Artist: Ruthie Foster
Album: Joy Comes Back
Label: Blue Corn
Release Date: 03/24/2017
I recall seeing Ruthie Foster play, ten years ago or so, in front of 20-30 people on a makeshift stage outdoors at SXSW. Obviously, she’s pretty well known now. Three Grammy nominations, six Female Artist of the Year/Koko Taylor Blues Music Awards, and eight albums later, we have Foster releasing an album that is sure to earn her widespread acclaim again. This one may even earn her that elusive Grammy, as it’s fueled by more than just the usual themes of love and loss; it’s a cathartic statement helping her to get through both a divorce and custody battle.
Produced and recorded by her Austin friend Daniel Barrett in his studio, Foster found the comfort she needed among friends such as Warren Hood and supporting luminaries including bassist Willie Weeks (Bowie, Clapton, George Harrison), drummer Joe Vitale (CSN, Eagles), and guests like Derek Trucks among core members of her band, Samantha Banks and Larry Fulcher. Barrett played an array of instruments and other contributors chimed in as well.
As you would expect with Foster, these are mostly song interpretations that cross several genres. Some of the choices such as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” are stunning. She visions it as a jam session with Son House. Foster says, “I wanted something unexpected that would be cool to do at festivals, To get people out of their seats or tents to find out what the heck is that? Who is this little ol’ short black woman doing Black Sabbath on a resonator?” Her gospel-doo-op reading of The Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” written by Ivy Joe Hunter and Stevie Wonder, as well as Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues” are indications of the breadth of material.
The closing tune “Forgiven” is a ballad that served as a catalyst for the album, and it brought Foster to tears for the first time in her career during playback. Grace Pettis, daughter of folk singer Pierce Pettis, wrote “Good Sailor” and sung harmony with Foster on “Working Woman.” The former is a perfect song for Foster, a former Navy vet, who poured every ounce of her aching vocals into lines like these – “I’ve been tossed around in the deepest blue/I almost drowned a time or two/But easy living never did me no favors/Smooth seas never made me a good sailor.”
Unlike 2014’s Promise of a Brand New Day where producer Meshell Ndegeocello encouraged Foster to write originals, Foster found it rough to pen songs, given the upheaval in her life. She credits Barrett with finding these songs as he was a great listener and witness to what she was going through. “Putting myself into another person’s words was huge for me,” Foster says. “I connect more to my voice these days than I do to anything. Even speaking—that was something my grandmother worked with me on, because I would stutter. It was a big deal for me to connect to words as a young kid. So I’m coming full circle.”
Like the best song interpreters such as Emmylou Harris or Nina Simone, an artist of Ruthie’s caliber can make her version the definitive one. Foster found badly needed joy, turning to music as the best healing force. She will give you plenty of joyous listening moments too.