Not another Anita Baker

Ruthie Foster on her long and winding journey with blues music

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Ruthie Foster
Riccardo Piccirillo

It’s fine to call Ruthie Foster a blues artist. She only has seven Blues Music Awards sitting on the shelf at home and has only been nominated for the Best Blues Album Grammy three times.

But she’s not really a blues artist. She’s a blues-folk-pop-rock-gospel-and-even-a-little-country artist.

“That’s entirely fair to see me that way,” Foster says. “Those are all genres I grew up listening to. 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 says her mix of styles and powerhouse church-rooted singing 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. That seems to be the root of what my music comes back to,” she says. “Blues, 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.”

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, she made an independent, distinctly non-musical turn that got her out of Texas.

“I’d just graduated college,” she says. “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.”

The next adventure came after Foster 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 ’90s pop star.

“They wanted another Anita Baker,” Foster says. “She was signed to another label and they (Atlantic) wanted an Anita Baker. 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.”

In 1996, after three years, Foster said goodbye to New York and Atlantic 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. We were playing every weekend, every other weekend in Bryan-College Station.”

Foster’s mother passed away two years after her daughter came back. Foster 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.

Joy Comes Back, her most recent album, is an aberration for Foster. It has only one original composition by Foster — the title cut — and the rest is a compilation of songs she heard and liked 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; includes her take on the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” (a Stevie Wonder co-write); and features a single blues track — Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues.”

“I’d been doing that for years, but never recorded it,” Foster says of “Richland Woman Blues.” “I was playing my resonator (guitar) and that’s what led to (Black Sabbath’s) ‘War Pigs.’ I had the resonator and said, ‘I’ve been playing around with this version of ‘War Pigs’ (and I) want you (producer Dan Barrett) 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.”

“War Pigs” probably isn’t often in Foster’s live shows with her quartet: “I don’t get a chance to pull that one out,” she admits. “I don’t travel with a resonator yet. But it’s another example of the music that’s in my library, in my head.”

Nor do songs from Joy Comes Back dominate the show of the acclaimed live performer.

“That’s the joy of having so many genres and putting out records that are all over the place,” she says. “I’ll pick a couple from that one. I see that as more of a singer/songwriter record and I want my live show to be more exciting.”

On the Bill: Ruthie Foster. 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, Swallow Hill Music, 71 E. Yale Ave., Denver.