who produced her fifth CD The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, described by Blues Revue magazine as "a full-on blast of soul and blues."

"I don't know how it happened," she says of the CD, Foster's first to be produced outside of Texas, in Memphis' legendary Ardent Studios. "I have to give it all to Chris. How he managed to get [the late blues pianist] Jim Dickinson to come up was just beyond me. But he did. He wasn't feeling very well, but he got in there, and he gave everything that he was. And Robben Ford played guitar. He only had about two days he could spare before going off to Italy on tour. And Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns came in and just laid down some brilliant stuff.

"It was just incredible," she says. "A really good experience. And that's what keeps me doing [music]. It's really about just getting up and creating, you know? Even if it's just journaling -- that turns into a song for me a lot of times.

"Music is very much still exciting for me. And if it doesn't get that way, I just stop, and I do something else for a while."

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