Ruthie Foster - singer who earned her stripes

Ruthie Foster is talking about recording You Don’t Miss Your Water with the song’s writer, William Bell, for her latest album, Let it Burn. Bell, she says with a sense of awe that comes clearly down the line from Austin, Texas, is a living legend. The co-writer of blues standard Born Under a Bad Sign and one of the creators of the Stax Records sound in the 1960s, Bell’s presence in the studio had such an effect on Foster that they had to retake the song several times.

“I actually forgot to sing,” says Foster who appears at the Southern Fried festival in Perth later this month. “I was so busy listening to him because he’s a master of phrasing and I’m a sucker for great phrasing. That’s what soul music, and gospel, blues and jazz singing, too, is all about: how you put your own mark on a song. So there I was, thinking, I’m standing next to William Bell, and it was such a thrill.”

Having Foster singing on his headphones must have been quite a pleasure for Bell also, even allowing for his long experience of the music business, because she’s perhaps not one of the most famous but she’s surely one of the greatest singers of our time. Those who have heard her duetting with blues singer-guitarist Eric Bibb will attest to this and as we speak Foster’s in the running for the coveted Blues Blast magazine award for Female Artist of the Year, having received similar accolades in the Living Blues and Blues Music Awards already this year.

Listening to Foster now, it’s hard to believe that she was a reluctant singer to begin with. She grew up in small town Texas in a family with so many singers that she felt intimidated. All her cousins sang, her mother, she says, was a beautiful singer as was her grandmother whose five brothers formed a gospel group that toured all over Texas and beyond.

“I was shy and I played piano in church rather than sing,” she says. “I would get so nervous that I’d stammer all over the place, so my mother bought me a tape recorder and got me to sing and talk into it so that I could hear that I wasn’t making the horrible noise I thought I was making.”

Her home town, Gause may only have had a population of five hundred but there was music all around. Foster got into the blues through her piano teacher’s husband, who had a band, and discovered all sorts of other sounds through her part-time job while at school. Her mother used to clean the white folks’ houses in what was still a heavily segregated town in the 1970s, and Ruthie helped out, doing her work but paying particular attention to the record collections and poking around to see what the teenagers were listening to.

From playing and eventually singing in church she moved on to various bands and all sorts of venues – her CV includes strip clubs and biker bars, where the clientele would demand Amazing Grace from Ruthie at the end of the night and then listen with tears in their eyes – before going on to study on the practical music course at McLennon College in Waco.

“I’d actually wanted to join the Navy because I was desperate to travel but my mum wouldn’t let me,” she says. “She made me go to college first and the day after I graduated my best friend and I – and my hangover may have played a part in this – dared each other to go across the road to the recruiting office and sign up.”

Serving in the Navy turned out to be great training for being a touring musician and running her own band. After a year working in the helicopter division, almost completely free of music, Foster sat in with the band at her squadron’s Christmas party and promptly came to the attention of Pride, the US Navy’s ‘covers’ band. Now essentially attached to the recruitment department, she then travelled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, playing R&B and American Top 40 hits to potential recruits.

“It was great because when we weren’t playing we were practising,” she says, “and as well as sharpening up my chops, I really learned how to travel as a musician and stay sane. Running a band on the road is the same in many ways as it was in the Navy. It’s all about personnel management and I still use the lessons I learned back then today.”

In her down time Foster had been working on her own songs and sending out demos to record companies and with great timing, just as her tour of duty was coming to an end, one of her demos landed on the desk of the vice president of Atlantic Records. Foster was promptly given an artist development contract with Atlantic and although she didn’t record for the label, she spent valuable time in New York, mixing with songwriters including Julie Gold (composer of From A Distance), hanging out with the bands and musical directors from top TV shows and honing her solo performance skills in Greenwich Village before her mother fell terminally ill and she had to return to Texas to nurse her through her final months.

By 1997 she was back playing music full-time, attracting the attention that would see her invited to tour as the Blind Boys of Alabama’s special guest and lead to a Grammy nomination for her 2009 album, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster.

The aforementioned Let it Burn was recorded in New Orleans and as well as pitching Foster in with William Bell, it features a band based around Crescent City legend, the former Meters bass guitarist, George Porter Jnr and a track list including Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, June Carter’s Ring of Fire, and a song that Foster had to stand her ground to convince her producer that it belonged on the album, Robbie Robertson’s It Makes No Difference, as previously sung by The Band’s bassist, Rick Danko.

“I’m a huge fan of The Band and what they contributed to American music,” she says. “But when I sang it in the studio, my producer vetoed it because it was too real. I said, Wait a minute, real’s what we want. When I go out with my band, the one that’s coming your way soon, I want to sing songs that are true and put my own spin on them. So I had to fight to have that song included on the album, and I’m glad I did because it’s a gorgeous song but most of all I think it has what people want to hear: something real, something true.”

From The Herald, July 12, 2012.

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