Ruthie Foster, solo at Aspen Songwriters Fest

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesRuthie Foster performs a solo show Friday at the Wheeler Opera House, in the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival.

ASPEN – A few months ago Warren Haynes, the guitarist from the Allman Brothers and his own quartet Gov’t Mule, was in Texas, at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studios, recording tracks for the debut album by his new Warren Haynes Band. Haynes invited the Austin-based singer Ruthie Foster, who had contributed some background vocals to Gov’t Mule’s “High and Mighty” album, to hang out. That invite turned into a part-time, but prominent job – Foster ended up singing on most every track on “Man in Motion,” the Haynes Band’s debut; and, in May, Foster will be part of Haynes’ troupe for a week-plus of dates on the band’s first tour.

When she was in her early teens, Foster began singing and playing guitar at her church, the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, in Caldwell, Texas. Word spread quickly, and Foster found herself playing the circuit of surrounding churches.

Some years later, Foster, curious to learn about the bigger world, joined the Navy. At her helicopter squadron’s Christmas party, Foster sat in a bit with the band; she soon found herself snapped up by Pride, a Navy group that played Top 40 tunes at recruitment drives.

When Robben Ford and Jorma Kaukonen put together 2009’s Guitar Blues tour, which made a stop at the Wheeler Opera House, the two guitar gods invited Foster to be their third wheel, adding some vocal power and a feminine touch to the concert.

It seems to be a common occurrence: People get a taste of Ruthie Foster’s voice, and they want to hear more.

The tough part for Foster was opening up her mouth to begin with. The daughter and granddaughter of some locally renowned singers, Foster describes herself as having been a shy, quiet child, frightened to raise her voice amid all the singing and music-making that was going on.

“It was intimidating, all these beautiful voices around me,” the 46-year-old said from her home in Austin, where she was just settling in after some time on the road. “I was a shy kid, and singing meant you had to be out front. I stuttered and stammered all over myself; I had no interest in being out front. I didn’t want to sing.”

Foster’s kin, though, weren’t just talented; they were encouraging. When Foster was 12, her mom bought her a tape recorder, which Foster used to record herself, talking and singing. She wasn’t dismayed by the sounds she heard, and her mother thought Ruthie was ready to come out of her shell. “She said, ‘You need to open your mouth and sing, baby. It’s just time,'” Foster recalled.

Foster can pinpoint the moment when things changed. In her congregation, it was a rite of passage to sing a solo. At 13, her turn came. She was so nervous, she didn’t tell her grandmother. When the time came, Foster stepped up and sang “Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior,” one of her grandmother’s favorites. Foster had crossed to the other side.

“I saw her doing her nod, and I knew everything would be all right,” Foster said of getting her grandmother’s approval.

Though her relatives’ singing had made Foster reluctant to join in the vocalizing, it also left her with a deep affection for music. She had been playing instruments – guitar mostly, and a little piano – in church, and after that turning-point singing moment, she became a musical force. Her mother fielded invitations for Ruthie to sing in nearby churches. It was good training for what was to come later in life: With her mother’s coaching, Foster learned how to address different audiences – different denominations, black churches, white congregations.

Foster went on to study commercial music at McClennon Community College, which she called “like a miniature Berklee,” a reference to the renowned music school in Boston. She studied audio technology, how to play music that gets on the radio, and how to read a contract. After school, she had her stint in the Navy, a stretch fronting a blues band, some time playing folk music in a South Carolina strip club, and a spell in New York City.

After searching for the style that suited her best, Foster settled on a rootsy approach that combined folk, blues and soul. In 2001, she released the acoustic-oriented “Runaway Soul,” and it became her breakthrough. At the 2002 Canadian Folk Festival, Foster sold more than a thousand copies of the album, making a way for herself on the folk circuit.

In 2007, she pushed further forward with “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.” The title wasn’t an indication of her ego, but a nod to such old-school soul albums as “The Electrifying Aretha Franklin” and “The Amazing Nina Simone.” The comparisons were apt; “The Phenomenal” found Foster in full soul mode, with acoustic guitars replaced by organ as the primary instrument.

An album highlight was Foster’s cover of the Lucinda Williams tune, “Fruit of My Labor.” Foster was introduced to the song by her neighbor, Ray Benson, leader of the Western swing band, Asleep at the Wheel. The two were kicking around the idea of making a Sam Cooke tribute album.

“And he said, ‘You could try ‘Fruits of My Labor’ in a Sam Cooke style.’ I knew Lucinda Williams, but she’s so prolific, I didn’t know all her songs,” Foster said. The track was recorded in one take, with Foster unaware that the tape was even rolling.

Foster changed direction once again for 2009’s “The Truth According to Ruthie Foster.” The blues-leaning album featured some brand-name contributors, including Robben Ford on electric guitar, the late keyboardist Jim Dickinson, and production by Chris Goldsmith, who has done extensive work with the gospel group, the Blind Boys of Alabama.

“I knew it was a stepping stone, and would get a little more notoriety and airplay,” Foster said. “‘Phenomenal’ opened some doors, but the players on ‘Truth’ – we were blessed enough for them to give us their time.”

Foster is preparing to take a little time out from her career. In May, her partner is set to give birth to a girl – hence the abbreviated time on the road with Warren Haynes.

But Foster is already talking about possible dates in mid-summer with the Haynes Band. And she is already in the early stages of creating her next album, making her way through songs being submitted. The album, Foster said, will probably lean toward attracting a younger audience.

But the truth is, there are already a lot of people who want to hear Foster sing.