The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster: A Portrait in Freedom

Ruthie Foster
Let It Burn
Blue Corn

Ruthie Foster is an American blues and gospel singer who manages to live independently, hovering between those two musical traditions. She orbits between the two worlds, but touches down in her music to honor both.

Her latest album Let It Burn, differs from her previous releases. Rather than containing nine or ten original compositions with one or two covers, Foster reversed the formula and put together a record of ten cover songs and three self-written songs. Her cover selection shows an impressive range of musical depth and ability. June Carter Cash, The Black Keys, Adele, William Bell, Pete Seeger, and “Traditional” all have song writing credits on Let It Burn, but the standout personality is Foster.

I spoke with Foster over the phone in March, while she sat on a tour bus, riding from St. Louis to Schaumburg, Illinois. Life on the road, for a traveling artist, is equally romantic and challenging, and Let It Burn was conceived by the emotional partnership of romanticism and challenge that accompanies the calling of musical adventure. Foster told me that she had been on the road so much over the past three years that she began to neglect her songwriting, yet while on the road she revisited old musical favorites in folk, Stax soul, and gospel, and also discovered new favorites like Adele and The Black Keys. She then got the idea to put together an album of mostly covers on which she would radically alter the arrangements and vocal phrasing of each song.

To dramatically change a standard such as Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ “If I Had a Hammer” (1940) or a song that’s fresh in people’s ears, like Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” (2011) takes a measure of bravery. It’s an idea that, in its execution, will either succeed brilliantly or fail miserably. Foster, fortunately for her fans, falls into the former category. The song that was the genesis of the project proves her success, perhaps, more than any other on the record.

“Ring of Fire”, made popular by Johnny Cash recorded in 1963, is inarguably a classic. It’s also been butchered by bar bands and crucified by well-meaning country crooners. Foster had the musical sense to avoid any attempt at duplication. Instead, she removes the iconic horn riff and turns the song into a smoldering ballad of sensuality. Under her direction, the song is no longer perfect for a Tequila soaked swing around the dance floor in a Santa Fe bar. Here, it becomes the soundtrack for midnight romance in a jazz club. When this song came together so well, Foster knew that a project designed around it could be equally special. She had already put “If I Had a Hammer” into a bluesy gospel arrangement for “another artist that didn’t use it,” and decided to sing it herself.

After selecting the songs for the album, mixing and matching the legendary with the contemporary, she decided to include three original compositions – “Welcome Home”, “Lord Remember Me” and “Aim for the Heart”. Then she brought along the Blind Boys of Alabama to contribute backup vocals and William Bell to sing a verse and chorus on her jazz version of his soul hit, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”.

The result is a beautiful album of cross-disciplinary musical studies that demonstrates how the priceless quality of soul, which Foster has in abundance, is not restricted by borders or boundaries. The album sounds as if every song could have been written by a single songwriter, even the sequencing contributes to its togetherness.

Foster grew up in Gause, Texas and studied music at McClennan Community College in Waco. It’s there that she says she gained an appreciation for jazz, but her art and craft is a lifelong commitment, and her spirit may be what binds her albums, even one of covers, together, because her spirit, as I learned during our discussion, is built on a solid foundation – a foundation she seeks to serve and protect.

“The gospel music comes from my upbringing, and my faith is at my core and I keep it close to me where ever I go. I put my heart and soul into everything I record, and the one thing that has stuck with me since I started recording music is to try to make my mother and my grandmother proud of me,” Foster told me over the phone in a voice just as sweet as her singing voice is powerful. To claim loyalty to a familial bond, as opposed to the superficial success and “cool” imagery that drives much of pop music, is brave and oddly subversive in a culture committed to self-advancement at all costs.

Foster is a successful artist for a simple reason beyond her mighty vocal delivery and versatile songwriting ability, and it’s simply that her music makes people feel good. Making people feel good, Foster said, is her ultimate purpose and the driving force of her career. The goodness, however, must come from the soul. It must live up to internal judgment and not merely satisfy the external evaluation of materialism and hedonism.

“Maya Angelou said, ‘People may not always remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel,’ Foster explained before describing the calling that guides her on the road and in the recording studio, “I hope that I’m reaching people and just making someone’s day. I want to feel good, too. The energy that I get, I give back, and then the audience gives it back. It just builds. I truly believe that’s why I’m here – to share this gift I’ve been given, remind people to be who they are, be good to each other, and feel good.”

Foster described how her upbringing is at the core of her identity and creativity, connecting it with the vocation of music she pursues, “I grew up with a large family of faith, and I’m really glad that I grew up like that. I grew up in a Baptist household, but the most important thing wasn’t being Baptist, it was treating people right and being good to yourself.”

The fidelity to spiritual joy is what gives Foster the ability to sing blues, rock, gospel, and jazz with the same strength and same honesty. “You can label music blues, soul, gospel, or jazz, but I feel the same way when I’m singing all of them,” she said.

I watched Foster sing for nearly two hours at a small theater outside of Chicago that same month. She seemingly shares the secrets of the world through the power of her song, much in the tradition of Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin, if Aretha sang over a slide guitar. She sang what she called “front porch pickin’ blues”, ancient gospel songs, and love songs. She sang a cappella and she sang with the accompaniment of her band — Tonya Richardson on bass, Samantha Bank on drums, and Scotty Miller on keyboards.

One of the highlights of the performance was her own “Phenomenal Woman” (inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem of the same name). With only a majestic piano providing musical backup, she belted out the well-earned pride of a strong, smart, and self-assured woman:

Pretty women wonder just where my secret lies / I’m not cute or built to suit fashion-model size / When I start to tell them they think I’m tellin’ lies / I say, It’s in the reach of my arms / The span of my hips / The stride to my steps / The curl of my lips / I’m a woman / Phenomenal woman

Foster’s show did not include any special lighting effects. She didn’t jump around the stage like someone in desperate need of Ritalin. She simply bared her soul and, as she promised, shared her gift. Calling herself “phenomenal” didn’t seem arrogant as most of the boastful proclamations in contemporary music. It seemed, paradoxically, vulnerable. It came from a place in the heart, and in giving of herself, she made her pride accessible for other women in the audience – women who responded by rising to their feet and stretching out their arms as they sang along. Besides giving the gift of her voice, Foster gave the gift of solidarity and self-confidence to all women.

Not long after the conclusion of “Phenomenal Woman”, Foster sang a medley of her own “Welcome Home” and the U2 hit, “One”. She played an acoustic guitar, and sang the gospel on two songs about the simplest religion: love.

Bono’s lyrics on “One” are about the interconnectedness of humanity and how we should find joy in our service of others and be grateful for the opportunity to love, “We get to carry each other.” “Welcome Home” is about finding the courage to love one’s self and then direct that love elsewhere, “When my mind didn’t know how to get there / I trusted my heart / And I swear my soul came to welcome me home.”