When Ruthie Foster steps onto the stage, strap yourself in.
Her shows are roller coasters that take you from the valleys of Son House to the peaks of Bob Marley, with dips and dives, twists and turns through the influences of Johnny Cash and Sister Rosetta Tharpe along the way. Ann Peebles, Lucinda Williams, and Patty Griffin flash by, too, their sounds embossed in gorgeous gospel soul. From the lead car, Foster belts out her own churchy blues and rocking gospel, her raucous slide guitar rippling alongside the singing.
Foster grew up in rural Gause, Texas, singing and playing piano in churches about ninety miles from her current home in Austin. She dabbled in blues before joining the Navy, playing pop tunes in the U.S. Navy Band. Her 1997 debut, Full Circle, foregrounded a mix of folk, country, blues, gospel, and rock. But her righteous soul a decade later on The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster got her on the main line, snapping heads around with her interpretation of Son House's "People Grinnin' in Your Face" and her gorgeous transformation of a Maya Angelou poem.
Foster will soon play the Blue Note Grill's new "Women in Blues" series, but I caught up with her in Austin, where she was finishing her new album. "It's Black Sabbath meets Son House," she says.
Like I said, strap yourself in.
INDY: When I see you perform, the music seems to bubble out of you somehow, as if you just can't wait to get onstage and let it go. Has it always been like that for you?
RUTHIE FOSTER: No, but only because I grew up a pretty shy kid. Being in front of people to do speeches and sing was a little easier for me, but I grew up around so many great singers. My cousins were singers. My mother sang. My grandmother had a beautiful voice. On my mother's side, there were ministers all through my family. And gospel singers—my grandmother's brothers, all five of them, were beautiful singers. They traveled and sang, too. It was intimidating. Learning how to be comfortable in my own skin, to be comfortable with hearing my own voice, that was something I had to grow into.
You've said that Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin are part of your musical roots. What about Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
She had a huge influence on me wanting to sing gospel and blues and anything else the guitar could bring to music. I did a tribute to Sister Rosetta in New York about three weeks ago. Me and a bunch of great friends and musicians—Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Valerie June, Dom Flemons—all did Sister Rosetta songs all night long, just sang Sister Rosetta in our own way. There were some women there from Como, Mississippi, who just did a gospel set. I called them "The Amen Corner."
Your five-year-old daughter is named for Maya Angelou. What did Angelou mean to you?
I grew up wanting to connect through my words, and Maya Angelou's poetry and her books were my opening to wanting to be a songwriter, a poet. Even her own experiences in life—growing up in a small town, being raised predominantly by her grandmother—I connected to that. I had a chance to go and see her speak. I respect what she's done with her life, the legacy she's left. I recorded one of her poems, "Phenomenal Woman," one of those songs that everybody wants to hear.
You're soon embarking on a seven-day, six-night trip to Cuba, playing Havana's Fabrica de Arte, a new cultural complex housed in an old cooking oil factory. What do you have planned?
I'm keeping it real low-key. I'm bringing my drummer, Samantha Banks. I thought it would be a great time for both of us to learn more about the culture and the music. Hopefully, we can get together with a few Cuban musicians and do something in front of folks.
What would you like for your legacy to be when your career ends?
I'd like to be remembered as a singer, songwriter, and musician who took the elements of where music comes from and put it in the forefront, who brought those important aspects of what music's talking about and made it relevant again. That's why I do these shows—I love songs that never grow old. That's how you know they're good songs.
What would you say to people who say that blues is an outdated form and no longer relevant?
I would tell them to turn off the radio and pick up a Led Zeppelin record and go back to their influences. Turn off the radio and get your own opinion when it comes to music. Blues is very prevalent. You hear it every day if you really listen.
But blues doesn't have to be stuck in the woke-up-this-morning mode, right? There's so much you can do with it with a little imagination.
I'm getting ready to do a concert with Harry Belafonte. One of the things he's requesting is that we're all on stage with him to bring up these songs and to bring up the fact that these songs are still very relevant to how we live. He, of all people, knows about what was relevant and that we're still talking about the same things and that needs to be brought up. Richie Havens said when he does his song "Freedom," it's sad we're still having to preach about the same thing. But that means we have to keep singing these songs. Pete Seeger and Odetta said the same thing.
This is my way. The music I do is my way of keeping on singing the same songs. I may do 'em a little bit different musically, but it's the same song, the same message. We're all here to witness each other's lives. That message is important, that each one of us is important. We're important to each other.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Thrill Remains"