Ruthie Foster first sang in the church choir while growing up in rural Texas. While she became successful mixing folk, blues, rock and country together in that way that seems so natural in Lone Star performers, there was always a gospel element in the way she delivered her vocals. She openly emphasizes this aspect of her voice on her latest album, Let It Burn, by choosing appropriately churchy accompaniment that includes the Blind Boys of Alabama on four tracks and master Hammond B3 organist Ike Stubblefield, and selecting righteous material that includes everything from old time spirituals, such as “The Titanic” to the Stax standard “You Don’t Miss the Water” (duetting with the original hit maker, William Bell), to self-penned spirituals, such as “Lord Remember Me” to Adele’s elemental “Set Fire to the Rain”. The results make the listener want to jump in the aisles and shout with joy.
This is the first album in which Foster only sings and does not play guitar. This allows her to concentrate on her vocals. Foster always sings well, but this time she seems to be challenging herself to do more than just emote in key. Sure, she still does this, but she also uses her vocals as an instrument and banters along with David Easely’s sliding guitar notes, or Stubblefield’s ringing organ reverberations. For example, Easely begins the Black Key’s “Everlasting Light” with a crunchy guitar riff that sounds made in the mud it’s so damn down and dirty. Foster joins in with an almost growl but takes the music up a notch by singing long lines so that when Stubblefield’s organ comes in it sounds as if we are already on the road to redemption. He just drives us home. The rest of the band also deserves mention. New Orleans musicians George Porter Jr. (bass), Russell Batiste (drums), and James Rivers (saxophone) all make solid, soulful contributions.
Foster also takes some very familiar material, such as Johnnie Cash’s hit “Ring of Fire” into something far different than its original source. She makes the burning love into something much sweeter and urbane than Cash’s. When she croons “the taste of love is sweet”, one can almost taste the honey dripping from her tongue. It seems that she and Cash are singing two completely dissimilar songs. The divergence from an original is also true of her rendition of “If I Had a Hammer.” Pete Seeger sang it as a communal celebration. Foster turns it into an individual cry of empowerment. These two songs are iconic members of contemporary music. Foster makes them her own by showing facets of the well-worn material that had been hitherto neglected.
The Blind Boys of Alabama turn each of their four cuts into a holy celebration. They and Foster open and close the disc with religious fervour. The strangest track is the somewhat dated version of ‘60s rock classic, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Long Time Gone”. Foster uses the occasions to spread the song’s message (“You gotta speak out against the madness /speak out if you dare”), but on a record filled with religious conviction, this social message seems forced and flat. Foster’s much better when she gets personal. Her version of John Martyn’s “Don’t Want to Know” that starts “I don’t want to know about evil / I just want to know about love” positively smolders. She can successfully take that sentiment to the church, but not to the streets.