(A portion of this piece was published in Jackson Hole Weekly)
Where has my life been without Ruthie Foster? The forty-nine year old, two-time Grammy nominee and four-time Blues Music Awards recipient has long hovered in my peripheral, but not anymore. Often compared to Ella Fitzgerald or Aretha Franklin, I digress to her Susan Tedeschi vibe. Like Tedeschi, guitar-wielding Foster belts a soulful blend of gospel and funk to compliment her in-the-pocket R&B.
Foster’s phenomenal 2012 release and seventh album, Let it Burn, was just nominated for a Grammy for Best Blues Album, yet actually deviates from the blues—further into her gospel choir roots. Alongside two new gospel-tinged original tunes adorned by The Blind Boys of Alabama, the album covers a wide range of artists, including The Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light,” The Band’s “It Makes No Difference,” “Set Fire to the Rain” by Adele, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” even Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.”
And who is among the New Orleans studio band? Try B3 wizard Ike Stubblefield, bassist George Porter, Jr. and drummer Russell Batiste of The Meters along with guitarist Dave Easley and renowned saxophonist James Rivers. Per the suggestion of producer John Chelew (John Hiatt, Richard Thompson) Foster stepped back from playing guitar and just concentrated on being a vocalist.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen [in the studio], but knew that I hadn’t written a lot of songs for it,” Foster said from her Austin home. [Stream the entire interview at the top of this post] “Chelew stuck out in my mind as someone really different to work with, and he had a lot of musical influences that he wanted to introduce me to. And I thought, ‘This is great. This will stretch me.’”
Foster’s career has taken her from humble church choir beginnings in rural Texas, followed by a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy Band, and eventually to New York City where she landed a major-label development deal that went sour. After she moved back to Texas to care for her ailing mother, Foster took a break from singing professionally for a couple of years. When she resumed her music career in Austin, she became a regular nominee at the Austin Music Awards, winning Best Folk Artist in 2004-05 and Best Female Vocalist in 2007-08.
Broadening her sound by blending blues and soul aspects into her folk roots, Ruthie added her first Grammy nomination to her list of achievements (Best Contemporary Blues Album for 2009′s The Truth According to Ruthie Foster) And, in a nod to her astounding range, she then won seemingly contradictory Blues Music Association awards for both Best Traditional and Best Contemporary Female Blues Artist in back-to-back years.
Foster will be performing as a trio, with longtime companions bassist Tanya Richardson and drummer Samantha Banks.
Ruthie Foster, 7 p.m., Thursday Jan. 10, at the Center Theater. Tickets are $20/rear balcony, $25/main balcony and $35/orchestra, available at JHCenterForTheArts.org or 733-4900.