Ruthie Foster says she’s not into labels, but tries to describe to me the style of music on her latest album, released in March on Blue Corn Music. “It could be Americana, rhythm and blues, soul or ‘all of the above.’”
However one categorizes Joy Comes Back, the 2017 album should be called a winner. The 10-song album has only one original song, Foster’s “Open Sky,” but the covers are first-rate. They’re creative, warm, and flow smoothly from track to track.
Foster’s rendition of the Ivy Jo Hunter/Stevie Wonder composition ''Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever” seems a logical choice, but a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” is a head-shaking surprise. It must, though, be the most beautiful version of “War Pigs” ever recorded—a version that could serve as a lullaby for Ozzy at bedtime each night.
“I like to mix it up when I cover a tune!” Foster declares emphatically. “I like to think that one is like Son House meets Sabbath.”
Why only one original tune on the album—Foster’s eighth studio album in her 10-album catalog?
“It just really worked out that way,” Foster says. “There are so many great tunes out there that I wanted to put my stamp on.”
Other cover songs include Chris Stapleton’s “What Are You Listening To?” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Women Blues.” Some of the guest musicians playing on the album are Joe Vitale, Derek Trucks, Willie Weeks, and Warren Hood.
Vitale, a drummer who co-produced albums for Stephen Stills; Joe Walsh; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, has three solo albums and has recorded and toured with the Eagles, John Lennon, Dan Fogelberg, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, and a host of others.
“I met Joe at Dan’s (Daniel Barrett, who co-produced the album with Foster) studio,” Foster says. “He’s a legendary musician and a lovely human.”
How did Derek Trucks’ magical slide guitar get on Foster’s album?
“Derek and I have been crossing paths on the road for many years,” says Foster, a three-time Grammy nominee. “A couple of years ago, my band opened for him, and we did a couple of songs together on stage. I just asked him to be on the new album, and I used every note we could of what he sent! What an amazing player he is, and a wonderful person!”
Foster says she admires too many musicians to name them all, but six immediately come to mind: Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Howlin' Wolf, and Etta James.
It may be impossible to top those incredible talents, but James’ name comes up again when I ask Foster what’s the best concert she has attended as a spectator.
“I’ve seen a lot of shows, but a couple of my favorites were Ella Fitzgerald, Prince, Alabama Shakes, and Neil Diamond. I saw Ella when I was living in New York City, and we went without electricity to buy the tickets to see her. It was totally worth being in the dark for another couple weeks ’til we had the money for the light bill.”
I mention to Foster that I first saw her perform on stage during a music workshop with several other musicians many years ago at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, New York. Her vocal prowess amazed me and so many others in the audience and on stage. Her fellow musicians, who then were better known nationally than Foster, were blown away and kept remarking about the beauty and the power of her singing. It was such a spectacular performance that, today, I can’t recall any of the other lead musicians I had come to see on that stage that day—I can only remember the one name: Ruthie Foster.
“I’ve probably played that festival three or four times, and one of my favorites was getting to see Ani DiFranco’s show,” Foster says. “I also got to perform with Guy Clark, Bruce Cockburn, and many other awesome songwriters in the round, feeling not very worthy, but rising to the occasion.”
Foster says that growing up in tiny Gause, Texas, had “a huge influence” on the music she plays today. Gause, located about a 2 1/2-hour drive south of Dallas and a 1 1/2-hour drive northeast of Austin, had an estimated population of 400 people in 2000.
“My father loved the blues, my mother loved gospel, and I feel like my music embodies the best of both of those worlds,” she says.
Foster says her eight studio albums are “all very different, with the styles ranging from soul, blues, gospel, R&B, folk, and Americana. I like to think my music encompasses all genres.”
She certainly has made her mark in the blues genre. Three of her albums—2014’s Promise of a Brand New Day, 2012’s Let it Burn, and 2009’s The Truth According to Ruthie Foster—were nominated for Grammy awards for the best blues album.
With such accomplishments under her belt, are there any lyrical or musical aims in the future?
“I just want my music to speak the truth to the listener,” Foster says, “because that is what it speaks to me.”