|Heritage Blues Orchestra|
A double dose of delight comes to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall next Thursday night (March 9) – Austin-based gospel goddess Ruthie Foster, and New York City’s Heritage Blues Orchestra. Both are masters of a black-church centered, old-school, guitar-based sound that occupies a wide space between gospel and blues and swings easily along the urban / rural continuum. Both record for indie labels (the HBO on Chicago-based Raisin’ Music, Foster on Austin’s Blue Corn). Both have reaped big-time blues awards, and both got Grammy nominations for Best Blues Album in 2013 (though the golden megaphone in that category went to Crescent City icon Dr. John that year).
Both the HBO and Foster play real, true, straight-up music – but that’s not to say these acts are two peas in a pod. The HBO’s players have had long careers on their own, but as group they have just one album to date, And Still I Rise (2012). Foster has nine, I think, including her brand new (March 2017) release, Joy Comes Back. The HBO has Atlantic seaboard roots – the group comes in various configurations, and I don’t know how many players are coming to Madison, but its backbone is Bill Sims, Jr., originally from Georgia (guitars and vocals), Big Apple-born songstress Chaney Sims (Bill’s daughter), and New Jersey native Junior Mack (guitars, vocals). There’s a lotta Lone Star in Foster, who grew up in Gause, a tiny southeast Texas town. The HBO leans more toward lean, from-the-heart, pre-‘60s blues; Foster’s more eclectic, and more gospel than blues.
There’s no headliner in this show – it’s being promoted as an even-Steven double bill, with two separate sets and a collaborative tune or two. I ended up only interviewing Foster, which feels a little lopsided. But here’s what she had to say when I reached her, at home in Texas, on the phone a couple of weeks ago:
CulturalOyster: The bio on your website tells me you grew up in a family of gospel singers, in a small Texas town. Was everyone in your family in the choir?
Foster: Almost everybody in the family – my cousins and all of that – at some point or another thay all had their day in the choir stand.
CulturalOyster: Did you sing at home too?
Foster: No, we didn’t, except for the songs we were getting ready for church. I did play piano, too, once and a while, next to my uncle, who was the key piano player at our church, but even that for the most part was just about the songs we were getting together for services.
CulturalOyster: I’ve never been to Gause, but I have this image of a dusty little Texas town – was it a small church?
Foster: It was very much a small church, in between two major towns. Gause is south of College Station and southwest of Bryan, and just short of the Brazos River. Gause mostly has German and Czech culture, that’s the big deal there – a lot of the old fellas that would come by my grandmother’s house asking for my grandfather had German or Czech names.
CulturalOyster: When did you start playing the guitar?
Foster: I picked up the guitar around the same time as the piano, but the guitar became my key instrument. My grandmother and my mother insisted I start with the piano because it was a “church instrument,” quote, unquote. But they didn’t mind if I played guitar a little bit. It made traveling around to other churches a lot easier. I’d go out and play the same hymns we sang at my church with piano, but I played them on the guitar. One of the things you do as a guest artist in another church is they give tribute to the church you’re from, so my church didn’t mind that I was going around representing them in other churches.
But I have to add that playing the guitar as a young person had another side to it, too. I didn’t just want to do traditional hymns. The guitar gave me a chance to learn more contemporary gospel – I got to play songs by contemporary gospel composers like Andraé Crouch and Dorothy Norwood.
The thing is, old-style gospel was definitely piano-based, those old hymns like “Old Rugged Cross” and “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior.” Contemporary gospel for me at that time was, like, a lot of the local all-male groups that would show up with just a guitar player and three or four guys singing. These guys would play all over Texas. There are some records – my grandmother kept a few.
CulturalOyster: I bet they didn’t get much distribution!
Foster: You can bet on that! But that was the sound I wanted – I wanted to be a guitar player. I loved piano, but I could see where guitar brought a whole new level of energy to the church. And plus, we lived next door to a holyness preacher and his wife and kids. He took the time to work with me on guitar. I could hear him playing in his kitchen and he’d let me come over and play with my little tiny guitar. He’d help me out with rhythm – you have to have a pretty good chucka-chucha-chucka with all of those voices behind you! And that’s why I’m a pretty solid rhythm player to this day.
CulturalOyster: The basic truth about you that I can pick up on from what there is online is that you fit no molds – you’re your own woman all the way through. What’s that meant for your career?
Foster: Not being able to fit into one mold also means they can’t fit you into one area in the record store, which at least back when that was relevant could make some trouble for people looking for gospel or blues or folk. I do them all. But in my personal life I think everybody has a little bit of blues in them, a little bit of gospel, a little bit of Aretha Franklin, a little Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Folks here in Texas have a mix – I also grew up with a lot of conjunto music [the Tex-Mex accordion-based sound] and Czech music – when I was growing up we all went to Czech Fest in Waco, that was a great place to go eat and dance and have a good time. I grew up with a lot of different types of music. But I think gospel is my main line. You can hear that in this new album that’s coming out this month – diction-wise and all I just let it all hang out. On a lot of these tunes I just left it like it was, ‘cause that’s where I was while I was recording them.
CulturalOyster: You just sort of answered this question, but it’s hard to pin down what you do in a few words. How do you describe the central thread – the essential Ruthie Foster element that transcends genres, that runs through your music?
Foster: I think it is gospel, like I said, but inside of that it’s the trueness. My trueness is that once you open up that gospel genre, it invites all the other genres to dance with it. That’s the way I look at it. I have gospel throughout my set list and I can go right into a Mavis Staples or a Son House from gospel, or I can go into Lucinda Williams – there’s something true about that, something really basic about what’s real for me.
CulturalOyster: The title of your new album, Joy Comes Back – what’s the story behind that?
Foster: I took a little time off from recording, it was about three years between this CD and the last one. I needed time to reflect and be home with my family, and I was coming out of an eight year relationship and learning how to co-parent a five year old. It wasn’t a smooth transition, I’ll leave it at that. I had a lot of things going on in my personal life that I needed to focus on, so music wasn’t the most important thing. I needed to get my life back on track and get myself settled. I was in between places for a while, and trying to tour – so going back into the studio was a way to find the foundation I was missing. Music was a way to make that jump and a way to heal from all that. I’m still healing, so this is my most personal record since Phenomenal [The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, Blue Corn 2007]). It’s funny how life just comes around and teaches you the same thing over and over again, but you know, I’m makin’ good music from it!
One of the things I love about what I do, I sit at the CD table on tour and I get to hear how my music has been a part of people’s lives. I think this is an album that’ll do that – with every one of the songs on it, you get to see where I was and what I’ve learned. And I get to talk about it – to share a little bit of my own journey – till the next CD!
The message in the title in this one is that good things are headed your way no matter how bad it may seem. It’s about setting your intent – you have to remember that joy comes back, there’s always something good coming. I’ve been blessed to have a little daughter who reminds me every day that joy is something real. A kid’ll do that to you, take you out of yourself.
CulturalOyster: You’re playing Madison on March 9, right before Joy’s official release date. Will you mostly (or exclusively) do tunes off that album?
Foster: It’ll be a mix – I haven’t made the set list yet, but it’ll be some songs off Joy and some from my other albums.
CulturalOyster: Who are your backup players on this tour?
Foster: I have a regular drummer, Samantha Banks. My bass player is Larry Fulcher – he plays with Taj Mahal, he’s in the Phantom Blues Band [Majal’s backup outfit]. I’m the guitar player – we’re coming to Madison as a trio, that’s pretty much how I travel on these tours, though when I can afford it I have a keyboard player and another guitar player I work with.
CulturalOyster: You’re doing a double bill with the Heritage Blues Orchestra, which seems like a good fit, though I don’t know a lot about them – what can you tell me?
Foster: Bill Sims Jr. was the catalyst for starting it. I met him years ago in New York when I was with Atlantic Records and we played the same clubs in that area. The Heritage Blues Orchestra didn’t exist then, but I saw them at a festival in Poland a while back. And we were both nominated for a Grammy a few years ago, that was cool, taking pics together in Los Angeles for that. I haven’t played with them before, and I don’t know how this show is set up, but we’ll see what happens!
CulturalOyster: You tour a lot – Madison comes kind of early in a big US tour, and you were in Europe last year, according to your website. What do you like to do when you aren’t performing?
Foster: I like to nest! I just bought a house on my own last summer and proceeded to be on tour a lot since then, so when I’m not touring I like being at home and hangin’ out with my frineds and having a chance to go out to listen to music. Terri Hendrix – she’s a Texas songwriter – lives near me, and we get together and have some dinner and talk about what we love and don’t love about being on tour. I like to be a good friend and be accesible to my friends. I like to hear what’s up with their lives. It’s easier for most of them to follow me – my life is on a website!
interview by SK