We as Americans have a lot to be thankful for with one of the most magnificent things being our vibrant and thriving music. Singer/songwriter extraordinaire Ruthie Foster with her captivating and charismatic mixture of gospel, blues, folk, jazz, and other musical elements has been a shining example of it since the late 1990s and is a true American treasure. Recently, by phone, we talked about her musical influences, her latest album in which she sings in front of her big band, the special nature of American music, and living day to day through these crazy times. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Americana Highways: Who were some of your favorite musical artists when you were growing up?
Ruthie Foster: A lot of gospel artists. I listened to a lot of Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, of course. Also a lot of Sister Rosetta Thorpe. My mother had a great album collection of those particular artists. I also listened to Sam Cooke, Johnny Taylor, and getting into the soul realm – Al Green. And then I got into a lot of artists who played the guitar. I started out as a piano player in the church but after I gained an interest in playing the guitar, I discovered Phoebe Snow, Janis Ian, and the songwriters. And you know that list is still growing. I still get into different people like India Arie. I was more into her later on but I still love India.
AH: Your choice of cover songs for your records is rather unique. Your version of “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath on your album Joy Comes Back, to name just one, is just incredible.
RF: Well, you know I served in the Navy and I was stationed in San Diego in a helicopter squadron there. I used to work the night shift and the guys I worked with would bring in Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and all of the classic hard rock bands. And we would just blast the music of those bands all night long while we were working. So, that is how I got exposed to Sabbath and all those bands.
When choosing possible cover songs, it really is about what strikes a chord with me. And what moves me. A lot of it is the melody, or the melodic flow and the content on top of that and the groove that it gives off. It’s definitely a combination of those three. With “War Pigs,” it was definitely a content thing and we changed the groove a little bit and made it have a bluesy groove. And I heard that Ozzy loves the blues, but Black Sabbath is the blues. When I covered Patti Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy” is was because I could relate to it. So, that would be another part of the criteria- if I can relate to the song. I should have started my answer there because if I can relate to the song, I won’t have any problem remembering the lyrics.
AH: How and when did the idea for the Ruthie Foster Big Band, come about?
RF: It came about from one of my other lives. I have lived several. After I was in San Diego working on helicopters, I transferred over into the Navy band. Now, there are multiple kinds of bands in the Navy. There is a funk band, there is a country band, and some other kinds, but the biggest one is obviously the big band. In that one, you may have 15 to 20 pieces and it is made up of the entire squadron. I was singing in front of a big band while I was stationed in Charleston, SC. I was also in a Top 40 funk band called Pride and we were a recruiting band. We went to all these different schools in the region and we had maybe 7 or 8 pieces in that band. We had a vocalist, horns, and a rhythm section. So, playing and singing in front of a big band is something I had already done and I just thought that it would be great to bring a taste of that to the music that I already do, to you know, lift it a little bit. Something just happens when you add brass to a rhythm section. So, I had this idea brewing in my mind for a while and when I finally brought it up to my manager at the time, he was, of course, open to it. So, to basically get the ball rolling, I got some songs and some arrangements together, found an arranger to take the songs that I had already released, and had him rework them so they were suitable for a 20 piece band. I got the band together and we were ready to go.
AH: On your latest album, although I hesitate to use the word favorite when it comes to your music because I love all of it, I especially love your version of “Mack the Knife” as you sing it in front of your band.
RF: Yeah, so I did that song and “Fly Me To the Moon” in the show to try to connect the dots for people who may not be hip to what happens when you have a big band. So, it wasn’t necessarily a swing night, but I definitely wanted to put some swing music in there to connect the dots for people.
AH: What do you think it is about music that can be so therapeutic to us?
RF: I think it gives us all a chance to be vulnerable. Music, for me, has always been my way of connecting back to myself, if you will. You put it out there and you realize you are not alone. You have witnesses. To me, that is what my fans are, they are my witnesses through my music. It’s a huge deal for me to actually do a show and to sit at the CD table afterward and hear people’s stories as they repeat back to me different parts of songs that I’ve done. I feel with music, we can be in the same room and share the same stories. And people can relate to those stories. If you have ever watched my live shows, one of the things I do is to take people through my life. I talk about my grandmother, I talk about my brother. I give up a little bit of how I grew up. I believe by doing that it helps me connect with my audience and helps them connect with me.
AH: What do you think it is about American music that makes it so special?
RF: I think as Americans we are made up of all different parts of the world and everybody brings a different part of their history and their culture and that just flows in our music. And it’s not just our music but it’s how we eat and what we love to do. I think American music is a representation of all the music from around the world, whether it’s adapted into something else or not. One of the things that I love about bluegrass music and singers like Bill Monroe is that the music is very blues-based. It’s just sped up and done in a different style. There’s even a lot of Black singers or Black musicians that embody that- Rhiannon Giddens, for instance, does it very well. She takes all of these different cultures as just one woman and then just creates her own beautiful kind of music. And she knows the history behind all of the instruments and all of that too. I think if you have to name one artist that exemplifies American music and how special it is, she would have to be one of the artists that you would name.
AH: Can you name one thing that gives you hope for the future?
RF: I’m going to have to bring it back to music once again. It really is the center of it all. Some people who come to my mind are Mavis Staples and Pete Seeger. I had a chance to hang with Pete Seeger when I lived in New York and that was the one thing that he would reiterate to me. It is that music has been and has to continue to be at the center of any discussion of how we get people to just sit in the same room and communicate with each other. That’s really where we are now. We just need to listen to each other. If you just listen, you’ll learn something, and when you learn something you have a new opportunity to do better by your fellow man.
AH: So what’s next for Ruthie Foster?
RF: I’m like everybody else. I’m just trying to make it through each day. Each day is very different and can be difficult in these times that we are living in, but I know that there are generations that lived through far worse. So, I am doing the best I can to make the best of every single day, because as we know, it changes from day to day. I was just writing in my journal about an hour ago before our phone call about this very same thing. Basically, I asked myself the question of what do I need right now that would make me happy right this very minute? And the answer was to get up and go give my kid a kiss while she’s having breakfast, to go give my partner a big hug and a kiss while she’s cutting up her sausage and then come back and sit down. I just needed to give the people that I am around and love just five minutes of my time. It’s really about that.
AH: So are there any future music releases on the horizon that you are able to talk about?
RF: Yes, that’s why I was up to 1:30 or 1:45 in the morning last night. I am already starting on the album that is going to follow the one that is out now. My band and I are recording remotely, and we are tracking songs for it right now and we are looking at having a release date for it by next March or April. I already have the CD release party for it planned. Enjoy that big band album because there’s more of that kind of music coming.
Ruthie Foster’s latest album Ruthie Foster Big Band Live At The Paramount is available on her website .