Sister in the Amen Corner
A Q&A with Ruthie Foster
By Geoff Gehman
One of the highlights of a Ruthie Foster concert is “Travelin’ Shoes,” a traditional blues that she and her band members rip open into a soul picnic and a gospel pilgrimage. It runs, scoots and zooms on Foster’s remarkably potent, agile, rooted voice, a mighty oak that spins through a tiny tornado. Whenever she sings it, she feels she’s guided by the spirits of her mother, grandmother and other women who taught her how to burrow into black Baptist songs in her hometown of Gause, Tex., which once had more churches than schools. Whenever she sings it, she gives up the stage to the Sisters in the Amen Corner.
Communing with her guardian voices helps keep Foster earthy and lofty. Her chakras are tuned whether she’s performing with the Blind Boys of Alabama or Meshell Ndegeocello, the funky bassist who produced her 2014 album “Promise of a Brand New Day,” whether her vehicle is “It Might Not Be Right,” a declaration of same-sex devotion she wrote and recorded with soul singer William Bell, author of the Stax classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” or “Ring of Fire,” the Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash barnburner she arranged as a seductively smoky, silky whip.
On Friday, May 6 Foster will transform the Mauch Chunk Opera House into a hallelujah hub. Below, in a conversation from her home in Austin, Tex., she discusses her heroes (Aretha Franklin, Phoebe Snow), her desire to teach the lessons of her mentors (Jesse Mae Hemphill, Mavis Staples) and an invaluable tip about keeping it real in the Amen Corner.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that just flayed and slayed you? Did your father’s fondness for Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins filter into your ears and soul?
A: My dad loved blues. My mom loved gospel. My early education included old soul singers like Bobby Womack and Sam Cooke—especially Sam Cooke. I also loved gospel singers like Dorothy Norwood, and gospel choirs—the Edwin Hawkins Singers; Andrae Crouch’s group. When I began buying music of my own, I fell hard for Phoebe Snow’s first album, the one with “Poetry Man.” And then I moved into Stevie Wonder with “Hotter Than July.” I still own those albums.
Q: You owe a big debt to Ms. Snow, who helped convince you it was perfectly fine for a female musician to command a stage with a voice and a guitar. You got quite emotional when you told her about that debt.
A: I had to work really hard to keep from crying while I was talking to her. That’s why I understand why fans come up to me and get so emotional when they relay their feelings about watching me onstage.
Q: What’s the gospel number, or numbers, you go to when you need inspiration and rejuvenation, even before you hit the stage?
A: Anything by any one of the Winans, whether it’s BeBe and CeCe or Marvin. They’re all just beautiful to listen to; I love the way they deliver a song, a message. Once in a while I’ll pull up Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace”; I like to keep that album handy. She performs in a church service and that’s what our [Baptist] church services were like in [Gause]. It’s a very special album; that type of spirit, that kind of vibe, will never happen again.
Q: The first concert you attended, in 1999, was hosted by Prince, who last month left us way too early with a way too big legacy to fully comprehend. What do you remember from that christening, that coronation?
A: It was in Dallas, Texas, at Reunion Arena, and I was just getting into college. I remember just being so excited. It took all I could just to keep from passing out, it was just so cool. There was just so much music and he performed on a round stage, so there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. At one point he was lifted into the air in a bathtub, where he did “International Lover.” I remember he was throwing purple tambourines. I think I ran over a little girl to get one of those tambourines [laughs]. It was such a beautiful time. And he was all of it.
Q: What did you learn while making “Promise of a Brand New Day” that you’re applying to the making of your new album? Do you plan to continue cutting more of your own songs, which Meshell Ndegeocello persuaded you to do on “Brand New Day”? Would you like to reunite with your old friends, guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and singer Toshi Reagon?
A: I am trying to write more. It’s just smart to do, especially these days. The songs are coming slow because I’m on the road a lot. I’d love to reunite with Toshi and DB II if I find a song that lends itself to them. I’m working with [producer] Dan Barrett, a local musician friend. I’m having more say than I usually have. I’m coming back to the well with a few more colors and a few surprises. .
Q: How in the hell did you come up with that slow, slow-burning, pretty damn novel arrangement of “Ring of Fire”? You really take that burning ring of love between Johnny and June Carter Cash and turn it into a smoking silk whip.
A: The song does represent their relationship, which was a torrid love affair. They died so close to each other, too. I have to be honest, it was late one night and I’d just come off a long tour and I was so tired I couldn’t get to sleep. There was a piano next to my bed at the time and I sat down to play. When I’m playing a piano instead of a guitar, anything can happen. I just had these groups of chords that really went well together and when it came time to drop some lyrics into the chords, that song [“Ring of Fire”] came through. It was just one of those musician things.
Q: That sounds like channeling. Do you feel you’re channeling the Sisters in the Amen Corner when you’re performing “Travelin’ Shoes” or any other gospel-steeped number?
A: I think of my grandmother and my mother and all the sisters all the time. So, yes, that’s where that song [“Travelin’ Shoes”] comes from when I perform it. It’s not me, it’s them. I get out of the way and let my Big Mama [her late grandmother] and all the sisters come through. I throw in a little of myself but otherwise I just let all the women in my family just shine. My inspiration, my validation, came from that corner.
Q: In November you’re booked to play Cuba with Seth Walker, the blues singer and guitarist who also has Texas roots, during a trip organized by Eric Nadel, the Baseball Hall of Fame radio announcer for the Texas Rangers. Has visiting Cuba been in your periscope for a long time?
A: I think Cuba should be for everybody. When I got the invitation to go [from Nadel] the only thing to say was: “When?” I’m looking forward to playing with Seth, who actually played guitar in my band for a minute. I’m really looking forward to catching as much culture as I can, just soaking it all up. I’m taking my drummer Samantha [Banks] and she’s beside herself. She’s probably raided YouTube to find all these crazy percussionists she wants to hang out with. She loves to smoke cigars, so she’ll really be in her element in Cuba.
Q: What tops your Bucket List?
A: I’d like to find a way of teaching what I know. It’s that Maya Angelou mantra: What you know, teach. I want to pass on what I’ve learned about the importance of a good work ethic. You’re not going to make it in this business—and it is a business–if you have the talent but you don’t like to work.
I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries about influential musicians who are also influential teachers. I really like [“Keep on Keepin’ On”], the one about [jazz trumpeter] Clark Terry [teaching a young blind pianist] that Quincy Jones produced. Clark Terry was really gracious, and beautiful, about teaching what he knew. That alone keeps his legacy alive.
I’d like to pass on the knowledge of my teachers, really wise people who have been around for a long, long time. I’d like to pass along their advice like a torch. [The late] Jesse Mae Hemphill [country blues singer, songwriter and electric guitarist] did that for me. So has [gospel/R&B singer] Mavis [Staples]
Q: What’s the best tip you received from Miss Mavis?
A: Being who you are, being yourself. That’s who you have to wake up with and go to bed with. People appreciate when you’re real, when you’re the same person onstage as offstage. I can give you an example. I played an international guitar show in Dallas, Texas, a couple days ago. All these older white male guitarists were watching me, this little black woman in dreadlocks and boots with an acoustic guitar and not even an electric guitar. And I’m up before the great Robben Ford, who’s going to come up onstage and blow everybody away. I could have been easily intimidated but I wasn’t because I was just myself. I talked with the audience about how hot it was outside; we had some great laughs together. And I thought about Mavis the entire time I was up there. And after the show all these fellas were lined up against the fence waiting for my autograph.
And that’s what I learned from Mavis: You talk about what’s in front of you, even if it’s the weather. You have fun. If you need to slow a tune down, just stop it. Just be real. People want a show but they also want you to come with all of you.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List?
A: Oh man, that’s a good one. It would probably relate to what I just talked about—reminding yourself that you’re too blessed to be stressed. When I’m singing, when I’m playing, it’s all about forgetting everything except having my say. You just disregard anything that could have gotten in the way, whether it’s a problem at the airport or arguments among band members before a show. It’s all about leaving all that behind and realizing what you thought was important at the time isn’t important at all. When you’re performing, you just say fuck it and get out of your head.
Q: So, Ruthie, how does it feel to be the only non-athlete among the four notable natives listed in the Wikipedia entry for Gause, Tex?
A: [Laughs] That’s awesome. Oh, that’s great. It makes me feel like I should pick up a sport. Well, I’ve always wanted to learn golf…
Ruthie Foster: The Scoop
She sang lead in a Navy funk band, dancing with quarterbacks and principals at high schools. She also learned to get along with seven to nine guys in a van, an invaluable lesson for a future professional road warrior.
She sang “Angel from Montgomery” with Bonnie Raitt, the best-known interpreter of John Prine’s song, during a benefit organized by Wavy Gravy.
She’s been nominated six straight times for the Blues Foundation’s Koko Taylor award for traditional female artist and has won the prize four times.
Her record “Promise of a Brand New Day” received the 2014 grand prize for blues from the Academie Charles-Cros, whose 50 members honor music criticism sound recording and culture.
She sang “Maybe God Is Trying to Tell You Something,” written by Quincy Jones for the movie “The Color Purple,” with Conspirare, a renowned choral ensemble based in Austin.
She’s teaching piano to her 4-year-old daughter, who seems more interested in playing the drums of Samantha Banks, Foster’s band mate.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Ruthie Foster’s passion for Aretha Franklin’s album “Amazing Grace.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.