Ruthie Foster tends to have genuinely kind words for almost any conversation topic. Mention a name, and praise rolls easily off her tongue. Eric Bibb? “He’s a spirit brother to me.” Lucinda Williams? “I’ll stand right up front and just watch her mouth move. She’s just great.” Bo Diddley? “He’s got a little mannish side to him, but he’s a real sweetheart.”
One might suspect such compliments extend to her own work as well, given that she named her new Blue Corn Records disc The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster — an uncanny resemblance to The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, The Fabulous Johnny Cash and The Amazing James Brown. But the album’s title is not a matter of vanity so as much as marking a personal and musical milestone.
Phenomenal focuses more intensely on Foster’s buttery blaze of a voice than any of her previous recordings — Full Circle, Crossover, Runaway Soul and Stages — and spotlights her as a singular performer. “Papa Mali [a.k.a. Malcolm Welbourne, who produced the album] really put my voice up front, which is the feature here, and on my previous CDs it wasn’t so much,” she says.
Then there is the album’s bold centerpiece, a musical translation of Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman”, which Foster first heard at a Canadian music festival when she sang harmony on the tune with Richie Havens. With its fluent ripples of Wurlitzer and churchly choir egging on Foster’s leonine vibrato, the soul anthem is a jubilant testimony to self-acceptance, and an up-yours to unrealistic female beauty standards. She only gradually claimed the song’s statement of empowerment — now emblazoned on the album cover — as her own.
“This [record] was almost a year in the making from conception to manufacture, and it took about that long for me to really feel comfortable with that,” she recalls. “I was going through my own sense of personal change and lots of therapy and spiritual guidance from friends and family. It’s a real opening that’s happened with my spirit in the last few years, and an amazing feeling. I want other people to know what that feels like.”
These days Foster isn’t so far from where her musical journey began. She’s back in her native Texas (she was raised in the small central Texas town of Gause and now lives in Austin), having absorbed the sounds of soul, gospel and blues from church and her mother’s record collection.
“I still remember my first church solo,” she says. “This voice came out of me I didn’t even know I had. I let loose, and my big mama’s neck swung around, and she was smiling so big. I knew I was all right then. I could hear her: ‘Yeah, baby — sing it!’”
Foster completed a formal music degree (“I sang Italian arias and French arias for about three years,” she says) before heading into the Navy, of all places, and joining a military ensemble.
“We were a recruiting band,” she explains. “We would show up in our little ice cream suits and just rock the place. They called me the secret weapon. They would start the set, and then I had a wireless microphone, and I would enter from a different part of the auditorium.”
Post-Navy, Foster planted herself in New York and signed a developmental deal with Atlantic, but the arrangement yielded little more than performing experience and a bunch of nostalgic songs.
“I really didn’t step into it the way I’m sure [Atlantic] would have liked me to, and they didn’t really push me,” she says. “I wrote mostly about Texas while I was up there. And that was the stuff people wanted to hear in New York. ‘Oh, sing the song that you sing about the Brazos River.’ And it just made me homesick. The more I wrote about Texas, the more I wanted to be back in Texas.”
The trickle of Texas songs hasn’t stopped. Foster’s new album features the loose-jointed swamp rollick “Beaver Creek Blues”, complete with frog and cricket noises.
Her voice could always handle soul music. What makes this her first true soul record is the liberal use of Wurlitzer, yet another homecoming of sorts. “I started out playing piano,” she says. “And I kind of got away from it in my teenage years. I switched to guitar like a lot of aspiring musicians do. Going back to piano — specifically the Wurlitzer piano — was a huge difference in the feel of these songs and the groove. It’s just something about that particular instrument, just the way it plays and the way the keys react.”
The Wurlitzer’s molten sound is a perfect counterpoint to Foster’s raw-throated emotion. “‘Cuz I’m Here” has the rich mellowness of a Bill Withers ballad (she broke out Withers and Donnie Hathaway LPs while recording), and her slower rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits Of My Labor” wrings new depth out of the song’s lilting melody.
“It was Ray [Benson, of Asleep At the Wheel] who brought that song to me, and asked me to give it a listen,” she says. “Definitely one of those things where you’d listen to it and you’d think, ‘OK, I think I can work with this one. I can give this a little color of Ruthie. Because to me — and Ray brought this up too — it sounded almost like Otis Redding’s ‘[I've Been] Loving You Too Long’. It had that sound to it, like it wanted to go there. I love that.”