From houses of worship to houses of blues, Ruthie Foster has always been a rafter-rattler. And with a soul-filled voice honed in Texas churches, she can move audiences to tears or ecstasy — sometimes in a single song. Her last two albums, 2009’s The Truth According to Ruthie Foster and 2012’s Let It Burn, moved the Recording Academy to deliver Best Blues Album Grammy nominations; her latest, Promise of a Brand New Day, releasing August 19 on Blue Corn Music, could make her a contender once more.
For this effort, Foster put Meshell Ndegeocello in charge as her producer and then got out of the way, letting the lauded singer and bassist call the shots regarding players, takes, and mixing. “I wanted this album to highlight Ruthie’s voice and also communicate her vibe, give a fuller picture of her artistry and ability,” explains Ndegeocello. “She really trusted me with the music and I think we've made something that complements and holds its own alongside the power of her voice.”
Ndegeocello played bass and enlisted her regular guitarist Chris Bruce (Sheryl Crow) and keyboardist Jebin Bruni (Aimee Mann), plus drummer Ivan Edwards and backing vocalist Nayanna Holley. Foster did request two special guests: guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and singer Toshi Reagon.
Foster descends from a line of strong women; while sitting in the courtyard of an Austin coffee shop, she notices grapevines climbing a fence and recalls picking Mustang grapes for her grandmother in tiny Gause, Texas, a church-filled town about 90 minutes northeast of Austin. Her family was full of gospel singers; to this day, when she gets nervous onstage (yes, she still does), she’ll reference her early influences, from “the sisters in the amen corner” to the music she fell in love with.
It’s obvious, however, that Foster’s own magic will shine through regardless of who’s producing. Her Grammy-nominated albums were helmed by Chris Goldsmith, whose credits include Grammy-winning albums with Charlie Musselwhite and the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Grammy-winner John Chelew, producer of the album universally hailed as John Hiatt’s masterpiece, Bring the Family, among others. From 2011 to 2013 she earned three consecutive Blues Music Awards, plus an Austin Music Award for Best Female Vocalist and a Living Blues Critics’ Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year. And those are just some highlights of her awards history.
She’s also toured and recorded with Warren Haynes, traded verses with Susan Tedeschi on “The Weight” during the Allman Brothers’ 2012 Beacon Theater stretch; and sang on an episode of the TV series Revolution. She first delivered a gorgeous “Angel from Montgomery” with Bonnie Raitt at one of Wavy Gravy’s annual SEVA benefits; then repeated it with her on The Road to Austin, a loving all-star tribute to the now-late Stephen Bruton that made its documentary debut in the 2014 South By Southwest Film Festival.
Such accolades and appearances reinforce the fact that Foster’s a blues-world rarity: an original voice who honors her forebearers, yet transcends gentrification. If further proof is needed, the Eugene McDaniels-penned “Outlaw” should do it. The soul-sister celebration is, simply put, groovalicious. Or there’s her other ode to O.V. Wright, “My Kinda Lover.” Or “Let Me Know,” which, Foster confesses, she actually wrote for Marcia Ball, who never got a crack at it. Bramhall did, though; his guitar is all over the “blues-backboned” track, which Foster sings without backing vocals.
“Ruthie's voice is such a singular, powerful instrument, and she has such mastery of it,” Ndegeocello notes. “She can turn it on, belt it out and bring you to your knees, all in an instant.”