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.
"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.)
After fits and starts and changes and shifts, Foster seems poised to soar. The past year has been a major breakthrough, she says--"in the grandest way. Just turning 39 was a big deal for me. It's got me really looking forward, going, 'OK, all right, yeah. If I'm really where I need to be and where I want to be, then it's time.'"
To many artists whose proverbial break came earlier in their careers, the time might seem to have come and gone when her Atlantic deal didn't work out. But Foster wasn't destined for a success dictated by the industry, says Kerrville Folk Festival founder Rod Kennedy, who says he was "blown away" the first time he heard Foster sing.
"I know things happen during your career that are strange," he says, referring to the Atlantic contract a decade ago, "but if you don't live with your beliefs, then you live with something sort of less than those beliefs, and then life is disappointing...Ruthie is a reminder why artists do what they do."
Kennedy (whom Foster credits with pushing her and Cassone to a new level of exposure by bringing them to Kerrville in 1999) says that after her New York experience, Foster focused more on her personal songwriting and performing. "I think she found the rewards of the intimacy of the audience and was treated hospitably everywhere she went. Of course, who could refuse that joyous smile, that beaming face?" The music industry in the early '90s, Foster says wryly.
"They had an idea of what I could be doing, but it was nowhere near where I wanted to be. It was Anita Baker, power-ballad singer," she says, laughing at the idea. "Anita Baker's cool; she's just not part of my personality. Neither is Tracy Chapman," she adds, referring to another artist who, at the time, was shaping the industry's image of a black female singer-songwriter. Straight-out Foster felt uncomfortable trying to wear someone else's coat, and she chuckles now at the promo pictures from those days.
"If you saw my early promo pictures, you'd see that [push]," she says. "I'd say to James, my husband at the time, 'Wow, look at this one; I look white. Cool.' James [Lamb] was very white, very Irish. It gave us a good laugh." For five years--three in New York City and two in Texas--Foster worked under the Atlantic songwriting contract. There were several "maybe" compositions, she says, but her lawyer advised her not to record them unless they were songs she fully believed in. Foster chose not to.
In the end, she left on good terms with Atlantic--and with Fried, a nurturer during that time.
"I went along with it, of course. It was a nice life!" Foster says. "It got me into all these great clubs that were monumental break-in places for artists like Dylan and Baez. Who would complain? I will say that New York kicked my butt in a lot of ways. It opened my eyes to real songwriting, how to write songs, because I went there not really knowing that. And I learned a lot from those people I had a chance to write with--hanging out with somebody like Julie Gold and listening to her personal experiences. It got me in gear."
Up until that point--and even a couple of years later, when she met Cassone and things began to take a more organic and true-to-her-heart path--Foster wasn't certain of her songwriting or singing talents. "I never wanted to be a singer, because there were just so many gifted singers in my family. The most I wanted to be was an instrumentalist. My mother herself was a wonderful singer. I grew up thinking that she was Aretha Franklin," Foster says softly. "My mother's passed now, but she's definitely passed it on, I guess you could say."
Actually, one of the reasons Foster left New York and returned to Texas was because her mother, Shirley Jones, had become ill, and Ruthie wanted to be with her. But as is typical in her world, things seemed to happen for a reason. Her mother's battle with lupus, though devastating to Foster, brought her back to her roots, helped her clarify some of the conflicts she'd felt in New York.
In a poignant way, then, when her mother died unexpectedly during one of Foster's performances in 1996, the circle came full. At Mrs. Jones' insistence, Foster had left her mother's bedside to perform the gig that night, and she died while her daughter was singing "Amazing Grace" onstage.
"It changed my focus, because I wasn't a full-time musician at the time that she passed," Foster recalls. "I remember talking to my grandmother afterward, and she said, 'Baby, it's a brand-new day. It's a brand-new day with all of y'all. You move on with your life and you take your mother with you.' And I did. She's in everything I do. When I don't feel I have a voice, I do. I just feel her flying right out of my mouth."
Another pivotal influence during that period was Cassone, whom Foster met at the nursing home where her mother stayed. Foster would come in to see her mom, and Cyd was an orthopedic surgeon's nurse there.
"I actually met her mother before I met Ruthie," says Cassone, 45, who has two kids, 22 and 15. "She was the sweetest lady, but she knew what she wanted. You see a lot of that in Ruthie."
Cassone was a musician in her own right, who had toured with gospel and folk groups. Also at the time she was the underwriting coordinator for KEOS-FM (89.1) in College Station. When Foster returned to Texas, Cassone asked her to play at a fund-raiser for the station, and the two hit it off. Not long after, Cassone began to manage Foster's local band, the Ruthie Foster Blues Band, but eventually Foster coaxed her onstage to sing harmony and play percussion, forming a duo. Soon Foster and Cassone became inseparable, playing gigs across the country.
By the late '90s, they had formed M.O.D. Records--for "My Own Damn" Records--and released two albums, Full Circle and Crossover, two strong but not-quite-complete examples of what the two were capable of.
With Runaway Soul, it's all there. The disc is refreshingly true to Foster's live sound, capturing the essence of her music.
"One thing I found astounding when I was recording her," Maines says, "was all of her vocals, all that you hear on that album, and her guitar tracks were one take. No punch-ins, no trickery, no resinging or anything like that. What you hear is exactly what she did, which is highly unusual and highly unheard of. With Ruthie, her timing was impeccable...She was just so on all the time."
Bass player Glenn Fukunaga, who also plays with Maines, Eliza Gilkyson, Terry Allen, Terri Hendrix and a host of other virtuosos, echoes the sentiment. He says playing with Foster--and Cassone, he adds--is "a pure pleasure. I had heard of Ruthie before I met her, and everything I'd heard was just, 'You gotta see this girl.' So I get a call from Lloyd saying, 'I want you to play on Ruthie's record.' I was thrilled."
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Recently, Fukunaga has begun playing more often with Foster and Cassone, and he says, "Every time I'm just totally in awe. Just to be standing next to somebody who can sing like that." But he is quick to point out Cassone's essential role in the Foster mix. "What's amazing to me is their harmonies, the vocal blending they create."
Even so, Cassone says it's not always easy to be up there with Foster. "I love being Ruthie's side person. I enjoy that, but I know that in order to really complement what she's doing I need to be strong, because she's strong."
Maines points out that virtually anybody standing next to Foster onstage would feel intimidated. "When she holds those notes, I feel like every note she sings she's reaching down to the depth of her soul. I don't know how to describe it, but it just grabs me," he says. "But Cyd really is important to the whole dynamic. She's a great team member. She sings great harmony with Ruthie, and she really contributes a lot to her career. A lot of times, in fact, Cyd is Ruthie's guiding light, really."
But at the end of the day--or at the end of a show--it's hard to leave without Foster's blazing voice scorched into your memory. Though she might come on soft, even shy, as she approaches the mike, when she opens her mouth to sing, something changes. The shape-shifter emerges, and almost unwittingly, Foster becomes a vessel, channeling her collective history, the voice of her childhood church, of her family, her mother, the deep blues of East Texas--and the reality of her own coming full circle. There, the circle is unbroken. No doubt, this is the gospel according to Ruthie Foster.