Ruthie Foster & band make true believers of listeners
Written by Sentinel-Tribune Staff   
Friday, 23 August 2013 11:17
Ruthie Foster (Photo by John Carrico)
Ruthie Foster has a voice that does credit to even the greatest songwriters’ work.
That much is evident on her most recent recording “Let It Burn,” where she covers such iconic songs “Ring of Fire,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Don’t Want To Know” and “The Titanic,” as well as the modern classic Adele’s “Set Fire To the Rain.”
Then there is here own growing library of originals showcased on her earlier CD “The World According to Ruthie Foster.”
She’s more than a songbird, albeit a big-voiced songbird. She rocks out on guitar, and as an instrumentalist is comfortable enough to take the stage with only her own guitar, electric bass and drums.
While the instrumentation may seem minimal, the sound pumped out by the leader’s guitars, bassist Tanya Richardson and drummer Samantha Banks is anything but small. The trio demonstrated that during an appearance at the 2009 Black Swamp Arts Festival. It was as crisp and hard-rocking a band as has graced the festival stage. Expect nothing less when Foster, Richardson and Banks return for a Friday, Sept. 6 show at 6:20 p.m. on the Main Stage,
“The girls are pretty good about taking a three piece and making it sound much, much fatter,” Foster said during a recent telephone interview.
She’s been working with them so long, at least 15 years, she’s lost track. They have ties beyond music Richardson is her cousin and Banks, a very old friend. “That’s what makes it so tight.”
Her bandmates have music school training and experience playing jazz fusion to church music.
They share those church music roots with Foster who got her start in church. Those gospel tones define her sound. Her approach at once harks back to the roots of African-American music while having a contemporary edge. She’s been honored both as a traditional and contemporary blues artist.
But blues only hints at her range. That was fully on display on “Let It Burn.” “If I Had a Hammer” gets a jazzy take with a saxophone lick lifted from the Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” while “Titantic” with the Blind Boys of Alabama almost sounds like a field recording from the Georgia Sea Islands. She delivers a sultry version of June Carter Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
She worked with producer John Chelew, who had “a great knack” for picking out songs to go with several Foster originals.
Foster is not one to get hung up on labels. “I just do the music I like and let the genres find me,” she said back in 2009.
With an all-star backing crew on “Let It Burn,” Foster set her guitar aside and focused on her singing. That’s not an option in live shows. Not that she wants it to be.
Now 49, she’s been playing guitar since she was 11, and piano before that. In fact she played more piano in those early year. “I was a musician in my church,” a Southern Baptist missionary church in central Texas.
That gospel remains central to her sound. “It’s just being in touch with the spirit... Music moves people from the spirit out,” she said in 2009.
She did a tour in the Navy, ending up singing with an urban top 40s ensemble and a big band.
Guitar though was her first love, and a more practical instrument for a touring minstrel.
When she heads home to Austin, Texas, and needs to develop new material, she goes “back to woodshedding” on the guitar.
‘As a musician you can never stop learning,” she said.
She gets out her jazz manuals, and starts working on harmonies. Those extended harmonies “stretch your ear more.”
“You get a new chord under your belt, you can turn that into a new song,” she said this summer.
And she likes equipment. “I’m a pedal geek,” she said. Her kitchen is filled “mostly with guitars and pedals.”
Having that gear to haul has prompted her to start working out. “I started late last year because I wanted to feel better dragging suitcases and guitar cases,” she said.
Also, “I move around on stage a lot. ... We’re up on stage in the heat, dancing around, so that will get to you.”

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