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Musician Ruthie Foster Performs at Laxson Auditorium

02/23/2015 12:18AM ● By Phil Reser
March 2015
By Phil Reser

With a mighty vocal delivery and versatile songwriting ability, Ruthie Foster excels at richly textured music painted blues.

She’s received five trophies from the Blues Music Awards, including the coveted Koko Taylor Award for Female Artist of the Year, along with two Grammy nominations.

“It’s great to be recognized,” says Foster. “But I’m a worker. I come from farmers, where you work from sunup to sundown. That’s the way I work in music, too.” Born in the small farm town of Gause, Texas, she grew up playing the piano and doing recitals at local churches.

"I was a terribly shy kid with a stutter when I started singing. I needed that kind of place to learn," Foster says. “Gospel was a huge part of what my family did. On the radio in Texas, we got everything from Conjunto to blues. That was just cool, learning all of that with my ear, so early. So by the time I got to Texas bars famous for their ‘snake pit’ environment, I knew how to handle myself.” Foster joined the music program at McLennan Community College in Waco, where she formalized her musical upbringing in the church and her self-taught guitar technique while incorporating more diverse styles into her repertoire.

Aft er graduation she enlisted in the Navy, spending time with the U.S. Navy Band, singing pop and funk cover tunes. Out of the Navy, she was signed to a songwriting deal by Atlantic Records and moved to New York in the 1990s, playing folk music in local venues.

She returned to Texas to help care for her ailing mother, and stayed there to become a part of the music scene.

She recorded her first album, “Full Circle,” in 1997 as a folksinger, and she slowly evolved back into an emphasis on blues and soul songs.

The first product of that transformation was 2007’s “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster,” a soul-driven album, that lives up to its title. Th at set the stage for the success of “The Truth According to Ruthie Foster” and “Let It Burn.”

“I started out playing songs by Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin on the guitar in a folk club,” recalls Foster, “because I figured no one else was doing it. Everybody else was doing traditional folk songs. I wanted to do something really different.”

Texas’ musical diversity helped shape her. “Growing up, I heard blues radio and country radio and gospel and my family and everything in between,” she says. “A lot of it came together for me as an early songwriter and learning to play piano and guitar. Blues was guitar-based, and gospel was piano-based. That’s how I incorporate the whole Texas sound, instrumentally. I’ll go and pick up a different instrument, and it brings something different to what I do.”

Her new album, “Promise of a Brand New Day,” includes seven songs written or co-written by Foster, most of them songs with messages. “That’s important to what I do,” she says. “Maybe that’s from growing up with people like Mavis Staples and a lot of strong women who have come before me, who are great singers but also have a message. They give you something; they say something.” The blues lets her roam, Foster says, both musically and lyrically. And she has moved from performing all originals to adding a healthy dose of covers to her performances and recordings.

“I don’t look at my music as necessarily the blues. It’s all about spirit, and maybe that’s what blues is. A lot of people do look at blues as down and out: ‘My heart is on the floor and I’m gonna sing about it for a while.’ And it can be that. I went through some stuff with my relationship last summer that was really, really hard. I remember coming to that point, and blues was the one thing I could listen to. I felt like, ‘I need to know that I’m not alone in feeling like this.’ Blues did that for me.”

Foster says that making people feel good is the ultimate purpose and driving force of her music career. “The goodness, however, must come from the soul. It must live up to internal judgment and not merely satisfy the external evaluation of materialism and hedonism. I truly believe that’s why I’m here, to share my musical gift that I’ve been given, and to remind people to be who they are, be good to each other, and feel good.”

Paul Thorn and Joe Ely team up with
Ruthie Foster as The Southern Troubadours
Tuesday, March 17
Laxson Auditorium, Chico State University