Soul Power

The gospel according to Ruthie Foster

When Ruthie Foster steps onstage, she is strikingly quiet. Her presence is quiet; her voice is quiet. Her small frame has a language that is very quiet. No divas here, it says. No bullshit, either.

And you wonder if this is the same blues-gospel-folk belter who is creating a stir in North American roots-music circles--tearing 'em up in Canada, selling hundreds of CDs a day at folk festivals, performing with Odetta and John Hammond and Keb' Mo', recording with Lloyd Maines.

It is. But you wouldn't know it from her veiled preshow demeanor. She's sneaky that way. Setting up for a gig at Cactus Café in Austin, Foster moves lightly about. Her long black braids drape her face as she tunes her guitar, talks a second with bassist Glenn Fukunaga, then confers with her cohort, percussionist and harmony singer Cyd Cassone.

Ruthie Foster, left, never found her niche at Atlantic Records. But with partner Cyd Cassone, her voice is finally being heard.
Ruthie Foster, left, never found her niche at Atlantic Records. But with partner Cyd Cassone, her voice is finally being heard.

"A little more guitar please, Spot," says the East Texas woman to the Minnesota sound guy. Soft, soft, wind-through-the-pines soft.

She talks to the audience, gives a little backstory on the coming song. Then Foster opens her mouth to sing, and jaws drop.

"Halle-lu-yah!/Done done my dut-ay/Got on my travelin' shoes," she roars, shifting from a spark to incendiary during the refrain of a Sea Islands field holler. In that moment, you feel an unearthly salt wind from the Georgian coast, the same sort of breeze maybe that blew across slaves in the fields 200 years ago and now threatens to tear the skin off your bones.

Foster then notches down the volume, eyes faraway, and closes the powerful hymn, "Death Came A-Knockin' (Travelin' Shoes)," a paean to death and transcendence and crossing the "Jordan stream." The audience catches its breath. The singer shifts gears again, her charisma now in full force as she introduces Terri Hendrix's sweet and lovely "Hole in My Pocket." Strumming her guitar while Cassone keeps time on a tambourine and shaker, Foster croons, "Show me ways to save my soul...I got a hole in my pocket where it all slips away," revealing another facet of her vocal range.

As she moves through moods and genres, you hear hints of Aretha and Ella, strains of Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone and Precious Bryant; her blues guitar evokes the thumb picking of Mississippi John Hurt. In a sense Foster is conveying the story of her life, which is marked by diversity, change, adversity, more change, loss and recovery, shifting, searching and, ultimately, finding. For that reason, perhaps, Foster's music is impossible to peg.

"Right away, Ruthie struck me as a writer's writer with a great sense of storytelling," says Mark Fried of Spirit Music Group in New York City. Fried worked with Foster 13 years ago when he was in songwriter relations for BMI and she was contracted by Atlantic to write songs. "I distinctly remember her being difficult to categorize, which is still the deal, and I felt that was wonderful because she could write a great song in a number of disparate genres."

Professionally and personally, Foster has always been a shape-shifter. Over the past two decades, more than half her life, she has played in Navy marching bands, big bands, jazz combos, Top 40 bands and R&B outfits, and trained under a Nova Scotian classical voice teacher. She's taught herself or been taught multiple instruments--percussion and drums, banjo, guitar (as a kid, Foster figured out guitar, using the banjo tuning), piano, Dobro. Her personal path has been equally divergent: She grew up in a large gospel-singing family in the tiny town of Gause, Texas, and later joined the Navy, where she was a helicopter technician; "like Radar on the show M*A*S*H," she quips. Still later she went into TV news production. She's lived in San Diego, New York, Charleston, College Station, on the road.

She's been married to a man, and now is involved with Cassone. Because of Foster's many lives, not despite them, her repertoire is now of a piece, as evidenced by her eclectic 2002 disc Runaway Soul, produced by Lloyd Maines and released on Houston's Blue Corn label. On that album and particularly onstage, Foster's 39 years of experience come tumbling out in a phalanx of blues, R&B, soul, jazz, black Baptist gospel and folk.

"She may be one of the best singers I've ever recorded," Maines says. "She can do it all."

Such range, however, hasn't always worked in Foster's favor. At times her fluidity has been both blessing and curse to her long musical career. It's taken her from very close to "there" 13 years ago, when she couldn't or wouldn't fit Atlantic's mold, to smack in the middle of "here"--which, to a spiritual person who's seen too much to look back, means "here and now." For Foster, right now, right here is where she belongs.

Here and now also means anchored with Cassone in College Station, where both have houses and Foster isn't too far from her family in Gause.

Careerwise, here and now means Foster's immediate plans: She, Cassone and Fukunaga played the Kerrville Folk Festival's main stage last weekend, with Judy Collins opening. As a trio, they will tape at Austin City Limits next month, and Foster and Cassone will do a show for the syndicated radio program E-Town later this summer. Also through the summer, she and Cassone will tour the American West and then Canada, tapping the still-aloft Runaway Soul. Released last summer, it seems to have a life of its own, selling 1,000 copies in one day last year at the Vancouver Folk Festival, toppling Ani DiFranco's one-day sales record for the festival. (Foster just secured a major distribution deal, via the Blue Corn label, with Warner Bros.)

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