Ruthie Foster's artistic identity may challenge some mainstream assumptions about race, age, gender and musical tastes. A 35-year-old African-American singer-songwriter who plays guitar and piano (both solo and with her band), she performs mainly original material that resists simple classification. Her style is grounded in country blues and gospel, yet her songs typically evolve beyond traditional structures to evoke an engagingly personal, contemporary sound.
And while her headliner appearance this week at the Mucky Duck will showcase her fluency in the blues idiom, it also will reveal Foster's skill in other genres such as folk and rock. As suggested by the title of her debut CD, Full Circle, Foster has explored various possibilities in her life and music and is now returning to what she knows best.
Foster's naturalistic philosophy is revealed on the disc. In the song "Home," for instance, she recalls imagery of her native landscape and the "Brazos River running through my veins." The refrain offers fluid testimony that "I had it all, I had it all, right at home," a line that's repeated with passionate intensity near the end, culminating in a soulful, freestyle mantra of "want to go home."
Foster's strong alto voice is especially well suited for such passages. As songs move toward conclusion she often reworks a key line in a cadenza of vocal riffs, conveying ideas and emotion as much through sound as through words. She clearly recognizes that despite her competence as a guitarist -- her fretwork consisting mainly of tasteful strumming and the occasional accented lick -- her primary instrument is her voice. It stands out confidently against a backdrop of economical musical support, which ranges from soft jazz tones to an amalgam of folk, funk, blues and rock.
On the title track, the acoustic guitar provides the lone accompaniment for the first quarter of the song, counterbalancing Foster's mellow scat intro and clearly enunciated opening verse. But as she moves into the second stanza, drum and bass boldly kick in, soon followed by Steve Carr's sharp electric guitar fills. Musically the song evolves into pulsing rock, over which Foster's vocal timbre dances in gospel-flavored ecstasy. With guttural growls, shouts and sustained vibrato, she proclaims her epiphany that "it all comes back full circle."
Born in East Texas, Foster was raised on her grandmother's place near the Brazos River and in the nearby community of Gause, about 100 miles northwest of Houston. There her musical talent was nurtured early in life. "Piano was my first instrument," she explains. "The deal was, when I was in sixth grade I got a guitar for Christmas, but my grandmother and my mother decided that if I wanted to learn guitar, I would have to learn piano first. So they paid for lessons."
Encouraged by her upbringing, Foster left home in her late teens to study commercial music. However, on graduating from college and still being uncertain of her career goal, she opted to enlist in the United States Navy and learn aviation electronics instead. "I was getting to a point where I was burned out on music. It was just one of those things -- I had to go do something else."
Eventually she was stationed in San Diego, where she worked on helicopters for a year and didn't sing or play. But that situation didn't last very long. Trying to reconcile her military commitment with her impulse toward an artistic life, Foster auditioned for a band representing the Navy -- which happens to be the only branch of the military with a vocalist billet available to select individuals. To her relief, she made the cut and served the rest of her assignment singing in a jazz/funk band.
Based in Charleston, South Carolina, the group performed in high schools around the South as part of a general recruitment effort and occasionally visited such places as Iceland and Puerto Rico. "We were on the road constantly as a touring unit," she remembers. "And for me, it was good training, a very positive experience."
When her four-year hitch in the Navy ended, Foster remained in Charleston, working as a musician. She performed solo for the most part, singing and playing acoustic guitar on the Carolina folk scene. Liberated from the packaged showmanship of the Navy band, she also began to develop a more personal, singer-songwriter approach to musical expression -- as well as a local following of fans.
Eventually some friends sent a tape of her original material to Big Beat Records, which just then was entering into a distribution agreement with Atlantic Records. She soon signed a five-year contract with Big Beat and moved to New York. "That was the learning experience for me, I tell you," she recalls. But her breakthrough recording never materialized there.
"Basically I was kind of dormant in New York. I was a songwriter for the most part. It was a publishing and recording deal, but I didn't really record anything for them. However, I met a lot of great people, and I did a lot of writing. And I learned a lot of different styles of writing, which I ended up using later."
Disillusioned with the recording industry, she began to reconsider the course her life had taken. She also grew increasingly homesick for the Bravos River Valley of her youth. Then when her mother took ill and needed care, Foster decided to leave New York for good. "So I moved back to Texas and basically rode out the rest of my contract."
Focused mainly on the medical needs of the woman who long ago had told her, "Open your mouth and sing, girl!" Foster now put her music career on hold. To help pay the bills, she took a job at a Bryan-College Station television station working as a camera person and production assistant. But after a while she was drawn back to performing occasionally in area clubs.
When her mother died in 1996, Foster was ready to make a full-time commitment to being a musician -- but this time on her terms and from her natural home base. By the end of 1997 she had recorded and released Full Circle (on her label, M.O.D. Records), featuring ten largely autobiographical songs.
"I just got back to my roots," she says. "Because when I was in New York, I was turning into a different kind of songwriter. A songwriter is like a sponge; you're taking up what's around you. And my writing style had changed. Now, being home again, I wrote about what I knew, and that was growing up in Texas."
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While the CD features Foster's four-piece band, it also offers two tracks showcasing the singer-songwriter as solo performer. In "The Fight," for example, a simple chord progression on acoustic guitar allows her ample space to play her voice like a horn, combining expressive wails and improvised syllables with such lines as "Think I want to cry a little bit longer / Think I want to pray a little bit deeper / Sometimes I break down from the fever / But I can't give up and I won't get back / I'm not giving up the fight."
For Foster, it's this stripped-down musical format that seems right. In much of her touring this year -- including a stint at Terra Blues in Greenwich Village and at South Carolina's Low Country Blues Bash (and later this spring at the Kerrville Folk Festival) -- Foster appears alone or in an acoustic duo with percussionist/manager Cyd Cassone on the djembe or tambourine. In Houston, it will be just her and her guitar.
Having returned to the milieu where her music originated, she concludes, "I try just to be my true self when I'm out there with a guitar," adding with a sense of absolute certainty, "It's what I'm put here to do."
Ruthie Foster plays Tuesday, February 23, at 8:30 p.m. at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Jimmy "Louisiana" Dotson and Harlem Slim will open. Sponsored by and benefiting the Houston Blues Society. Tickets $8. Info: (713)528-5999.