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Rural Texas singer/guitarist Ruthie Foster had made records highlighting her blend of folk, gospel, and soul since 1997, but it wasn’t until 2009’s The Truth According to Ruthie Foster earned a Grammy nomination that she got attention from NPR and other outlets and landed gigs with the likes of Bonnie Raitt. Foster just released her latest effort, Let It Burn, and she’s bringing her impassioned, church-rooted voice to the Birchmere tonight on her Soul Salvation Tour.
The new album was recorded in New Orleans with a handful of special guests, and it includes a few Foster originals. But it largely emphasizes covers from a variety of artists, including Pete Seeger, soul singer William Bell, and Johnny Cash. At tonight’s show, she’ll be joined by drummer Samantha Banks and bassist Tanya Richardson. Foster answered some questions via email.
Washington City Paper: How did the New Orleans sessions come together and how did you come to work with those players and with producer John Chelew?
Ruthie Foster: New Orleans is one of my favorite cities, so to record there was a true dream for me. John Chelew is a huge fan of N.O. too, because he also produced The Blind Boys of Alabama there. John came onto my radar through my management, and he and I emailed songs back and forth about ideas for a while before I finally decided to ask him to produce. Working with players like George Porter Jr., Ike Stubblefield, Dave Easley, and Russell Baptiste (along with the Blind Boys of Alabama) kept me on my game at all times. I had to show up knowing where I wanted to go with every song. It was a big lesson, as any recording studio experience with stellar players can be.
WCP: How are your cover songs chosen? Did you choose or did John or…?
RF: Chelew and I decided on songs together based on what we wanted the project to say. He relayed that this project should concentrate on great tunes and I trusted his judgment. It just happened that the project really quantized my ability to interpret these great songs in a way that I wasn’t even aware of, and though he did stretch me a lot with songs by the Black Keys and Dave Crosby, I enjoyed every note of it.
WCP: Was it weird not playing guitar? Did you put your hands on your hips?
RF: It was a little different for me just singing and not playing. I had no idea that I wasn’t playing on the project until a couple of months beforehand, when I asked if Chelew was going to ever send me a chord chart and he informed me that he envisioned me just focusing on what I wanted to do vocally. So I did; I hadn’t been a front singer with no instrument since I was in the U.S. Navy Band in the early ’90s, in which I sang big band and pop music all the time. As far as what to do with my hands, I managed! I’ve become more expressive with my hands, for sure.
WCP: Are you familiar at all with southern soul artists on labels like Ecko and Malaco—-folks like Miss Jody, Denise Lasalle, Mel Waiters, and O.B. Buchana? What do you think?
RF: I am very familiar with the Malaco music family. I grew up, through my mother’s Zenith console stereo, listening to cuts from Z.Z. Hill, Denise LaSalle, King Floyd, and Dorothy Moore‘s “Misty Blue,” as well as the Muscle Shoals influence and connection to that label. My uncle was a truck driver and kept his record collection at our house, so I got a great soul/blues education. This music will always be a part of me, mostly because it reminds me of watching my mother smile and sway while snapping her fingers and singing to them.
WCP: You have received attention via NPR, folk-music media, and various other sources, but you are not known as far as I can tell by that Southern soul audience or the neo-soul modern R&B market—-yes, your sound is different, but how do you deal with trying to get your music out to various audience segments? Or do you leave that up to your manager?
RF:I don’t worry myself about trying to break into different genres as much as some, I suppose. Because when it’s all done, I’m the one person who has to stand in front of people and introduce and then sing these songs; and I think it means more to a listening audience to hear what a song means to you rather than having no life story or connection behind what you’re singing about; I like to give my audience credit for knowing the difference. I also try to remain awake when it comes to anyone in my music business circle, management or otherwise, trying to take me to a place that isn’t in any way connected to my true self, because my mama use to say to me, “Baby, you’ve got a soul to save.” It’s a simple quote and a daily practice for me as it should be with anyone who wants to live an authentic meaningful life. I can only hope that this shows though my music as well.
The Soul Salvation Tour with Ruthie Foster and Paul Thorn begins at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. $29.50.