Ruthie Foster is way more than just another blueslady. She’s a true gospel diva with an astonishingly powerful voice.
Author’s Note: We have been privileged to have had Ruthie Foster appear at the nearby Kitchener Blues Festival twice in the last few years. Each time, she kept a crowd that wasn’t quite sure what to expect spell-bound, weaving musical magic. They don’t call her ‘The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster’ for nothing. And so, while we have compiled a playlist with some of our favourite Ruthie Foster songs at the end of this post, we have chosen to primarily feature videos of her local performances.
Ruthie Foster may even be the best artist you don’t know that you know. Her songs have been played at swing and blues dances for almost two decades. Among her numerous accolades, she’s been nominated for a Best Blues Album Grammy three times in a row. But awards and lots of dance play aren’t what makes Foster special.
Pure magic to watch and hear
Ruthie Foster – Up and Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air), 2014
Born and raised in the rural town of Gause, Texas, to a family of gospel singers, Ruthie Cecelia Foster’s (born February 10, 1964) talent was cultivated in the worship services of her church but Foster has always forged her own path, though drawing on the influences of Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin. By 14, she was a soloist in her hometown choir. Her community college studies focused on music and audio engineering. And she learned to command the stage in Texan bars by fronting a blues band.
Joining the Navy helped Foster accentuate her love for performing as she was soon was singing for the the Navy band ‘Pride’ that performed pop and funk hits throughout the southeastern United States during recruitment drives. Following her service, Foster relocated to New York City where she became a favourite at local folk festivals. It was there that Foster walked away from a lucrative contract with a major label when they required her to revise her sound into something ‘more marketable’ in exchange for a professional career. From the start, it was clear that Foster’s unique sound could not be captured in a single genre – and it was her authenticity that most appealed to her audiences.
Some blues, some folk, some soul, some rock, some gospel.”
“Sounds like Ruthie Foster music.”
Daniel Barrett, producer and Warren Hood, musician
Ruthie Foster – Real Love, 2018
Returning home to Texas when her mother fell ill, Foster cared for her mother while working as a camera operator and production assistant. In 1997, following her mother’s death, Foster self-released her first album ‘Full Circle’ which ultimately led to a long-standing collaboration with Blue Corn Music, the label that she continues to record for. Her latest album, Joy Comes Back, features her reinterpretations of songs be artists ranging from Mississippi John Hurt to Chris Stapleton to Black Sabbath, all with the unique sounds of Foster’s American roots musical up-bringing.
I think there’s a lot of healing to be done through music, because that’s what music has done for me. [Because of] the experiences that I’ve been through in my own life […] I found a lot of healing power in music. I think that’s why I do what I do, and try to interpret my feelings in song and put that out there and hope it comes back and I can put it back out again, just keep the circle going.
Ruthie Foster – Singing the Blues, 2018
Many of Foster’s albums have been released to critical acclaim, but it’s Foster’s live performances where she really shines. Attending a Foster concert is like going to the best blues church, and it’s no surprise as Foster herself calls performing ‘Amen time’. Consider, as example, these two versions of the title track from her most recent album.
Ruthie Foster – Joy Comes Back (Official Video, 2017)
Ruthie Foster – Joy Comes Back (Live at McCabe’s, 2017)
Written by Bostonian Sean Staples with lyrical tweaks by Foster, the studio version of “Joy Comes Back” features special guest musicians Derek Trucks (slide guitar), bassist Willie Weeks (David Bowie, Eric Clapton, George Harrison), and drumming legend Joe Vitale (Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles). Interestingly, to re-create the gospel percussion sounds, the producer’s well-worn oak floors were miked and Foster and her producer ‘stomped’ out the beat. For the official video, Foster and friends shared the things that bring them joy, filming on the church on Willie Nelson’s ranch. And yet, the stripped down version is just as, if not more, moving. Lyrically, the song acknowledges the existence of hardship and weariness while expressing the expectation that things will change – “I want to be ready, when joy comes back to me”.
The question isn’t if the joy is coming back, but when.
Alison Fensterstock, NPR Music
That has a lot to do with how I grew up. Not necessarily in the religious sense, but just knowing that things will turn. ‘Joy Comes Back’ was a song I connected to because I know things get better with time. You put your intentions out there and stand your ground, and know that good times and joy are on the way.
Foster’s authenticity rings true with every note. She only sings of that which she knows. And it is clear that she knows heartache. But also triumph.
My songs are about life and living. Sometimes I’ll use someone else’s experience and write something from that and what that means to me. I’ve often written songs that mean one thing to me and someone interprets that song as something totally different. […] If that’s what makes someone feel better and helps them to understand what the song means to them, then that’s fine. I just write from my own experiences, and I borrow other people’s lives, and put that to music too.
Ruthie Foster – Fruits of My Labour, 2014
There are artists that move us. There are artists that inspire us. And then, there are artists that elevate us. Ruthie Foster resides among that select group.
We said we’d send you home with peace, love, and happiness. Be good to yourselves. Be good to someone else.
Ruthie Foster, 2018
Fensterstock, Alison. 2017. “Songs We Love: Ruthie Foster, ‘Joy Comes Back'”. Npr.Org. https://www.npr.org/2017/02/13/514351726/songs-we-love-ruthie-foster-joy-comes-back.
Foster, Ruthie. 2018. “About”. Ruthie Foster. http://www.ruthiefoster.com/about/
Johnson, Christopher. 2018. “Review: Ruthie Foster Brings Her Commanding Presence To An Eclectically Southern-Rooted Set At Zankel Hall”. Zealnyc. https://zealnyc.com/review-ruthie-foster-brings-her-commanding-presence-to-an-eclectically-southern-rooted-set-at-zankel-hall/
“Ruthie Foster”. 2018. En.Wikipedia.Org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruthie_Foster
“Ruthie Foster – Artists – Concerted Efforts”. 2018. Concerted Efforts. http://concertedefforts.com/roster/ruthie-foster/
“Ruthie Foster On Austin City Limits”. 2018. Acltv.Com. http://acltv.com/artist/ruthie-foster/