RUTHIE FOSTER’S LATEST ALBUM HAS AN ECLECTIC SONG MIX.
BY BRIAN WISE
Texas singer-songwriter’s new and varied album
Ruthie Foster didn’t know she was a blues artist until The Truth According To Ruthie Foster… and her latest album, Let It Burn, were nominated for Grammys.
Last year, she also won the Koko Taylor Award for Traditional Female Artist of the Year at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis and she has been nominated in the same category this year.
“I didn’t know,” she laughs, “but apparently I’m getting a lot of recognition from that and I will take it.”
“I’m glad to know that I’m considered blues,” continues Foster. “Blues is a huge base for what I do. I was just talking to Keb Mo’ the other day and he was telling me that blues is everything – especially the way that everything is being categorised now. Blues encompasses so many different backgrounds and because of that it has a little bit of everything intertwined in it. It’s a pretty broad category.”
Foster was, in fact, raised on gospel music in Gause, Texas. Inspired by her mother and encouraged by her grandmother she made her singing debut in church and learned guitar and piano.
The young singer became a regular on the local circuit, singing in churches and community centres. But that did not guarantee an immediate music career. First, there was a stint in the Navy, then a dispiriting visit to some record labels in New York. After several indie releases Foster found the independent Blue Corn label that released Runaway Soul in 2002, an album that got a lot of attention and set the tone for her career.
After two more studio albums (including The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster) and two live records, Foster’s latest release, Let It Burn, encapsulates what her music is all about. A brief summary of what people have so far labeled it might be: ‘gospel, soul, country and folk-tinged blues.’ That just about covers it!
Let It Burn was recorded in New Orleans with the Funky Meters’ rhythm section of George Porter Jr on bass and drummer Russell Batiste, pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley and tenor sax player James Rivers, along with Ike Stubblefield on Hammond B3. Guests include soul icon William Bell and the marvellous Blind Boys of Alabama.
The heavyweight studio talent assisted Foster in tackling a diverse array of songs that make the album not only her most eclectic to date but also her most appealing. There are contemporary songs such as Adele’s ‘Set Fire To The Rain’ and ‘Everlasting Light’ by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney that Foster somehow manages to make sound like her own.
In addition, she duets with William Bell on his Stax classic ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water.’ There are a batch of other great songs, including David Crosby’s ‘Long Time Gone,’ June Carter Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire,’ Robbie Robertson’s Band classic ‘It Makes No Difference,’ ‘This Time’ by Los Lobos stalwarts David Hidalgo and Louie Perez and Pete Seeger’s folky standard ‘If I Had A Hammer’ and the beautiful John Martyn ballad ‘Don’t Want To Know’ (also recorded by Dr John). As well as that, Foster includes three of her own songs and a co-write.
The album is produced by John Chelew who won Grammys with The Blind Boys of Alabama and worked with Richard Thompson, June Tabor, John Hiatt, Donovan, Paul Weller and Los Lobos (amongst many others). In fact, Chelew’s CV is as diverse as the songs on Let It Burn.
“I had a great conversation with John before we started,” says Ruthie, “and I think we definitely share a common ground in the types of music that we love. He mentioned a few artists that I hadn’t heard of that I should listen to and when I did that it just really clicked. He introduced me to John Martyn. I had no idea what John Martyn’s music was about and I just fell in love with everything he did.”
Foster usually plays guitar or piano on her records but when she got into the studio with Chelew he asked if she could just concentrate on singing.
“I thought that was a novel idea, I’d love to try that,” admits Ruthie. “I knew that that it was going to be fun.”
Foster says that she didn’t get a chance to write much for the album because she was on the road so much beforehand. But the fact that she got to record with William Bell and work with such great musicians – and still get some of her on songs on board – was a thrill.
“We wanted to mix up the genres and the generations at the same time and see what we could do,” explains Foster about the song selection. “It’s really a New Orleans thing to do – put it all in a pot and see what comes out. It’s usually pretty tasty.”
Let It Burn Is out now via Fuse Music.