Ruthie Foster has played the Savannah Music Festival twice in recent years, and each time the audience came away feeling they'd seen and heard something extraordinary.
With a strong, clear and impossibly soulful voice, Foster excels at richly textured music painted in blues. She’s received five trophies from the Blues Music Awards, including the coveted Koko Taylor Award for Female Artist of the Year (twice), and was nominated for a Grammy in 2013 for her album Let it Burn.
Foster is therefore quite the coup for Savannah’s free “Blues on Broughton” concert June 6. It’s the kickoff for the city’s “Blues, Jazz & BBQ” weekend, with some pretty impressive performing artists rocking the blues on Rousakis Plaza.
Yet there’s so much more to Ruthie Foster than gritty blues/rock (she’ll remind you, at first, of Bonnie Raitt or Susan Tedeschi). Most significantly, the native of Gause, Texas, was part of a large gospel-singing family, and many of her best recordings are, full-throated and joyful gospel tunes, rich in harmony and bathed in soul. And cover versions that can make you re-examine the original song from the inside out.
Let it Burn was recorded in New Orleans, with sizzling-hot musicians including George Porter, Jr., Ike Stubblefield and gospel's Blind Boys of Alabama. Among its electrifying covers are David Crosby's "Long Time Gone," Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain," William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water" —and June Carter Cash's "Ring of Fire," arranged as a smoky, jazz/blues ballad.
Foster, who’ll perform with her guitar, plus a drummer and bass player, remembers being in Savannah even before her Music Festival days. In the 1990s, she was the featured vocalist in the U.S. Navy’s pop/funk band Pride, which performed on several occasions in Forsyth Park.
CS: They say that learning music in Texas, and playing live there, is like getting thrown directly into the melting pot. Would you say that's true?
Ruthie Foster: I grew up in a small community, and gospel was a huge part of what my family did. Singing with my relatives in church gave me the confidence to even want to continue my music career. On the radio in Texas, we got everything from Conjunto to blues. That was just cool, learning all of that with my ear, so early.
I went to music school in Waco, and that had a lot to do with learning the nuts and bolts of music—arrangement and all of that. And having all these great musicians around me early on, in my early 20s, was great. I cut my teeth on a lot of blues and Tejano stuff, ‘cause I was in a blues band where you had to throw in a little bit of Spanish here and there.
I started out in gospel, and that’s always going to be my base sound, I guess. And what I always quote-unquote come home to. Stylistically. I think it developed by being open to just wanting to sing, and taking what I could get. And blues was a real wide-open space for me. And it came naturally.
But the music you make now covers such a wide array of styles ...
Ruthie Foster: I started out playing songs by Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin on the guitar in a folk club. Because I figured no one else was doing it. Everybody else was doing traditional folk songs. I wanted to do something really different. I guess that kinda started the mix for me.
And growing up being a guitar player around gospel guitar players. Their rhythm is really different. So I took a lot of that gospel rhythm on guitar, and brought that to the folk realm. That gave my guitar playing a little more rhythm, a little something different than you would see with a lot of the folk players.
Why did you join the Navy?
Ruthie Foster: I had always wanted to be in some sort of military band, ever since they came to our high school. I thought that was just so cool to be able to do that for a living. And get paid for it without the struggles: You get in, and you start playing.
But I think I wanted to get into the band because it was what I knew. When I got into the military, I worked around helicopters. I just took whatever they had open. I wasn’t even in the music program.
I was out in San Diego, in a helicopter squadron there, and I guess I just got to this point where I’d had this musical training—I was taking a break from it—and I said “I think I’m ready to just do this now. Get back into music full time.” Because obviously, it’s where my heart was. You know, I was one of those Navy seamen, I’d just sit at my post and play guitar. And try not to get caught doing it!
Are you in a good place with your career? Are you happy with it?
Ruthie Foster: I am. It hasn't been one of those things where it's given to me, for sure. It may look like it has, with all the awards and recognition, but I've worked. And sacrificed relationships, and being around my family. I still do, in some ways. This is no joke, when you really want to get to that place that, you know, means something to you. Yeah, it's great to be recognized, but I'm a worker, too. I come from farmers, where you work from sunup to sundown. That's the way I work in music, too.
Have you got another record coming?
Ruthie Foster: Yes I have! I actually went back to writing a little bit more; I wrote half of this one. Meshell N'degeocello produced it. She and I have been trying to get together to do something for a couple of years now, and we each found a hole in our schedules. We're calling it Promise of a Brand New Day —that's an a cappella song I wrote for it. It's bluesy also—there's a cut I wrote in there with William Bell at his studio in Atlanta. It should be out Aug. 19, and we'll be touring with it.