Singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster has a voice that can bring down the house, “coupled with a songwriting ability that cuts straight to the truth of life’s big issues.” With her Texas blues-Americana sound, the Austin-based Foster has flown under the radar for many years, but with a string of Grammy nominations and a new album, she’s continuing to inspire fans old and new.
I’m featuring Foster on the Saturday Soundtrack for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend as she is one of today’s bright stars still building on the traditions of gospel, soul, blues and folk music that fueled the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The MLK holiday is always a good time to think back and look forward.
The Grammy-nominated 2020 album Ruthie Foster’s Big Band Live at the Parmount is a great place to jump into Foster’s more recent work and begin the weekend.
Woke Up This Morning, a freedom song created in 1961 from the old gospel favorite I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus, is one of many similar tunes used during the civil-rights movement. The song was written by The Rev. Robert Wesby of Aurora, Illinois, who sang it in the Hinds County, Mississippi, jail after his arrest and incarceration during the Freedom Rides. Foster takes us to church and to the streets with her powerful version.
Joy Comes Back, which Foster recorded in 2017, is a song by the Staple Singers, who first came to prominence in the civil-rights era. Here are two versions, the first a simple arrangement where her powerful voice rises and falls over an acoustic guitar. Then Joy Comes Back gets the big band treatment from the Paramount performance. Both are superb.
Two additional performances from the Paramount session harken back to the gospel roots that were so important to the music of the movement. Death Came a Knockin’ is one powerful arrangement, with a wild guitar solo stuck in the middle for good measure. Better lace up those shoes! Brand New Day is a Foster original that draws on the gospel sound (and includes an intro from her daughter).
Healing Time is Foster’s newest album, and it seems appropriate after all the trials the nation has gone through over the last several years. This is what she does as an artist.
“I hear fans tell me that the music we make is very spiritually healing,” she says. “The experience of dealing with my own grief after losing a band member a year before the pandemic while navigating around zoom school with my daughter and trying to figure out what to do with myself was tough but necessary. When I look at it as a whole it was all very healing for me which is pretty much how I try to live my life. There’s always time for healing, if you give it time.”
Feels Like Freedom by songwriters Adrianne Gonzalez and Joanna Jones is from the new album.
The sun is comin’ up again
Those winds of change are blowin’ in I know
Yes, I know
It feels like freedom
Been a long and lonely road
But I’m finally comin’ home And oh
It feels like freedom
The album’s “burst-of-sunshine” title track really rocks while Don’t Want to Give up on You is also a song of commitment and healing from the new album.
Healing Time is ultimately a work that explores such extremes as being human often brings to the surface, reminding listeners that even when we feel like we’re at the top, we’re ultimately still finding our way—a beautiful reflection of the essence of living itself.
Ruthie Foster is also a unique interpreter of well-known songs by other iconic songwriters. Here are four examples: Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash hit, written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore; Chris Stapleton‘s What are you listening to; Use Me from that leader of the progressive-soul movement Bill Withers; and Stephen Foster‘s Oh Susannah.
I first heard Foster in her duet with Bonnie Raitt on the John Prine tune Angel from Montgomery. Prine wrote this as a 21-year-old and Raitt has been singing the hell out of it for almost half a century. Here she does it “for Molly Ivins, for Ann Richards.”
Foster takes a verse at the 2:50 mark and then adds beautiful harmony — all without ever rehearsing with Raitt or the band. Because, as Bonnie says, “that woman right there’s got the stuff!” Listen to Foster sing the line, “How the hell can a person, go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?” and understand that she connects on so many levels to the blues in this folk classic.
Enjoy the music of Ruthie Foster as you remember the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend.
More to come…
Image of freedom singers from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum