I know this friendly, straitlaced white Iowa grandma who doesn’t have any obvious vices. Never seen her drink whiskey or gossip with friends, and she has been happily married for several decades. We talk, but the only time I see her get really excited is when she learns Ruthie Foster is playing nearby — which means anywhere in a 200-mile radius — or has a new record coming out. Then this woman’s anticipatory delight becomes clearly evident. There’s something about Foster’s music that just rings her chimes. For grandma, Joy Comes Back is literally true because a new Foster record is a reason to celebrate.
While most of Foster’s fans are half of this woman’s age if not younger, Foster’s fans come in all ages, colors, sizes, ethnicities, sexualities, religions, etc. Foster creates inclusive music. Like all of Foster’s albums, this one contains a diverse selection of bluesy material with a folk-rock edge and a gospel bottom. In fact, Joy Comes Back may be her most heterogeneous record yet. Foster takes on everything from Black Sabbath’s heavy battle cry “War Pigs” to the Four Tops’ honeyed “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” (co-written by Ivy Jo Hunter and Stevie Wonder) to Chris Stapleton’s country ode to love “What Are You Listening To” to Mississippi John Hurt’s bawdy “Richland Woman Blues”. Foster makes them all her own through her through her strong vocals and distinctive phrasing. She has a commanding presence and a nuanced sensibility that she learned in church as a young girl. You could say the music here is truly the rock of ages.
Of course, Foster gets lots of instrumental help here, including (on various tracks) Derek Trucks on slide guitar, Willie Weeks on bass, and Warren Hood on fiddle and mandolin. Foster herself plays dobro on a couple of cuts. But mostly it is her powerful, passionate voice that stands out. Foster imbues each song with strength. Even when she sings a quiet song, such as her take on Shawnee Kilgore’s beautiful elegy to President Lincoln, “Abraham”, Foster firmly takes control and drills out each syllable with a restrained authority.
Not that Foster has any trouble asserting her own authority. She turns Grace Pettis’ “Working Woman” into a no-holds-barred declaration of female independence in every sense of the word. Foster makes sure the listener feels the weight of her certainty. The same is true of the title cut, penned by Sean Staples. She expresses her belief in spiritual salvation with confidence and conviction.
Foster wrote only one track on the album, the lilting ballad “Open Sky” in which she bares her heart to a percussive Caribbean style beat. The recently divorced mother of a five-year-old understands the pain that love can bring. She sings about reaching out because the risks are worth the reward. She knows the positives that even a negative experience can bring because the lessons learned are worth the price. The Navy veteran Foster continues with that theme on Grace Pettis and Haley Cole’s “Good Sailor” with the chorus of “Easy living never did me no favors / Smooth ease never made a good sailor.” This could serve as the underlying theme of the entire album.
Which helps explain why a straitlaced Midwestern grandma and everyone else can find pleasure in Foster’s music. Okay, the main reason is that Foster is such a fine singer. But there are lots of good singers in this world that couldn’t shine Foster’s shoes (metaphorically speaking). Instead, everyone understands that a life without tribulations is no life at all. We all deal with this fact the best that we can. And for those spiritually inclined, the thought that when the bad times are over, life is sweeter than before gives comfort. Joy will return if we can keep the faith in ourselves to keep on keeping on. Can I have an amen?