Ruthie Foster doesn’t just sing the blues — she lives them. The wailing guitars and rich storyteller lyrics pulsate through her body just as much as the real blood, sweat and tears that inspire each track. “Blues is where I go back to when I’m in that place where you feel like you need a witness to your life. It has always been that way for me,” says the accomplished 54-year-old artist who has been nominated for — and won — numerous Grammy Awards, Blues Music Awards and Living Blues Awards over the span of an eight-album career that also incorporates roots elements of Americana, soul and gospel.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 22
Where: SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Her latest, the pensive yet hopeful “Joy Comes Back,” is a collection of nine covers and one original song created at a time when her home life was changing, resulting in a dissolved relationship and a new normal for her and her 5-year-old daughter. The events are reflected in a hallelujah cover of Grace Pettis’ “Working Woman” and a soft-strings-meets-keys serenade of Deb Talan’s “Forgiven,” the last track on the album but the first Foster recorded. “That’s where I had to start, the place where you forgive yourself,” she says with the same calm confidence that has always permeated her music. “In a way, music has always been a coping mechanism for me.”
The heady, emotional state of mind on “Joy Comes Back” harkens back to Foster’s debut, 1997’s “Full Circle,” which was created shortly after her mother passed away and around the time when she walked away from a national recording contract with Atlantic Records, which had plans to turn Foster’s clean, smooth, uplifting vocals into a platinum pop success. She has since enjoyed a two-decade relationship with Blue Corn Music, a boutique label that has given Foster free rein to explore.
“I have nothing against Atlantic. I just wasn’t in that place; I wasn’t OK with being commercialized. But mostly it was timing. My mother was not doing well, so I had to leave,” says Foster, remembering biding adieu to the music circles and the coffeehouses she played in New York City where she was first discovered to head back home to small town Gause, Texas.
In Gause years prior, Foster’s mother (and her Aunt Rosetta) had reared the young talent on a weekly routine of church music and communal choirs, in which the whole family performed. “My mom had such a beautiful voice, I grew up thinking she was Aretha Franklin,” says Foster, laughing. “Every time I hear [gospel staple] ‘Precious Memories’ it takes me back to that time.” Though Foster started her musical journey behind the piano on Sunday mornings, her family pushed the shy girl towards the microphone, where she became a soloist in the choir, belting out hallowed tunes by Andrae Crouch, Edwin Hawkins Singers, Mahalia Jackson and Dorothy Norwood.
Foster taught herself guitar and, later, studied music and engineering in college before joining the Navy, where she admits she learned some of her greatest lessons about being a performer after enlisting in the U.S. Naval band Pride.
“It got me ready for the almost real world aspect of music — how to travel, the discipline that goes into being a working musician and the community service after seeing people really get a kick out of it when we came to town,” she says, noting she also had her first taste of heavy rock music during this time. “It’s what we listened to working on helicopters on the night shift. That’s all the guys wanted to hear, and they schooled me on all those bands — Deep Purple, Ozzy, you name it — and I schooled them on the blues.” The two worlds combine on a rootsy version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” which is a surprise standout on “Joy Comes Back.”
That album also features a collaboration with Derek Trucks, who provides searing slide guitar on the title track. Over the years, Foster has become close with him and his wife, blues rock scribe Susan Tedeschi, as well as other legendary blues queens like Bonnie Raitt.
“I love being around them. As a blues singer, songwriter and entertainer, they make me feel like it’s OK to be sassy and say what I want,” says Foster, who admits there’s still a long way to go to recognize the incredible female blues artists who often are overshadowed. “But we women [artists] are making some noise, and women in general are making a lot of noise right now,” says Foster. “I think it’s definitely past time for that, and hopefully I can make my mark by writing more and living up to those sheroes.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.