By Richard Skanse
(LSM Jan/Feb 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 1)

Ruthie Foster didn’t actually make her new Let It Burn album with her hands tied behind her back, but she could have. For the first time in her career, the acclaimed singer-songwriter and veteran recording artist refrained from playing a single note in the studio.

“It was very different for me, because up until this point, I always played on my records,” says Foster, who self-produced her 1997 debut, Full Circle, and went on to work with noted producers Lloyd Maines, Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne and Chris Goldsmith (Blind Boys of Alabama, Charlie Musselwhite). “But this producer that I ended up putting this album together with, John Chelew, his idea was to just pick great songs, and for me to be more of an interpreter.”

Foster says she always saw herself making such a record, but figured it was something she’d get around to “much later in my career.” But coming off the career-accelerating, back-to-back successes of 2007’s The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster and 2009’s Grammy-nominated The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, the present seemed as good a time as any to keep on pushing her own artistic envelope. Let It Burn contains just two Foster-penned originals, but the album’s 11 covers are anything but old-hat and familiar. “I love taking songs apart and doing something really different with them,” she enthuses. “We kind of touched on that with the Lucinda Williams song [“Fruits of My Labor”] on the Phenomenal record; but with this record, we’ve taken songs like Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ and really shooken it and turned it into something almost sexy.”

Chelew, whose production credits include albums by John Hiatt and Richard Thompson, assembled an all-star crew of players for the New Orleans sessions, leaving the instrumental duties on Let It Burn in the very capable hands of guitarist Dave Easley, saxophonist James Rivers, organ player Ike Stubblefield, and the rhythm section of the Crescent City’s renowned Funky Meters, bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Russell Batiste. That allowed Foster to focus all of her artistic energies on nailing her vocals. But although anyone familiar with her catalog, or who’s heard her sing live, might assume this would be a cakewalk for a woman routinely compared to such vocal legends as Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Mavis Staples, Foster is quick to insist that such wasn’t the case.

“I always learn more about myself in the studio, because quite honestly, it’s very stressful for me,” she says. “I think that just comes from being around so many incredible musicians, every time, every album, and feeling like, ‘OK, what I don’t know, I know I’ll walk out of here knowing by the time it’s over with.’ It’s always such a learning curve for me when I go into the studio. But it’s usually a musical learning curve. This was the first time it was a vocal learning curve for me — and a huge one.”

Part of her challenge — shared with Chelew and the musicians — was finding a unique approach to each of the album’s covers, which in addition to the aforementioned “Ring of Fire” include traditional folk standards like “The Titanic” and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” as well as more contemporary fare like Los Lobos’ “This Time,” the Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light,” and even Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” But the real test of Foster’s vocal mettle came with the four tracks (including her two originals) teaming her with the Blind Boys of Alabama. “They sang,” she marvels. “They don’t sing — they sing hard, like people did in the churches. So you just have to drop whatever it is you think about yourself and just let go.”

Perhaps even more intimidating was tackling the old Stax Records classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” if only because Foster recorded it as a duet with the song’s writer and original performer, soul legend William Bell. “That’s a song I grew up listening to,” Foster says. “So, first of all, getting a chance to just be in the studio with this guy — that’s history sitting across from me at the microphone, smiling, and all I’m thinking is, ‘I’m singing with William Bell!’ I was so nervous. I know I’ve been called a ‘soul singer’ by people critiquing my music and all, but this was a true soul singer, and I had to dig deep to even just sing that duet with him. I think we did eight or 10 takes, because I would just quit singing because I was listening to him.”

Foster demurs the suggestion that she’s proven herself to be no slouch of a “true soul singer” herself over the course of her career, but it’s not false modesty. Nor does it stem from a lack of confidence in her abilities: “I can bring it when I want to or need to,” she admits with some prodding, noting, “I’ve got three years of serious vocal training.” It’s just that she’s always measured her own voice against some pretty high standards.

“I grew up in a family of singers — everybody sang in church,” she says, recalling her childhood in Gause, Texas. “That was really why I grew up more leaning toward wanting to be an instrumentalist than a singer, because it’s really intimidating growing up amongst so many beautiful voices, including my mother. I mean, I sang, but it wasn’t really what I saw myself doing, because I was pretty shy. I just wanted to play guitar and write songs.”

Gause was small (with a population around 500 at the time), but chock-full of churches, which provided the grade-school-aged piano and guitar student plenty of places to gig. “I had a piano teacher that lived in town, and she would have our recitals at the Baptist church,” Foster says, then laughs, “the white Baptist church. I have to tell you there is a difference there! So we’d have a recital at the white Baptist church, and then we’d do one at the white Methodist church, and then I would do one at the black Baptist church. I always had a place to play with all those churches there, whether it was piano or guitar.”

By the time she was attending McClennan Community College in Waco, Foster had graduated from gospel singing and piano recitals on the Gause church circuit to playing bar gigs with a regional blues band. Her performance chops were further honed during a stint in the Navy, when she found herself recruited into an ensemble of the Navy Pride Band specializing in funk and mainstream Top 40 fare. She also spent a spell in New York, flirting with a major-label deal, but it wasn’t until she returned to Texas — originally to be with her dying mother — that her recording career really took root. Her first four CD releases — ’97’s Full Circle, ’99’s Crossover, 2002’s Runaway Soul and 2004’s live Stages — married her gospel roots to the acoustic stylings of the singer-songwriter scene; it was a world she says she stumbled upon “really by accident” via the Kerrville Folk Festival.

“At the time, my partner [percussionist Cyd Cassone] and I were just wanting to find venues to play as a duo, and to figure out how to run a business on our own,” she says. “So we went to Kerrville to take this management class, and it all kind of started with that. Folk was this avenue where there was so much acceptance, no matter where you come from. Being black and from a small town, I kind of felt like a real outsider at first, but that was really my own doing. Because walking around Kerrville with a guitar, I found all these people that just loved being there and sharing their music with each other, and it really kind of opened up my eyes to where music can go and what I could do and how I could contribute — even more than going to music school.”

But as embraced as she was by the folk community — not just at Kerrville but at festivals across the country and especially in Canada (a lucrative market she was introduced to by Kerrville founder Rod Kennedy, who landed her a fortuitous spot at the Winnipeg Folk Festival one year filling in for another act that had cancelled) — Foster took to the genre the same way she took to the Beatles after being given a songbook in her youth: enthusiastically and convincingly, but somewhat studiously, like learning a foreign language. Her native tongue, both as a singer and a musician, would always be the gospel, soul and blues records she grew up listening to with her mother.

“Guitar players always pick out the fact that I’m more of a rhythmic guitar player than a lot of folk singers,” she explains. Similarly, although she’d written most of the songs on her records, she admits that she could never quite see herself as an “intellectual folk singer,” a la Janis Ian. “You know, I don’t have anything to say,” she says with a self-effacing laugh. “I’m about groove!”

After a split with Cassone, Foster took stock of her life, career and varying artistic influences and decided it was time to essentially reboot and reconnect with her pre-folk roots. Nearly everything about the resulting album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, heralded the beginning of a whole new woman. Recorded in Austin with guitarist and longtime friend Malcolm Welbourne at the production helm, the album featured a richer, fuller sound than anything she’d done in the studio or onstage before. While not without its own share of earthy, gospel-blues tracks like Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)” and Son House’s “People Grinnin’ in Your Face” that captured the gritty essence of her Kerrville-era at its absolute best, Foster’s own “Heal Yourself” and “Phenomenal Woman” (adapted from a poem by Maya Angelou) found her confidently strutting equal parts funky, uptown sass and sultry sensuality. Taking nothing away from her previous efforts — especially 2002’s Lloyd Maines-produced Runaway Soul, still one of the best Texas folk albums of the last decade — The Phenomenal … was not only Foster’s boldest-sounding record to date, it was also arguably the first that could be called downright sexy.

“Looking back, I was going through so many different changes personally when that came out, so it really was a shift for me in so many big ways,” says Foster. “Everything just kind of morphed into … it went to another level. And I felt like it was time for that, because I was ready for it. Musically, I think all that stuff had always been there, but I was just able to shed a lot more light on these other things that I could do.”

Foster and her label, Houston’s Blue Corn Music, enlisted a major New York music publicity firm to help spread the gospel on Phenomenal, and it seemed to work. The record didn’t make her a household name a la Bruce Springsteen or Norah Jones (two of the firm’s other clients), but it did put her on the national radar in a way that helped pave the way for the follow-up, 2009’s The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, scoring a nomination for a Best Contemporary Blues Grammy. Foster didn’t win the Grammy, but The Truth (recorded at Memphis’ legendary Ardent Studios) did land her a Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year accolade at 2010’s Blues Music Awards. The following year, she won the Koko Taylor Award (for Traditional Blues Female) — an honor she’s still humbled by.

“I’m thinking maybe somebody was joking!” she says. “I really hate to say it, but I mean, come on! I sat and watched her accept that award herself a few times, and I’m honored to be in on that, but wow. That was a big surprise.”

She could be due for an even bigger surprise if she repeats: the list of nominations for the 2012 Blues Music Awards (announced in December) finds her nominated once again for the Koko Taylor Award. She’s also in the running for the B.B. King Entertainer Award and in the DVD category, the later for her 2011 CD/DVD release, Live at Antone’s. The awards are scheduled for May 10.

It remains to be seen, of course, how blues purists will respond to Foster’s forthcoming Let It Burn (due Jan. 31). Some might blanch at the track list, just as some folk DJs hopped off the Foster train when The Phenomenal album came along. But whether she’s singing her own songs or Pete Seeger, Adele, the Black Keys or even David Crosby’s “Long Time Gone,” Foster sounds every bit as true to her own voice on this outing as she has throughout her entire career. Indeed, play Let It Burn back to back with either of her last two studio albums, or even shuffled up with songs from the first half of her recording career, and the very notion of genre distinction — be it folk or gospel or soul or blues or even “contemporary” vs. “traditional” blues — seems entirely irrelevant. The same holds true for the career-spanning track list on Live at Antone’s, or, for that matter, at any of her performances.

“You go to my shows, I’m doing everything,” Foster says. “I’m doing stuff from Full Circle all the way up, because all those things are a piece of me.”

And there’s still more pieces yet to be revealed. Having now made exactly the kind of eclectic song-interpreter album she always wanted to make somewhere down the line, she might just get a head start on another item on her musical bucket list.

“I also love singing big band, and would love to be able to do something with that some day,” she muses. “I think any music listener — any music lover — they have so many different types of music in their collection … I’m not saying I’m trying to do all these things, but I’ve got to do this stuff four or five nights a week, and it might as well be interesting!”