One True Voice
Aspen Times Staff Writer
On “Runaway Soul,” the recent album by Ruthie Foster, one can hear tones of blues, jazz, folk and plenty of gospel.
And there’s another sound that comes through on “Runaway Soul,” more subtle than the others but just as powerful. In Foster’s acoustic-based songs of praise, perseverance, devotion and despair is the sound of a singer finding her voice.
It’s been a long search. Foster is 39, with a wealth of experiences to draw from. She has sung Top 40 pop in a Navy band and been a torch singer in another Navy group. Foster was once signed to a major label, which had designs to make the singer-songwriter over in the model of Tracy Chapman – or if that didn’t work, Anita Baker. Foster has lived in South Carolina, San Diego, New York City and Texas. She has made independent albums that went across the board stylistically.
And then last year Foster, with much assistance from her partner Cyd Cassone and noted producer Lloyd Maines, released “Runaway Soul.” Foster knew she had finally found her musical essence.
“Absolutely. That’s exactly what happened,” said the guitar-playing Foster, who appears in a duo with singer and percussionist Cassone in a KDNK concert at the Carbondale Community School tonight, Aug. 22, at 8 p.m. “It was an epiphany. I found my voice, and it’s all on ‘Runaway Soul.’ In every song, I found my soul, my mother’s soul, my grandmother’s soul. My history. My people’s history.”
When an artist finds her voice so profoundly, it tends to get noticed. And such is the case with Foster. “Runaway Soul” – which features Foster originals, traditional gospel blues (“Woke Up This Mornin'” and “Death Came a-Knockin'”) and a version of fellow Texan singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix’s stirring “Hole in My Pocket,” all of which are labeled “Hymns” on the CD liner notes – has been a runaway hit in the roots-music world. At last year’s Canadian Folk Festival, Foster sold a record 1,000 copies of the CD in one day. On the strength of the album, Foster and Cassone have been invited to appear at the Austin Music Awards during the South by Southwest festival and on the radio shows, “Austin City Limits” and Boulder’s “E-Town.”
To Foster, there had never been a question that music would be her life’s work. “Everybody sang in my family, in church. And I have family members who are professional gospel singers,” said Foster, who was born in the east Texas town of Mineola and raised in Gause, in central Texas’ Brazos Valley, south of Dallas. “You had no choice – you either sang or played something. Church was a big part of my life, the music especially. Gospel and church were a big part of what we did every day.”
Naturally, Foster studied music in college. It was a community college, McClennan Community College in Waco, but it was the only school in Texas that offered a commercial music program. Foster recalls it as “like a little Berkeley,” where she learned ear training, reading music, theory, rock ‘n’ roll. All the time in college, Foster was preparing to get her voice out into the world. “The career part of it was a no-brainer. It was something I was definitely going to do,” she said.
But coming out of school, Foster found she was burned out on music. So she joined the Navy, where she worked on helicopters as an electrical mechanic. For nine months, she left music aside until, predictably, she began to miss it.
Fortunately, Foster was in the Navy, the only branch of the U.S. military with a vocalist billet. Foster auditioned for the Navy band Pride, passed the audition, and found herself singing late ’80s Top 40 material in an effort to recruit high schoolers to join the Navy. It was a far cry from the Baptist Missionary church in Texas: In Pride, Foster toured cities in the Southeast, singing contemporary urban music. Keith Sweat’s songs left a particular impression. Foster recalls it as an “awesome” experience, and it even taught her a crucial lesson. “It was good training – touring with seven guys and not losing my mind.”
After four years in the Navy, Foster moved to New York and landed a deal with Atlantic Records. The label had its own ideas about what to do with a young, black, female singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. But those ideas had more to do with models of success than with Foster’s natural abilities.
“Tracy Chapman was huge, and I’m sure that had a lot to do with Atlantic signing me,” said Foster, who claims Sam Cooke as her biggest influence, finding his combination of soul and gospel unmatched. “And Anita Baker – that look and sound. That was kind of funny to me. Being from Texas, I’m not into long, silky, shiny gowns.”
Foster stayed in New York for five years and, as she says, the city “kicked my butt.” She never released an album, and became awfully homesick for family and Texas. When her mother got sick in late 1993, Foster returned to Texas. The best thing that came out of her New York years was the invaluable experience of working with top songwriters.
Moving home turned out to be a godsend. In the Bryan/College Station area, Foster took a job at a local TV station, cared for her mother – and began to find her authentic voice.
“It happened when I moved back to Texas,” she said, “getting my feet in the ground, getting back to the place I had learned to sing, singing and talking about things I knew about, rather than trying to make it up.”
A big part of the artistic revelation has been Cassone, the gospel and folk musician who Foster met seven years ago. Cassone co-produced Foster’s first CD of original material, 1997’s “Full Circle,” and has become her steady touring partner.
After a second CD, “Crossover,” Foster and Cassone began to earn some notoriety on the roots-music circuit. Among those who took a liking to the duo was Lloyd Maines, a prominent name in the music capital of Austin.
“I’d been running into him and Terri [Hendrix, a Texas singer who also collaborates with Maines], and one day just before we started the [“Runaway Soul”] project, he said he’d love to work with us,” said Foster. “So when we were ready, we called him up. He really found a way to let us do what we do and also put a texture on top of that.”
“Runaway Soul” was released, on the Blue Corn label, while Foster and Cassone were on the road. On their return home, they found out they had become hometown heroes.
“We came back to Texas and found out we were pretty damn popular,” said Foster.
Foster and Cassone are contemplating their next step; they are toying with the idea of a live CD. “That’s the essence of what we do. That’s how people like us best,” said Foster.
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