Blues prodigy Ruthie Foster hits the road to celebrate her eclectic, soulful new album

By Bliss Bowen

Ruthie Foster has found a renewed sense of joy about musicianship
Photo by Riccardo Piccirillo

“You caught me practicing,” Ruthie Foster says with a laugh over the phone from her hometown of Austin, where she’s transcribing a Hawaiian version of “Wonderful World” from ukulele to guitar for a friend’s upcoming wedding. Practicing, the self-described perfectionist says, “never ends.”

“It’s kind of so I’m not so far behind when I’m with my band,” she jokes.

That’s especially true now that the tour promoting her acclaimed new album “Joy Comes Back” is in motion. She has a string of solo dates booked, including a Saturday show at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, and her set will feature songs that she hadn’t really learned on guitar.

Foster’s a solid player and meticulously prepared performer, but more than previous recordings, “Joy Comes Back” focuses on how she wields her formidable, church-trained voice as an instrument. So now the multiple Blues Music Award winner has reunited with her guitar teacher and is back in practice mode.

“It’s helped me fall in love with guitar again and being a musician again, because that had a lot to do with why I didn’t write for this record,” she explains. “I was just really chugging along with the tunes that we do on the road and getting our show down as sharp as we could, so that I could actually be an entertainer. This is a different project that’s been really good and refreshing for me because it brought me back to the instrument, and it’s bringing me back to the art of being a songsmith, which I used to fancy myself. And now I’m realizing I need to work that muscle. And it’s OK to pick songs that say what I want them to say. This CD has been really enlightening in a lot of ways.”

Not unlike Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, both of whom are friends, Foster rhythmically synthesizes various genres — gospel, blues, soul, country, folk, rock — while mining material from diverse songwriters: Chris Stapleton, Mississippi John Hurt, Deb Talan, Ivy Jo Hunter and Stevie Wonder. Black Sabbath’s timely “War Pigs” gets a scorching overhaul courtesy of Simon Wallace’s harmonica and Foster’s throaty, impassioned vocal and Dobro solos.

“I just happened to have my resonator [guitar] in my hand while we were recording it,” Foster says of her arrangement. “We decided to goof around a little bit and see what happens when you mix a little Son House with Black Sabbath.”

That eclecticism is typical. One of the gratifying pleasures of Foster’s music is hearing how she personalizes covers — taking Los Lobos’ “This Time” to New Orleans, say, or gospelizing the Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light,” as she did on 2011’s Grammy-nominated “Let It Burn.”

“I just love listening to music,” she says. “I have these different songs and sometimes just a certain genre that references different chapters in my life. I think a lot of people are like that; we all listen to everything. It’s life.

“I’d like to give my crowd, my fans, the benefit of the doubt. They’re a lot smarter than me so I don’t try to pick and choose one genre and stay in there, much to the record stores’ chagrin. I’ve always chanced that and managed to keep a broad audience.”

Foster grew up singing in her family’s church, one of five in their tiny (population 500) Texas town of Gause. The lack of a PA system taught her how to project. Joining the Navy after studying music at Waco’s McLennan Community College, she gained invaluable experience performing with a military band. But it was her grandmother who instilled skills that undergird her interpretive choices now — by helping her recite poetry.

“I was a really shy kid,” Foster recalls. “When I did speak, I stuttered and stammered, because when you think no one’s really gonna listen to you, you try to speak too fast. So Big Mama taught me how to slow down, and enunciate.”

Now, Foster speaks in the thoughtful cadence of a woman who knows her mind, each word calm and clear. But when she was just becoming a teenager, such poise seemed elusive. Reciting lines by the likes of Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks developed Foster’s confidence about speaking in public, and eventually she started attending, and winning, school competitions in which she recited full poems. The experience also arguably refined her taste for meaningful lyrics.

Many of the songs Foster chooses now embrace the spirit. Just as Grace Pettis’ “Good Sailor” and Shawnee Kilgore’s affirming “Abraham” helped her process the breakup of a long-term relationship and sharing custody of her 5-year-old daughter, she says she feels a responsibility to offer songs that lift listeners up.

“It’s very much my mission — just reminding people of the healing power of music, because it’s done that for me, in my own personal life,” she says. “I know people who’ve been in and out of depression, who don’t listen to music for a while; that’s a dark place that takes you somewhere that’s really unfortunate. I do believe music is part of healing.”

Ruthie Foster performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 15, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $25. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit ruthiefoster.com.