Ruthie Foster: Raise your hopeful voice
In case you missed it, change is the order of the day. Not surprisingly that’s showing up in music too. As the airwaves reach a saturation point with American Idol wannabes and Auto-Tune afraid-to-bes, there are better-than-edge-of-the-radar-signs of a turning: other voices, other choices.
Bettye Lavette leaves Kennedy Center and nationwide television audiences slackjawed with her amazing tribute to the Who. Rene Marie raises goosebumps and hackles as she melds the melody of “The Star Spangled Banner” onto the lyric of “Lift Every Voice And Sing”. Field-recording projects in Panola County, Mississippi, and on the Carribean coast combine to provide striking evidence of untapped vocal treasure far from the influence of any “Music Cities.” Heck, even Beyonce and Animal Collective seem to have discovered the value of a well-sung, memorable hook. Maybe after years of striking poses, we’re finally ready to sit down and have that conversation.
With a refreshingly redirected follow-up to a breakthrough album and an intriguing new tour opportunity, Ruthie Foster seems poised to join this new soul-chat. “Everybody in my family sings, but I really didn’t know if I had that in me,” Ruthie chuckles as she remembers her church debut. But as the shy teenager’s version of “Pass Me Not O Gentle Saviour” came to its final heartfelt plea, she remembers noticing “this big grin on grandma’s face over in the corner, and these voices started coming from nowhere…” A call was heard, a pathway was set.
Not an easy road, mind you, but after years of perseverence and honing her craft, everything seemed to jell with 2006’s The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, a canny mix of blues, gospel and folk has allowed Foster to fully explore the expressive range and the healing power of her vocal gift. That debut album has been merch-table gold at Foster’s shows; hear her live version of “People Grinnin’ In Your Face” or Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”, and the checkbook’s gotta follow.
Ruthie Foster performs “People Grinnin’ In Your Face” in New York City
“It makes a difference when you love what you do,” Foster says. The Austin, Texas, resident translates that love 150-plus nights a year, from lush campus theaters to festival hillsides. At Merlefest 2007 in North Carolina, she went from stranger to everyone’s dear friend in just about the space of a song. Perhaps a DVD would be the ideal format to capture her effervessant stage persona what Ruthie calls “the full monty” (pre-British film version).
For now, her new album, The Truth According To Ruthie Foster, works just fine. “There were hours of in-depth discussion with producer Chris Goldsmith before starting,” Ruthie says of the album. “We really wanted this to be different from recording in Austin different take, different feel.” Turns out, the hybrid soul setting of Memphis’ Ardent Studios would be just right for such a shift.
What really stamps these tracks as Beale Street-bred are the supporting musicians: keyboardists Jim Dickinson and Charles Hodges, Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns all deep-rooted in that rich Delta soil. The rhythm section of Larry Fulcher (bass) and Rock Deadrick (drums) ensures a blues groove that can roll with a multicultural feel, then bite down hard. “Just hearing that sound as it came together was great, of course,” Ruthie says, before marveling wistfully that some of the most memorable moments came from “the stories shared on the studio couch.”
Perhaps the clinching factor in Foster’s quest for an edgier sound was the inclusion of guitarist Robben Ford. Foster notes his early work in Jimmy Witherspoon’s great blues band with particular respect. He’s been a busy man ever since, it seems. “His schedule only allowed a certain amount of time, but that worked well with the one-take, scratch-vocal approach we were going for on this one,” she says. “I can see him in the studio doorway with that smile….He just fit in so well.”
You sense that “eye-to-eye” connection in the quiet chemistry of Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy”. Just as potent is their highly charged interplay on “Nickel And A Nail”, all blues-funk ache, and on “Dues Paid In Full”, with its Isaac Hayes swagger.
Ruthie Foster is always plainspoken in issues of the heart and soul seldom to better effect than in a reworking of her own “Joy On The Other Side”, placed here as a healing balm of faith. Just a touch of street-corner percussion sets Foster’s voice and guitar in their own timeless world beyond the blue. That song’s promise is crucial, because Robben Ford returns next for what may be the album’s capper, “Tears Of Pain”. Here we have the dark side, in chilling call and response; Foster and Ford trace the jagged edges of regret at the peak of their powers. Such a pairing of kindred spirits demands an encore.
Happily, we’ll get that very thing in early 2009, with a “Guitar Blues Tour” featuring Ruthie Foster, Robben Ford and Jorma Kaukonen. “I’m really looking forward to this,” Foster says. “I’ve never worked with Jorma before, and I’m anxious to hear what we come up with for these shows.”
The guys better be ready. For Ruthie Foster, as for John Lee Hooker, blues is a healer. When she’s onstage, joy will be guaranteed…and on this side too.