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Ruthie Foster’s hardly strictly blues 

click to enlarge Ruthie Foster, Friday, Jan. 5, 8 p.m., Daniels Hall, Denver, swallowhillmusic.org - RICCARDO PICCIRILLO
  • Riccardo Piccirillo
  • Ruthie Foster, Friday, Jan. 5, 8 p.m., Daniels Hall, Denver, swallowhillmusic.org
Ruthie Foster is fine with you calling her a blues artist. After all, she has seven Blues Music Awards sitting on the shelf at home, and has been nominated for the Best Blues Album Grammy three times.

But she’s not really a blues artist. She’s more of a blues-folk-pop-rock-gospel-and-even-a-little-country artist, whose albums feature guest appearances by the likes of William Bell and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

“Those are all genres I grew up listening to,” says Foster. “Like everybody’s record collection, I have a little bit of everything. I enjoy all those genres of music. That’s why you hear so many different genres, even in my live shows.”

Foster’s mix of styles and church-rooted powerhouse singing — which is reminiscent of Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples — has been with her since she was a little girl in the tiny town of Gause, Texas.

“It comes from growing up in rural Texas, being exposed to a lot of gospel music,” she says. “My dad would listen to blues and he’d make me tapes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters. And old soul, Sam Cooke and all of those. My parents would talk about going out to see Johnny Taylor, Ike and Tina Turner. That was a happy place for me, hearing my parents talking about going to see them when they’d come through east Texas on the Chitlin’ Circuit.”

A shy kid, Foster wanted to play guitar and piano more than stand in front of people and sing. But by 14, she was a soloist in her uncle’s choir and seemed to be headed toward a career in music.

Then, after going to school in Waco, where she picked up some reggae for her musical mix, Foster made an independent, distinctly non-musical turn that got her out of Texas.

“I’d just graduated college,” she recalls. “I went into the Navy and spent a year away from music. I went into a helicopter squadron. That’s where I picked up a lot of rock. That’s what the guys there listened to. Then I joined the Navy band and it sent me in another direction. I just went through a period where I said ‘yes’ to everything. That’s what you’re hearing — my adventures.”
The next adventure came after she got out of the Navy, landed in New York, and began playing in folk clubs. Atlantic Records got wind of the talented singer and offered her a record deal. But the label wanted to groom her to be a ’90’s pop star.

“They wanted another Anita Baker,” Foster says. “I used the time to get to know a lot of songwriters. I used the time well, learning to sit in front of people — maybe just two people — and entertain them with just my voice and guitar.”

Three years later, in 1996, Foster said goodbye to New York and Atlantic Records and returned home.

“My mother wasn’t doing good, I was homesick for Texas and needed a little simpler life,” she says. “Music was getting to a point where it had burned me out. So I came back, joined my church. I’d studied broadcasting in the Navy and got a job at the local TV station. Then I stumbled into another popular band, and we were playing every weekend.”

Foster’s mother passed away two years after her daughter came back, and the singer decided to pursue music full-time, recording her first album, Crossover, which was released in 1999. Another self-released disc followed in 2001. Then Foster teamed up with Houston independent label Blue Corn Music, on which she has released six albums — three of them Grammy-nominated.

Staying independent rather than going with a major label like Atlantic has allowed Foster to retain control of her music and career.

“I’d like to think I’ve got some control of my music,” she says. “I’d highly recommend it to independent songwriters. That’s all you’ve got. The business side of things is a big deal. It’s a lot of work. I just got back from a 12-day tour in Europe and I’ve got a meeting all day to talk about next year, how we’re going to do things on tour, distribution...”

Joy Comes Back, her most recent album, is something of an aberration for Foster. It has only one original composition — the title cut — and is a compilation of songs she heard that resonated with what she would have written at the time.

It begins with “What Are You Listening To?” from the pen of country’s Chris Stapleton, before moving on to the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” and a lone blues cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues.”

The album’s most unlikely cover? Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” which spotlights Foster’s vocals and bluesy guitar.

“I’d been doing that for years, but never recorded it,” she says, recalling the day she went into the studio and presented the idea to producer Dan Barrett. “I was playing my resonator [slide guitar] and I said ‘I’ve been playing around with this version of “War Pigs” and I want you to hear it. I wanted him to hear my twisted version of ‘War Pigs,’ slowed down and done like Son House. He liked it and we added drums to it, finished it up. Sabbath fans might call it sacrilege. But I know Ozzy’s a blues fan.”

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