Interview: Ruthie Foster shows the influences that can go into to americana

Dipping into the soul of the Black Pumas and finally writing with Gary Nicholson.

Austin resident and 4 times Grammy nominee Ruthie Foster is a singer-songwriter who has also worked and toured with countless roots musicians including The Allman Brothers Band, Willie Nelson, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Bonnie Raitt, and Paul Simon to name only a few. This sense of collaboration continues on her new album ‘Healing Time’ which finds her working with members of the Black Pumas and recording in Puma Adrian Quesada’s studio, and finally writing with Texas songwriting legend, Gary Nicholson, and other writers including Kimmie Rhodes. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with Ruthie Foster at her home in Austin to talk about ‘Healing Time’ and the changing face of the city. Ruthie Foster also explains the secret of her many collaborations is just to be open to whatever comes along, and her exposure to the many forms of Texas and other kinds of root music over the years has certainly helped. The potential for future controversy is raised by the mention of Ben Harper’s idea of black americana as if americana isn’t a difficult enough genre to define without another variant and sub-genre. Finally, Ruthie Foster’s pride at being awarded a sidewalk star outside the Paramount Theatre and joining the company of other stars like Lyle Lovett and Jerry Jeff Walker is palpable.

How are you?

Things are great, I’m just sitting here studying my songs because I’ve got a CD release party coming up and I’m making sure I know my own lyrics, haha. Just because I wrote them doesn’t mean I know them.

What is Austin like these days?

I’m in Austin now and we are getting some much-needed rain. It is changing like a lot of great cities around the world. It has gone from this sleepy hippie, go anywhere, walk anywhere, everyone is laidback cool sort of place, to townhouses being built and a lot of industry coming in. But that can be pretty good too, we have a lot of great restaurants and some of the best chefs in the world are here, so I can’t complain about having nice places to eat.

You’ve played and toured with a who’s who of roots musicians over the years including The Allman Brothers Band, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, and The Blind Boys Of Alabama, why do you think you are such a good fit with other musicians?

That is a really good question, and I’m not really sure, I’ve always just sung and played what feels good and sounds good to me, and it just seems to fit in with all these different categories. I’m just blessed to get in where I fit in, haha, and I tend to fit just about anywhere. I listened to a lot of different types of music in the house, my mother was a huge gospel fan, and singer, and my dad loved the blues, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howling Wolf, and Muddy Waters were his favourites, and I still have cassette tapes he made for me. Plus we have this incredible Hispanic community in the central part of Texas, so I grew up listening to a lot of tejano and conjunto music, and I live in San Antonio for a while and got to hang with some of the greats in conjunto music down there. Then there is everything else in between, we’ve just had a Czech Fest in Waco where you can go and just dance to a few nights of polka music. I know it sounds strange, but it was something to do while I was in college, this Czech Fest they have in Waco. It does kind of open you up, especially as a musician, and I wanted to be exposed to everything, and country music was a huge deal in the house because country stations here in Texas have the strongest signal, so you would hear country music even in the black families. It was huge in my family, with gospel music, which kind of went side by side with it.

Fundamentally, there is not a big difference between country and gospel music, is there?

There is not, really, and being a young guitar player country was an easier way into learning my chords on the guitar, so there are blues and country and it is just about switching up the groove.

You make it sound easy, but I’m sure it was.

I will admit it wasn’t that easy at first, haha. My first introduction to country, and where country meets blues, was Charlie Pride, and my dad was a huge fan of Charlie Pride who was the pride of the black community, he lived in Dallas, I think until he passed away. Then there was Ray Charles’ country album, and my uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, loved country music, so I grew up listening to Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette, there are the voices I grew up listening to and later on Ronnie Milsap. Ronnie Milsap, Lionel Richie, and Pheobe Snow were all in my record collection growing up, mostly because they were songwriters, and I loved songwriters, just studying the form of writing songs, and those were my earliest influences as a young songwriter

Where did you get the songs from for ‘Healing Time’, and what is your approach to songwriting?

I think they came from my exposing myself to different types of writers. When Kimmie Rhodes and I got together I had an idea that I had written on the ukulele, and me and my girlfriend have a house down in Belize, Placencia, and the ukulele is a big thing when you walk around these islander-type places. So I taught myself the ukulele and I had a little bit of the song, and Kimmie and I wrote over Zoom to finish that song, ‘Paradise’, together as a lot of writers were doing during this period, and the rest were just bits and pieces from other songwriters. Grace Pettis and I got together and wrote ‘Lie Your Way To The Truth’, I had the chorus and she hit me back with a couple of verses, and that is how that one came about. ‘Healing Time’, the title of the album, was really my piano player Scottie Miller, he brought that one, and I flew him and my guitar player Hadden Sayers down and we just finished the song together in the same room.  ‘4am’ I pretty much wrote that myself, Scottie jumped in and helped me out on the last verse. I’m just looking at the songs for the record launch and they are all so different, and I’m just looking to tie them all into a set but I haven’t done that yet, there is some soul and real songwriter material there, and I’m trying to see how they make sense in one sitting for the audience. They sound great on the album, but when I’m standing in front of an audience I want it also to make sense when I’m in a room with them.

You’ve worked with the cream of Texas musicians on ‘Healing Time’, including Gary Nicholson and The Black Pumas, how natural was it to get everybody together, and who pulled it all together?

That was me. Gary and I have been wanting to work together forever, he flew down and spent the day at the house and we never really wrote anything, and we didn’t get much chance to spend time together because I had a family emergency. He and I have been seeing each other off and on at festivals, and we were like we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this, and then it’s the pandemic and we are all home and we got the chance to do it. He came up with that great ‘Soul Searching’ title, and we just talked a lot about relationships, coming in and out of relationships, and what to do about that. You find yourself in a relationship and you’ve been praying and asking for the relationship and it turns up at your front door and you are like, maybe I’m not ready for this relationship. So we talked about that, and that is how that song came about, haha.

Gary Nicholson has worked with an awful lot of people.

Yeah, he is the consummate storyteller, and I love the way he just takes a song, and it isn’t like we are trying to write a song when we are writing because he tells a story first. We talk about there being this person and this is what they are thinking, and he has a way of dissecting the story and putting it all back together in song, he is just really a beautiful writer. I learnt a lot about how to write differently from each and every one of these people. I lived in New Jersey in New York, and I worked for Atlantic Records for a while, and I was co-writing with a lot of incredible award-winning songwriters and I didn’t really know what I was doing or why I was given the opportunity, but I ate it all up and I learnt so much about the craft of songwriting, and how it can come from anywhere. I remember writing with William Bell and he had a notebook of just great titles, and that is what we had to work with. I’ve worked with two lines that make perfect sense, or just a guitar riff, it has been a little bit of everything.

The Black Pumas have really been making waves, what was working with them like?

I love those guys, and we got the wonderful opportunity to record at Adrian Quesada’s studio, and I had originally approached Adrian to produce this album but he was very busy with the Pumas, but he threw me a bone and at least let me use his studio, and he would show up and just pop in and join us which was great and getting to play with a couple of his bandmates really pulled this album together, and for me, they gave it that hi-fidelity and soul that the Pumas are really known for. And also just being in that atmosphere, I think we dipped into the Pumas soul by just being in the studio by osmosis, it is so cool and laidback. He has an incredible laidback room, and you just feel you are in a living room. I am seriously in debt for Adrian giving us the chance to do that.

How does the new record fit with your catalogue?

I’m still figuring that out if I’m honest. It does stand out in way of the writing because it is one of the few albums I have written most of the material for, so that makes me pretty proud. It is also validating for me as a writer to put out an album where I have written most of the songs. Hopefully, someone may want to record some of these songs and keep them going. It ties into my thought process on what I think I’m here to do, I want my music to reflect who I am and my outlook on life, and this album was put together during the pandemic when we weren’t allowed to be in the same room together with a lot of these writers, and for that to happen to me I wanted to relay that through the music. I’m staying optimistic about what music does for people, it is healing and that is what it does for me. We are stuck in the house and we can’t really go see anybody, but we can still make music together. I started the project to just keep myself sane and it just grew from there, haha.

Tell me about ‘Feels Like Freedom’ your new single.

That song was brought to me by my management. AG, Adrianne Gonzalez, is an incredible producer and songwriter, and the song caught my ear not just for what it said but how it said it. I got it as a demo and when I heard it, it said everything I could have written and I was like, grrr I wish I had written it, haha, but I can record it. It is one of those songs I’m so looking forward to putting out there.

You’ve had various nominations and won various awards, what do they mean to you?

I guess it is a validation, I must admit I get quite a kick about being included in the club and all these different clubs. As a kid I was always picked last whenever there was a competition going on with PE and Physical Ed, I was the last one, the short one, I was slow, and I was quiet. So, yeah, it really does, each and every one. They are giving me a star on the day of my CD release outside the Paramount Theatre, which was a huge surprise to me because I know who is on that sidewalk, there is Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker, all these incredible Texas songwriters, and to have my name included makes me want to step up my game, that’s for sure, haha. I better know what I’m saying, I better know what I’m writing, and I’d better pay attention here, haha.

Is there anyone you haven’t worked with who you would love to do something with?

Oh gosh, I’m wide open, I really am. I’ve learnt to be open and accepting, and I’ve got this Postit sticker on my computer that says just say yes, and that’s where I’m at right now, I just say yes. There is always something I can learn from any experience, with writing I’ve had great conversations that have just turned into songs, yeah, I’m open.

How disciplined are you with your songwriting, do you have time set aside each day, or is it as and when the muse strikes?

It is kind of like a little bit of both, I do have a day planner because I need a brain as a mom, singer-songwriter, and sister, and I have many hats that I wear so I have a day planner. So, who am I from one o’clock to three o’clock, and in my day planner I do have entries for practice, learning songs. I try and trick myself sometimes and call it something different, haha. I will sit at the piano for ten minutes some days and a song can come, other days I won’t even pick up a guitar, and I’ve gone weeks without picking up the guitar. But when I’m doing other things, it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about writing, haha. If I’m not writing I’m reading poetry, and I’m a big reader as well and it is about taking in life and taking in material.

You’ve been with Blue Corn Music for 20 years, what are they like as a label?

I’ve been with Blue Corn Music’s owner and founder Denby Auble since the beginning and he lets me decide what I want to do, I decide what I want to record and he puts his input in here and there, especially during the mixing period he will let me know what his ears are hearing as opposed to mine. Sometimes he works on sequencing albums as well, and I trust his instinct and his spirit, and he has been through a lot being a double lung recipient and I think if he has been through all that and has remained the beautiful spirit he is then I can stick with him and keep doing what I’m doing.

What is a Ruthie Foster live show like?

My live shows are about energy, and the same songs you may hear on these albums you may hear them sped up a little bit. I actually get a chance to explain where some of these songs come from, and that is the other thing I do is talk about the songs a little bit. It has two purposes, one is to let the audience know what the song is basically about, and the other is to let my band know what the hell is going on, haha. It gives them time to pick up the right instrument. I’ve had that happen with my drummer, they will pick up one set of sticks, and then if you are doing that one it is brushes, haha. It is kind of fun for me, and it keeps everybody on their toes, including myself.

Do you change the versions of songs, or is each arrangement fairly stable?

I used to mix it up quite a bit, but once I found something that really works I don’t change too much. I will change stuff around the middle of the set, but stuff that really works I don’t. I have certain songs I will start the show with to get the energy right, and after that, I will read the room and change things up accordingly in the middle of the set, and I do have my closers. Every once in a while we will throw something in we barely know and we will play it by the seat of our pants, and you will know it by the grin on our faces that says this is so working keep it going, haha. It keeps it fun, you know, this thing we do every week, thank God.

Any plans to get over to the UK and Europe?

We’ve just had a meeting about maybe getting over there in the Spring, and I have a cruise in Athens, Greece, in August, and I’m looking forward to that, haha.

At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what they are listening to now, your top three artists, albums, or tracks on your playlist?

I’ve just downloaded some stuff, and it’s Grammy season and I’m looking to see if my friends are getting enough love, haha. Larkin Poe, I’ve been listening to them a lot lately, they are two sisters who are incredible musicians and songwriters, and I love seeing more women songwriters out here, it makes my heart sing because we need that. Joy Oladukun, I’ve been digging her, and what a really, really, sweet voice which I didn’t expect from her, it wasn’t what I expected her to sound like. Wow, she is incredible, and I love her style and what she is doing with music. We’ve got this thing going around that Ben Harper called black americana and that is her, haha.

That is something else to argue over.

Haha, I know somebody will call me out over that. I’ve also been listening to a lot of soul music. I’ve had my Marvin Gaye on just last night, I’ve been listening to Ann Pebbles out of Memphis, and I’ve been listening to a lot of Memphis soul. That is my go-to when I’m barbequing, cooking, or just hanging out in the house, and with a martini, haha.

Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers?

Yeah, just tell everybody I’m going to do my best to get back over there, it has been a while, and I will keep myself healthy so I can stay over there for a while. I do look forward to coming back. I also just want to acknowledge my band who are the best band in the world, they are all superstars in their own right, and they all produce, sing and write, and release their own music, and the fact they take time out to travel with me makes my heart sing because they are not just my band, they are my family. I wish everybody could have what we have as musicians and as friends. They are my brothers, and I’m looking forward to bringing them all back across the pond.

Ruthie Foster’s ‘Healing Time’ is out now on Blue Corn Music.


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About Martin Johnson 276 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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