december 2011

Ruthie Foster: ‘Let people remember that music is a teacher and a healer.’

Aim For The Heart

Ruthie Foster’s Let It Burn Is Nigh On To A Miracle

By David McGee

December 22, 2011, was a mild, rainy day in Memphis, when I drove across the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge and found my way onto the two-lane Highway 70 heading west, en route to Tulsa to visit friends and family for the holidays. The intensity of the rain had made the slower going on 70 a more attractive option than fighting with the semis on I-40, where I knew I would have to maneuver through the blinding flurry of water whizzing off those 18-wheelers and onto my windshield as the trucks sped by at 70 or 80 MPH.

highwayTaking Highway 70 means 55 MPH speed limits on the open road, and as slow as 25 MPH in the little towns you pass through. (And on Highway 70, 25 means 25--I’m not the only driver who briefly hit 30 MPH in one of these towns and promptly found himself in possession of a $50 speeding ticket.) More scenic than the dreary I-40, Highway 70 winds through small town America--Forrest City, Widener, Lonoke, Dodsons Corner, Goodwin, Wheatley, Brasfield, DeValls Bluff, Hazen, Carlisle--quiet little communities spiffed up and glowing for the holidays, going about the business of living, proud of their mom and pop stores and frequenting them, even if a Wal-Mart is only a few miles away in pretty much any direction. Local pizza parlors. Burger joints. Antique shops. Dairies with some variation of “Freeze” in their names. Schools out in open fields, where kids have plenty of room to roam and run. Churches abounding. But everywhere along this route are signs of the world we live in--block after block of boarded up storefronts, a certain ragged countenance you see in some of the townsfolk as they make their daily rounds. They are the percentage of the 99 percenters that has really been left behind, even by other 99 percenters. How many are out of work I had no idea; but I knew if they were employed, they understood they were treading water--and on a day like this, that water must have seemed, literally and figuratively, like it was “five feet high and risin’,” in the memorable lyric of that great Arkansas native Johnny Cash.

Highway 70, looking west after passing through Forrest City

Against this tableau of holiday cheer and weary despair I slipped the advance CD of Ruthie Foster’s new album, Let It Burn, into my rental car’s player, glided slowly through a 25 MPH stretch, then punched the gas pedal when I saw a 55 MPH sign up ahead. The car surged forward, and that’s when it happened.

A slide guitar howls gently. The Blind Boys of Alabama rumble in and stir the soul. Then Ruthie enters, multitracked, and declaims: “When my mind doesn’t know how to get there/trust in my heart/and I swear/my soul came to welcome me home.” Ruthie was back in church, singing her own “Welcome Back” song to lead off the album, and mounting the pulpit to preach the gospel of love’s wondrous and mysterious ways and of a search for salvation, redemption and social justice, guided by providence.

Audio clip: Ruthie Foster, ‘Welcome Home,’ the first track on Let It Burn

At Hazen I crossed I-40, drove about a half mile down the road and turned left onto another unmarked road that took me another half mile to the Cedar Point Church cemetery. There my mother is buried, by her choice, about a mile up the road from where she used to pick cotton as a child. Out in the middle of nowhere, with but one other house in sight, the cemetery and surrounding property look not much different from what was there when she worked the fields with her sharecropping family from 1917 into the early 1920s. I leaned down to touch her simple headstone, to reaffirm the connection, and all I could hear was “…and I swear/my soul came to welcome me home…” The peace that passes all understanding.

This is what Ruthie Foster has wrought on Let It Burn, the first great album of 2012. It would be so even if this music possessed nothing more than the soul and depth of feeling and musical integrity you hope to find in any style of roots music, be it bluegrass, blues, folk, country, gospel or even classic pop a la Sinatra. But the greatest gift this album offers is in molding its musical elements into something more profound than can be played or sung: It takes you to a place you may not have expected to go, but when you get there you realize you’re right where you belong. And you’ve learned something about yourself.

It is nigh on to a miracle.


truthComing off her celebrated 2009 soul-gospel gem, The Truth According To Ruthie Foster, the artist maintains the horn-driven template of that Memphis-recorded beauty (she cut it at the famed Ardent Studios, where sessions began on the day of Isaac Hayes’s funeral) along with its blend of soul, blues and folk, and of course adds a little extra to this heady eclecticism. The odd fact about Let It Burn, though, centers on it being so steeped in Memphis soul, yet it was recorded…in New Orleans, with Grammy winning producer John Chelew and a powerhouse but nuanced quintet of Crescent City masters: the great Ike Stubblefield, stellar throughout on B3 and piano; George Porter Jr. commanding the rhythm section on bass; the redoubtable Russell Batiste on drums; Dave Easley, a virtual second voice to Ruthie’s on pedal steel; and James Rivers blowing nuanced, atmospheric tenor sax. The surging horns, gospel organ, churchy piano, velvety female background voices (hers), and Ruthie channeling the smoldering spirituality of Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin all hearken back to golden days of Stax-Volt while sounding right on time for the 21st Century. She even brings back Stax legend William Bell—who’s sounding more like B.B. King every day--to duet with her on a bluesy, organ-drenched version of Bell’s landmark “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”

The Making of Let It Burn, with excerpts of the songs ‘Welcome Home,’ ‘Long Time Gone,’ ‘This Time,’ ‘Set Fire to the Rain,’ ‘Lord Remember Me’ (with the Blind Boys of Alabama), ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ (with William Bell). Producer John Chelew, Foster says, ‘reminded me of a director on a set. He set a tone, set a mood with everybody and what the next track should be. Then he’d go back in the control room and let us move with that. I like that.’

Anyone who’s followed Foster over the course of her five previous albums (three studio, two live), beginning with 2002’s bluesy, Lloyd Maines-produced Runaway Soul, will hardly be surprised by her choice of covers on Let It Burn. She never does anything without a purpose, though, so you figure her reimagining “Ring of Fire” as a torch ballad--the urban counterpart to Anita Carter’s original, mountain soul version that inspired a bit of tweaking on Johnny Cash’s part and you know the rest of that story--along with the ruminative, deeply interior reading of “If I Had a Hammer” (more in keeping with a time when the problems the song addresses seem intractable, as opposed to, say, Peter, Paul & Mary’s more optimistic call to arms in the early ‘60s) and a tense, wrenching take on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Long Time Gone” that’s true to the original’s sense of the moment’s urgency, are part and parcel of a larger message she’s sending about the state of the union and the heart alike. As they do on “Welcome Home,” the Blind Boys of Alabama add additional gravitas to and buttress the foreboding ambiance on “Long Time Gone.” She turns the overhyped Black Keys’s “Everlasting Light” into a soulful appeal of commitment; burns (appropriately) with epic heartache in a pulsating “Set Fire To the Rain,” an Adele triumph that Foster makes her own; adds a pulsating gospel flavor to the steamy anticipation of “This Time,” from the pens of those Los Lobos stalwarts, David Hidalgo and Louie Perez; makes a rich, yearning soul ballad of John Martyn’s “Don’t Want to Know”; and closes the album with a profound, humbling a cappella gospel reading of the old warhorse, “The Titanic,” with, again, the Blind Boys sounding like the voice of God seconding Ruthie’s deeply emotional reading, the cumulative effect of the combined voices enhancing the song’s insinuation of the big ship’s demise being a form of divine vengeance. In addition to “Welcome Home,” Foster includes two other of her original songs: a powerful spiritual appeal for salvation, “Lord Remember Me” (with the Blind Boys once more coming down from the mountain) and a buoyant bit of soulful testifying on the autobiographical “Aim For the Heart” (a co-write with Jon and Sally Tiven), which references some practical, motherly advice about cultivating your soul more so than your physical allure as a way to win someone’s affection (“aim for the heart, don’t aim for the head, that’s what mama said…”--“that was definitely something she told me to do,” Foster says with a laugh). Coincidence or not, Foster’s singing on Let It Burn is free, easy and deeply emotive, a product perhaps of this being the first album she’s done on which she does not play her own guitar but sticks strictly to vocalizing.

“I wanted to be more of a song interpreter with this CD,” Foster says by phone from her Texas home in early January. “Obviously I don’t have a lot of my own tunes on it, so John Chelew and I picked out a group of songs that we thought were not just great songs but songs we thought we could do something different with. ‘Ring of Fire,’ that version I had been sitting on for awhile. I sent that over to him and he fell in love with it. He would send me a few tunes at a time, at the beginning of the summer, and brought it down to what I liked and what we really wanted me to try (laughs). Some of it was a little different, even for me. ‘Long Time Gone,’ I knew the song, but I wasn’t really hearing where he wanted to go with it until we were in the studio and we decided to just go ahead and put a track down. That song just went somewhere else completely, beautifully, especially when the Blind Boys came in and put their magic on it. I wanted to keep a soul element, too, not just a gospel feel. I guess the record ended up being kind of sultry and smoky with a gospel feel. I kind of like it myself; I wasn’t really sure about it because I’ve never really done anything with a group of songs like this before.”

In her album opening “Welcome Home,” the lyric “been trying to get there” is repeated like an incantation, and sets the tone for the journey to come. It turns out to have been purposely placed at the start, in keeping with a pattern Foster has employed on her previous CDs, as the best way to announce her intentions to her audience.

Ruthie Foster, an acoustic performance of ‘Runaway Soul,’ the title track from her 2002 Lloyd Maines-produced debut CD. This Australian TV performance took place in March 2008.

“All of my CDs have used the first song as a way of introducing myself to people, because you’re always in front of a new audience. So ‘Welcome Home’ was a way of letting folks know that here’s a group of songs that I know, a lot of them I grew up with from childhood and even songs that my uncles and my mom listened to, right up to now, with ‘Set Fire To the Rain’ from Adele. I kind of just wanted to put a little bit of my own history into this record, like I do a lot of ‘em. I didn’t want to stray too far from gospel, so ‘Remember Me’ was something I had written awhile back but I wanted it in here. ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ the Pete Seeger song--I love Pete, I’ve met him, had a chance to hang out with him in New York when I lived up there. I wanted to pay homage to him. The record felt like it was going everywhere when I was in the studio. Oh, my gosh! I felt I had to be someone else when I walked in. I did a lot of channeling of Mavis Staples and some of my favorite sister singer-songwriters like Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones, even, just trying to get to that place where I could at least deliver the songs in the way they needed to be heard.”

Indeed, she wanted the “message” songs to be heard as she was hearing them, and agrees, for instance, that the dirge-like treatment of “If I Had a Hammer” and the slow boiling intensity of “Long Time Gone” were her way of saying something about the current state of the union, including how she rises up out of the weariness in “If I Had a Hammer” to express determination to effect the change she’s singing of. Ruthie Foster is not a woman who gives up or gives in when faced with daunting odds in any endeavor.

“That definitely had a lot to do with why I even chose that song,” she says of “If I Had a Hammer.” “I had a chance to hang out with and travel with some folks who were part of the Freedom Riders, years back when I was Charleston, South Carolina. I knew the song in the way everybody had heard it, but hearing it this way was a way of getting it across to almost a soul audience, too. I think that’s what I’m hoping a lot of the arrangements of these tunes will do—just kind of jump into another genre but the message is still there. So if someone can make it into the groove, they’ll make it into the lyrics and what the words are saying and understand how true these songs are. Then I feel like I’ve done my duty.”

Aboard the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, January 2010, Ruthie Foster performs ‘People Get Ready,’ with Tanya Richardson on bass and Samantha Banks on drums. From the album The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.

Earlier in the interview, when asked if any of the songs on the album were particularly difficult to nail in the studio, she answered with a quick “no.” Later, when discussing how she felt about being guitar-less on record for the first time, she backtracked, and at the same time moved forward. After some initial discomfort, she said, she began feeling new oats as she settled into being a dedicated vocalist.

“You asked what songs were most difficult? They were all difficult for me because I had no idea chordally, structurally where they were going because I didn’t have a chance to sit down with them. I remember sending an email to Chelew asking for any help on the chords, and he sent one back real quick saying, ‘Don’t try to play. I don’t want you to play on this.’ And I had no idea I wasn’t playing until a couple of weeks before we went into the studio. It was a relief; it gave me a chance to really sit and be with these tunes vocally more than on any other record I’ve done. That to me was so freeing. Surprisingly. I had no idea how much fun that would be for me, to go in and just be with my instrument. And have the room and the space for that given to me from the musicians and from John, the air was so free for me to be and sing, go any direction I wanted to go. And to have folks like Ike Stubblefield come in and re-do a couple of his parts based on what he had just heard me do vocally, that was huge for me.

Did she surprise herself with where she went vocally?

“Oh, yeah! A couple of tunes stand out: on “Everlasting Light,” we were gonna go into the hallelujah chorus at the end of that song. I just kind of kept singing at the end of it and I had eye contact with George Roberts. So I started going into my ‘hallelujah’ vocal chorus and George jpicked it up and followed me, and then everybody else did. So there was a lot of that going on. Couple of tunes I wasn’t even sure about the vocal range, thought it was a little high for me, but I just let go and let the song take over. That was beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of being in the studio because I really like being in front of live audiences. I tend to hold back vocally when I’m in the studio, because I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. (laughs) This gave me a chance not to have to think about I have to go back in and record a guitar part after I sing this to get it clean. It just gave me a chance to sang—not sing—sang.”

Another powerhouse performance from the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, January 2010: Ruthie performs ‘Ocean of Tears,’ Big Maybelle’s blues classic from her 1952-55 tenure with the OKeh label.

Foster is well-traveled, in many ways, and with The Truth According To Ruthie Foster and especially Let It Burn she has elevated her art to that level where legends begin to take shape. She’s not the only one working the gospel-soul-blues-folk axis, but she’s put some distance between herself and other practitioners, now occupying the rarified air where the likes of Maria Muldaur dwell. Consider how far she’s come. As Shermakaye Bass noted in a 2003 profile published in the Dallas Observer: “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 (where, among other things, she was contracted to write songs for Atlantic Records in an ill-fated venture), Charleston, College Station, on the road. She's been married to a man, and now is involved with Cyd Cassone. Foster's 39 years of experience come tumbling out in a phalanx of blues, R&B, soul, jazz, black Baptist gospel and folk. Because of Foster's many lives, not despite them, her repertoire is now of a piece.”

[Note: During her New York tenure Foster was contracted to write songs for Atlantic in what proved to be an ill-fated venture: "They had an idea of what I could be doing, but it was nowhere near where I wanted to be,” Foster told Bass. “It was Anita Baker, power-ballad singer. Anita Baker's cool; she's just not part of my personality. Neither is Tracy Chapman.” Also, with her partner Cassone she formed M.O.D. Records--“My Own Damn” Records--and released two duo albums, Full Circle and Crossover, which Bass characterizes as “strong but not-quite-complete examples of what the two were capable of.”]

From the Live at Antone’s CD/ DVD, Ruthie Foster performs ‘Phenomenal Woman,’ originally released on her 2007 album The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.

Given this evolution, one wonders, given the sweat, tears and wanderings marking Foster’s career, where she feels she would like to land as an artist in the long term.

 “I would love to just be thought of as a teacher,” she answers after a pause. “I think music has a way of really teaching you something about yourself, about the people you’re around, how to treat people--and remember music is a healer. It’s been that in my life. You mentioned all the things I’ve put into my music, and my career, and you’re absolutely right. The tears and relationships come and go because of the music a lot of the times with me, because I’ve always put the music up front because that’s the way and still is the way I speak. It started that way. I was one of those kids that was really shy, didn’t talk a lot, and when I did I stuttered all over myself. But music was a way to open me up, so it healed me from a lot of that.

“If anything, let people remember that music is a teacher and a healer."

Which, when you think about it, is another way of saying “Aim for the heart, and your soul will come to welcome you home.” A fellow visiting his mother’s grave in Cedar Point Cemetery in Hazen, Arkansas, at Christmas, felt the power of that message. Odds are, he will not be alone.

Ruthie Foster’s Let It Burn is available at

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