Ruthie Foster steps away from acoustic folk
September 6, 2007
In 1991, Ruthie Foster began her music career in earnest. A club in Charleston, S.C., where Foster had been stationed during her Navy years, had just changed their entertainment offering – from strippers to folkies. The new direction of the club, the Soft Rock Cafe, forced a change in Foster as well. She hadn’t been a stripper, but neither had she been a folk singer. So Foster began practicing acoustic guitar at home, and set out to do her best as a solo folk act.”He didn’t change the curtains or the décor, so we got pretty much the same clientele” as the strip club, said Foster. As part of the minimalist transformation of the space, the impresario put the new sign, advertising folk music, on the back of the one that had plugged the strippers. “The owner threatened to turn the sign back around if I wasn’t a success.”Foster’s tenure at the Soft Rock, where she played five nights a week and doubled as stage manager, didn’t last much more than a year. The club itself was short-lived as well. But one byproduct of the union of musician and venue was Foster’s music of choice. For some 15 years, she played the part of a folkie, strumming a guitar and leading a small unit that featured percussion and slide guitar. Her albums, including 2002’s highly regarded (but with the slightly misleading name) “Runaway Soul,” had folk flavors; “Runaway Soul” featured a photo of Foster and her former percussionist, Cyd Cassone, on the porch of a rural country store.
With “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster,” released in February, she takes another turn. The album is a soul recor. The title, rather than a blinging, hip-hop boast, is an homage to vintage albums that would hang on the latest soul sensation such tags as “the electrifying” (Aretha Franklin), “the immortal” (Otis Redding), or “the amazing” (Nina Simone). Foster is surrounded by drums, bass, electric keyboards and organ. In addition to her own songs, Foster digs for material that helps convey the idea of soul: “Up Above My Head (I Her Music in the Air),” by gospel pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe; a setting of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”; and a gorgeous reinvention of Lucinda Williams’ yearning “Fruits of My Labor.”The recent change in style, said Foster, “are personal growth and musical growth. It’s where I needed to go to next.”Foster notes that even when she was strumming a guitar, her music had an unmistakable soul feel. But there will be no hiding that element when she appears tomorrow in Snowmass Village, the featured entertainer at the Snowmass Oktoberfest. Foster will be accompanied by a drums, bass and guitar trio. Foster herself will be playing keyboards.”All my shows, even the folkie stuff, was always in a soulful realm,” she said. “Now the instrumentation onstage matches that. I’ve gone fuller instrumentally, which is what this CD requires.”Foster’s musical changes have come on the heels of more personal ones. There have been relationships ended and personnel shifts in her band. The upheaval has created in her a desire for something familiar.”I needed to go to the roots, back to what I used to do,” she said.Her roots are soul, with more than a touch of gospel – something for the spirit. In Gause, Texas, an area of some 500 souls in Milam County, between Dallas and Houston, music “was a huge part of our growing up. Gospel music in particular,” said Foster, by phone from her home in Austin. Her dad was a blues fan who occasionally ventured outside favorites like Lightning Hopkins and Howling Wolf to tape the soul singers who would appear in the area.At 10, Foster asked for, and received, a guitar, but her grandmother insisted that piano lessons be an equal priority. And her mother insisted that she combat her shyness by performing in the family’s Missionary Baptist church. So every other week, Foster would take her place beside her great-uncle at the church’s organ to play “Amazing Grace.”
“Playing in front of people – that took awhile. It took my mother’s pushing,” said the soft-spoken, 40-something Foster. “And then I got approval. You got your kinfolk there telling you you’re doing good. I needed that.”Foster studied in the commercial music program at Waco’s McLennan Community College. She then joined the Navy, which didn’t mean a detour from her musical course. Her posting was all musical: She sang in a Navy band, the only military branch whose band has a vocal component; she played keyboards in the Navy’s Top 40 band; and was a percussionist in the marching band.Leaving the military in 1991, Foster found the Soft Rock Cafe and folk music. It may have been another world, but Foster adapted to it quickly.”I connected with it because you only needed voice and one instrument,” she said. “And you didn’t need an instrument at all – just check out Odetta to know that.”Foster lived largely in the folk world. She appeared at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, a prominent stop on the acoustic circuit, and Colorado’s Folks Festival. Her 1997 debut CD, “Full Circle,” had some listeners hanging the country tag on her. “Runaway Soul” was produced by Lloyd Maines, the well-known Texas pedal steel player and sideman (and the father of Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines).With “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster,” Foster makes her exit from the acoustic world. “I guess I call it a cycle,” she said. “It’s going back to what I listened to when I first got into wanting to play music – Sam Cooke and Johnny Taylor. The feature was the artist, the voice. The instrumentation was sparse – but grooving.”It’s not a big turn. A slight adjustment, if you will. But it feels new. I’m playing more keys and Wurlitzer, and I love what it sounds like. I love what it’s doing for the song-writing.” Foster added that the emphasis on keyboards prompted her not only to rework “Heal Yourself,” which had appeared on her first album, but also add a new verse for the version on her new CD.Foster sees nothing but soul ahead, expecting her albums in the foreseeable future to be more soul-oriented than folkie. In fact, what she’d really like is to get more soulful, by adding a Hammond B-3 organ, what might be considered the signature soul instrument, to her touring arsenal.
“I wish I could,” she said. “Need more help. More help in carrying that.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org