Ruthie Foster: Blues Siren

All those who went to the Austin City Limits Music Festival had the privilege of seeing Texas blues singer Ruthie Foster promote her new album Runaway Soul. With her powerful voice and potent lyrics, she turned a cozy little tent into a packed powerhouse of energy and music. For many of the amazed fans in the audience, Foster had merely been a rumor passed from lips to ears with an excitement rarely felt for such an emerging act. Friends of friends, pickers of the grapevine, and second-hand stores of information related that Ruthie Foster was a blessed combination of Sara Vaughn’s sweet, deep voice and Bessie Smith’s get-up-n’-go gusto.

Such word of mouth presence is not unusual for a performer as widespread as Ruthie Foster is in the music world. After leaving Texas and serving a brief stint in a U.S. Navy band, she became a fixture in New York City playing at such clubs like Terra Blues, The Bitterend, Downtime Club and Hurdy Gurdy. While still in New York, she was involved in Stanchie Records’ tribute album to Don Covay in which she sang backup vocals for such well-known musicians as Ron Wood, Robert Cray and Jimmy Witherspoon.

Though she has returned to the Texas music circuit, Foster continues to travel and spread her music to all audiences. And according to Foster’s website, she is honored to be included as a featured performer in the October Austin City Limits Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which includes inductions for Marcia Ball, Ray Charles, and Los Lobos.

Eric Browner: Did you play any gigs in Mexico?
Ruthie Foster: Oh yeah, we did a blues festival there in Guadalajara. I think they call it the International Blues Festival of Guadalajara.

How many days did that run?
That was a weekend; just a couple of days. We did that then we took a bus over to San Miguel de Allende. Just kind of checking out the scene.

With your recent tour to Canada as well as your experiences living in New York, do you still see yourself as a Texas musician? If so, why?
I do still see myself as a Texas musician, because I think that’s what separates me form a lot of the sounds we run into, because Texas is so generally mixed with a little bit of everything as far as music goes. The way I grew up any way. I grew up listening to country, and gospel. R&B, old blues, old soul. I was married to an Irishman for a while so I had a little exposure to the Celtic side of music too. I’ve managed to come up with my own sound and pretty much stay true to the Texas sound if you want to call it a Texas sound. That’s what really separates us from a lot of different folk acts when we go to folk festivals whether they’re in Canada or wherever.

With all this mixture of influences, what can you say specifically are your musical influences?
Stylistically or are we talking about people?
Gospel is a big part of it, because I grew up singing that first and playing gospel. I started out playing piano in my church very early [when I was] about 11 years old. That’s been big a part of my life, and it’s a very nurturing environment to grow up in. A lot of the old soul. I’d have to say the Stax record label sound out of Memphis: Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and all that stuff I grew up listening to on records. Even country, really, because mixing that with a little bit of the R&B and soul sound that grew up with is kind of how I ended up in the folk realm. It’s kind of what came out.

Do you see yourself in the blues tradition? For example, do you see yourself as more derivative of Mississippi Delta or more Texas blues?
You know I don’t see myself in any of those. It’s definitely not all Delta. I do very little Delta blues. I may throw in a little bit of Mississippi John Hurt in just because I like his stuff. I find it kind off hard to play. I’m working on my guitar style. Who knows I may lean towards that way later. Texas blues? Yeah, Gay Mouth Brown, that sound. I love that sound because he mixes in a little bit of everything with his blues. I couldn’t even say. The best I can come up with central Texas blues, because it really is a mixture.

On your latest album, you cover Terri Hendrix’s song “Hole in My Pocket” as well as use her for back up vocals on “Walk On” and “Joy.” What drew you to work with Terri Hendrix on this album Runaway Soul?
I love that CD that she put out. The Wilory Farm CD. I loved everything on it: “Wind Me Up” and, oh gosh, the entire CD. I just listened to it from front to back. It drew me in, but “Hole in My Pocket” just knocks me out. It’s such a wonderful song, and I actually got a chance to find out why she wrote it and when she wrote it, last night. She was just here last night at College Station at our own songwriter showcase that put on once a month here. She mentioned that it came up, because she had just taken a trip to Big Ben and was just sitting and wondering and wanted to write something about where she is right now and feeling thankful for where she is and what she’s done. And that’s exactly what I got from that song when I heard it. Initially, we just got her permission to do it, and I wanted to work with her. She was actually going to be co-producer on the CD, but it ended up that she had another project or something else going on. So we ended up working just Lloyd [Maines], but I wanted her to be a part of the CD so I asked her to come in and sing. At least give us a little bit of her time and come sing with us.

Where does your love of music come from?
Woo, I don’t know, that’s something deep. I’ve had it all my life. Everybody in my family sang, and I grew up singing and playing. My mother sang to us and she sang wherever she could. She was a wonderful singer, and I thought my mother was Aretha Franklin for a long time when I was little. She had a wonderful voice. Yeah, I just grew up with my love of music. I love the singing.

How do you take care of your voice? Do you use exercises, particular brand of water, or anything like that?
No, I don’t have any special mojos for that (laughter). I wish I did. I try to take care of myself. For a long time I played smoky bars and drank just like a lot of blues singers, I guess you could call them [blues singers], start out. For some reason some people think you have to do that to be able to sing the blues, but you don’t. You last a lot longer if you don’t do those things. I just try to take care of myself. I try to get rest when I can. [We use] multivitamins, because we travel so much we’re around a lot of different people and a lot of different seasons when the seasons are changing, allergy season and all that. You just have to be careful with where you are. They’ve got this great thing out now where you can actually wash your hands without water [with] the lotion, the antiseptic. You can keep your hands germ-free now. It’s very cool.

So do you normally find touring very stressful, very draining?
It can be. It depends on whether the tour was set up well. Details in a tour tend to fall through the cracks. For the most part, we’ve been really lucky. We’ve had a great agency, Nancy Fly Agency, that books us. We’ve been doing pretty good so far. Propaganda [Group] is doing real great, they’re great for us. So these guys are taking care of us and we do what we do and in turn take care of them.

by Eric Browner, 2002