Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ruthie Foster and Her Phenomenal Musical Talent

If you didn’t know where to look, you might have missed out on native Texan Ruthie Foster giving what was unequivocally the best show in Texas on Friday, March 3, 2017. Nestled in a warm and welcoming listening space that doubles as a church on Sundays, Main Street Crossing, in Tomball, Texas, the audience saw the roof raised and doors blown off by the electric-acoustic-dynamic rhythm as Foster and percussionist Samantha Banks held forth for 105 minutes that flew by far too soon. Theme for the evening was sharing love, faith, affirmations and the promise of good things to come.

For those who are newer to Ruthie’s music, the woman you see on stage—a phenomenal woman by the book of, and with the affirmation of, Dr. Maya Angelou herself—is today ever as humble, joyful, and talented as she was in 1998, when she was playing locally in Bryan-College Station at night while she ran camera and produced the early morning show at local CBS affiliate, KBTX-TV3.

When she started performing locally, everyone knew Ruthie had major talent and belonged in front of national audiences, but circumstances held her back for many years. Ruthie’s priorities of family and loyalties to friends have always come before fame or fortune all her life.

As a child Ruthie’s heart centered around the small town of Gause, Texas, which is located 11 miles from Hearne and 30 miles from Bryan-College Station. Many songs she sings on stage today were written in honor and in memory of her grandmother (Big Mama), a woman of great faith who was one of the “sisters who arrived thirty minutes before church started so they wouldn’t be late.” Friday night, as always, Ruthie’s song setups are simply conversations as though she were sitting across from the kitchen table with you, reminiscing, laughing, and wistfully looking into the distance at times, as you knew she could see the faces and hear the voices of loved ones in days gone by.

Ruthie’s powerful voice is natural, not forced, and she recalls the words of her mother, who always told her to “Sing, open your mouth and sing!” but her control of her instrument is what’s the most impressive factor to her singing. As a young woman, she took a break from studying audio engineering and music in college to join the U.S. Navy. Naturally, her musical talent was discovered and she toured with the U.S. Navy band, “Pride.” That was one way to “see the world,” for certain, even if it was on a tour bus. That would foreshadow her future in a way she could never imagine back then.

The talented young woman quickly secured a recording contract with a major label in New York City. And, she was on her way to achieving her dreams….when her mother became ill in 1993. Ruthie never gave it a second thought. She abandoned the dream and put life on hold temporarily where she and a great friend would provide tender love and care for her mother in her final days. Ruthie got a job with local KBTX-TV as camera operator and production assistant. Those early morning show hours were grueling but she had a lot of time to be with her mother, who died in 1996.

Then she had new life choices to make. Where to turn? Ruthie speaks of faith often but rarely her personal journey as it’s a personal thing to her. Much of her faith comes through in her songs, and the wisdom of her mother as well. “The secret of life is knowing when to compromise,” Ruthie’s mother often told her. There’s a song in that, she thought. She was right.

Her 2002 album “Runaway Soul” is a collaborative with the highly regarded Grammy-winner, Lloyd Maines as producer. Before she sang the title track, Ruthie modestly related what a privilege it had been to work with him early in her career. He had a great track record for excellence and he’d had tremendous success with the work of Terri Hendrix, his ongoing longtime music collaborator. Hendrix’s song, “Hole in My Pocket” is one made famous by both Terri and by Ruthie, and Foster often performs it in concert, at least when she’s in Texas.

Ruthie said, “When I got the master of “Runaway Soul” from Lloyd, I listened to it and I was astounded. I called him and asked, “When did you hire all those musicians to play the other instruments?” She knew they didn’t have a budget for that. His response was, “Oh, I just played them all myself.”

Ruthie laughed as she said, “That’s the kind of man he is; he knew we needed them and he just…recorded them all himself.” Her regard for those who knew her early in life, and in work, never wavers…that’s part of the beauty of Ruthie’s career path. She built a following that has staying power.

"Small Town Blues" is another song from Foster's 2007 album, "Full Circle" that she plays to help everyone remember "their early Ruthie" concert years.

In fact, you’ll find wherever Ruthie has found inspiration to write her songs, to record her songs, and to release her new CDs, a crowd appears. It may not be the same people each time, but anytime you are fortunate enough to see her in concert, she’s the same person you saw when you saw her the first time.

One example of her ability to recreate her original songs without change is in “Another Rain Song,” which she sang Friday night. Here’s a snippet of the song. Whether 1997 or 2017, it does not matter how long, Ruthie’s songs stand true today as yesterday as autobiographical of the passage of time.

Her voice remains unaffected by the legends she joins in concert. She has her own internal compass and knows how to navigate the waters, and she’s been honored and awarded so many times that stranger would be overwhelmed to know just how special she’s considered to be by the power players. She doesn’t say it in concert, but she’s a multiple Grammy Award Nominee (Best Blues Album)—first time was in 2010 for “The Truth According to Ruthie Foster” and in 2012 for “Let it Burn,” and in 2014 for “Promise of a Brand New Day,” but she fails to bring that up in conversation. Ruthie has also been awarded the Koko Taylor Award for Traditional Blues Female Artist of the year in 2016 as she had in 2013, 2012, and 2011, but she didn’t bring it up that night either.

Instead, she talked ever so briefly about playing the Bugle Boy in LaGrange on Saturday night and then on Sunday she would be going to New York. There was a concert she was asked to participate in, she said—an Aretha Franklin Tribute Concert. Humbly, she described her delight on being invited to participate.

Ruthie laughed and said, “Monday night, I’m going to be taking as many selfies as I can before they come and pull me away for taking too many selfies. It’s going to be on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, wherever.” That’s where her heart is—not for a minute is she considering herself one of the crowd chosen to honor Miss Franklin.

Instead of focusing on her awards, she mentioned she’d come to performing by an unusual path. With frankness and courage, Ruthie explained how speech was sometimes difficult for her. Recognizing her little one was very shy, Big Mama, her hero, stepped in to help.

“Every Saturday, for hours during the day, and then in the afternoon Big Mama would give me a poem to practice to say the next day in church. And we’d work on it all afternoon. Then on Sunday, I’d get up and say what I was supposed to say in front of the entire church. And that….is how I came to be at home in front of large crowds. She took her time with me.” Shyness, overcome; courage, infused.

The Main Street Crossing is in fact a church, a nonprofit that doubles as a church on Sunday and as an inviting music venue for all genres of music. Future artists include Michael Martin Murphy, Larry Gatlin, Mike Zito, Mark Chestnutt, (Aggie) Roger Creager and that’s just part of what’s happening in March. Marcia Ball, a conversation with Roy Clark, the Hit Men, Suzy Bogguss, in April; The Bellamy Brothers and Bonnie Bishop, Gary Morris and Johnny Rodriguez are due in May. June is Gary Lewis and the Playboys and two nights of Mickey Gilley. Tribute bands are a popular weekend booking as well.

Before Friday night’s concert, the family-style seating at tables (150 seats were filled Friday night) invited conversation and Texas hospitality demanded it. At our table, two people said they’d seen Ruthie several times in the past few years—just loved her. My music-loving friend and fellow writer, Rhonda Brinkmann (“There’s music? Let’s go!”) and I just smiled. The lady across from us said she this was going to be her first Ruthie concert. We smiled again.

The man across from us, the newbie’s date, smiled knowingly and said he’d listened to her latest CD all the way over in the car from his drive. Mm-hmm. Yes, you did. If there was a competition, and there seemed to be one brewing, for who’d been a fan of Ruthie’s the longest, it wasn’t going to be any of them (or me) who won it.

What I knew, that they didn’t, was that Rhonda and her friends used to work at a company in town that, in the 1980s, was also where Ruthie’s brother worked. Naturally, he got folks from work to come out and hear his sister play guitar—she was “really good” her brother said. That’s how long Rhonda had been a Ruthie listener. Two tables over from us were the real winners of the evening’s “how long have you known Ruthie” contest: Renn and Connie Carson.

Renn Carson is a major guitar talent and plays in any band he wants to, whenever he wants to; Connie’s a (recently retired) teacher—their entire family has always been second family to Ruthie from the very earliest and remains so today. But you’d never hear it from them. They are just as proud of and happy for Ruthie as everyone else in the room. When Ruthie was working on her early CD in the Brazos Valley, you’d find Renn and several other local legends on her albums.

During the concert, my mind flashed back to 1998, in the new Christian Life Center of First United Methodist Church in Bryan, where my best friend in volunteering and I had the chance to invite Ruthie to be the headliner for our opening celebration of the new building. We were thrilled she’d be in town for our Sept. 11, 1999 dedication.

She’d already been a frequent performer in Austin and Houston and people just couldn’t take it for granted even then that she’d be in town because her visibility had grown prolifically. The celebration weekend was called our “Full Circle Celebration” as it marked the creation of a magnificent new all-purpose building for what was a flourishing congregation in downtown Bryan.

Very soon after that celebration, she’d relocate and make Austin her home base, where an even larger group of people would support, encourage, and cheer like crazy whenever she sang. Back then transportation was an elderly red SUV that God and a great local mechanic kept rolling down Texas highways. Those days are long in her rearview mirror but her talent and her humility have remained unchanged throughout the years.

People look at today’s famous musicians and think that one day they just woke up and had a national tour and international acclaim. Doesn’t happen that way. Few people see the hours of practice it takes to stay your course, literally and figuratively. Ruthie and her faithful team of musicians and supporters made those late-night drives on Texas highways, crashing for brief rest and food and on to the next gig. Talk about paying your dues, Ruthie’s have long been paid in full. You never have as many friends as when you are doing well.

Here, Ruthie sings “People Grinnin’ in Your Face,” from her 2007 album, “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.” She smiled after she performed this one, slightly shaking her head. It’s still true today.

Before the song, she recalled the sisters of the church in the “Amen corner” of the church, who’d arrived early to make sure they were not late. Among them were a very young Ruthie and her “Big Mama” who would be part of that. She recalled it was hot on Sunday mornings, and everyone would have the cardboard fans to keep them cool. There would be “praying hands on one side of the fan and on the other would be greetings from the local funeral home.” Said Foster, “You’d have thought they’d have put some lyrics from the hymnal on there, too, so we could keep up.”

Continuing the visual memory, “They’d raise the stained glass windows and pray for a breeze. You’d hear cars coming past, going down the road. The sisters would hum in unison and one by one, two by two, folks were coming in. Pretty soon you’d hear the unison of the ladies in the church singing…”Well, don’t you mind people grinning in your face.” And with that, Samantha Banks used her tambourine to keep up with Ruthie’s a cappella “Don’t You Mind People Grinnin’ in Your Face.” She invited the audience to sing in later on and it was a good thing, too, because much of the audience was already holding forth with “A good friend is hard to find, because it’s hard with people grinnin’ in your face.” The soaring high notes, though, were all Ruthie’s to proffer, as no one in the audience could match them.

It was a cappella and you thought there was a choir of 14 people up there on stage. Delivery. Presence. Authenticity. Ruthie is true to her gospel roots. She mentions Mavis Staples in reverent tones before delivering a resounding version of one of Ms. Staples’ classics, “The Ghetto.”

Ruthie also sang Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy,” and reflected that “Music is a healer; it brought me through a lot of things and it brought me to a lot of wonderful things.”

Ruthie’s song “People Grinnin’ in Your Face” is from her album “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.” If you knew Ruthie, you’d know that it’s a title she earned, one given her by those who have supported and encouraged her music over the years. She would have never chosen it for herself.

In the same breath that she spoke of her unending admiration for Maya Angelou. She shared, “On my 50th birthday I got a signed copy of one of her books; she had personalized a message for me in the book. I still prize that. She found out that I’d recorded this song, based on one of her poems, “Phenomenal Woman” (you know the one). And I happened to be performing in the area where she was living in North Carolina and I went to my dressing room after sound check, and found a beautiful bouquet of flowers from her there.” Now, her voice trailed off as she reflected on the sheer meaning of those acts in her behalf.” Quietly she said, “Ah, talk about affirmation…”

Affirmation…a litany of CDs written, recorded and released, national awards, international travels and the growing fame associated with her name didn’t mean as much to her as the affirmation of a brave woman who had survived tragedy and misfortune in her youth to rise to be a beacon of hope for all women.

Samantha Banks was Ruthie’s only band member joining her for this evening in Tomball, but she was absolutely all that Ruthie needed for her acoustic/electric evening. Banks, a multitalented percussionist, played a partial drum kit, and a tambourine, some finger shucks, wind chimes, and spoons. Samantha rocked those spoons and made it all look effortless, as she provided perfect accompaniment on every song. She’s toured with Ruthie for years and is always an audience favorite as she sings as well.

Ruthie’s newest CD, “Joy Comes Back” (on her longtime label, Blue Corn Music), is available on March 24. Nearby, there’s a CD release party set in Austin on April 1 at 8 p.m. There, she’ll be joined by Carolyn Wonderland, David Grissom, Warren Hood, and the Peterson Brothers. Tickets range from $20-$44.50 and are available here. Word to the wise: Connie Carson (being family has its perks) said the Ruthie’s new album is fantastic!

One thing Ruthie accomplished in the Bryan-College Station area in the 1990s came about while she was actively touring on the folk circuit up and down the interstate. She made many friends along the way, and she brought them to town. Longtime local music enthusiasts remember the old Double Dave’s Pizza in the two-story building in Northgate. Double Dave’s would deliver your order (upstairs) and Ruthie invited her friends to perform on their Monday nights off between tours.

Attendance was solid every week they hosted them, the musicians made enough in freewill donations and CD sales to pay for their time, and locals had the chance to see musicians like Chicago natives “Small Potatoes” (Jacquie Manning and Rich Preszioso), “The Desberardos” before they became “Chris Beraro & The Desberardos,” and guitarist, Freebo, among others. The traveling troubadours also had a solid meal before hitting the road again. It’s a hard life, living on the road, whether you stay in four-star hotels or crash at a fellow musician’s pad. But when the applause begins, the hardship fades away to an artist who is validated with every new fan who says, “Your music really moves me.”

There’s not one singular episode, record, award, or milestone that Ruthie needs to validate her work as a singer as she searches for the “next” level. The next level simply means that many new people will discover the talent that Ruthie has had all along. She’s not “new here.” Ruthie Foster has always been phenomenal because she remains true to the songs inside her, and will never let the bright lights of the big cities change her.

On Friday night, Main Street Crossing shone brightly as a jewel in Texas music, and as small town blues and runaway soul took their place in the offering, Ruthie Foster took the entire crowd to their feet this weekend, with her always professional delivery, bright spirit, and wise words.

The Brazos River called her back close to home for a visit this week, and we were all the better for it. To keep up with her, visit her web site, and check out her social media links there.

Keep singing, Ruthie, just keep singing and be yourself, and thanks for the concert that took us all back to church one more time. Nineteen years later, it really did all come around again, full circle. We always knew what Maya Angelou would ultimately come to affirm before she passed: Ruthie Foster is a phenomenal woman and musical talent.

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