A young Ruthie Foster was singing softly into her portable tape recorder when her mother walked by her bedroom door, heard the hushed voice and burst in with one hand on her hip and a dishrag in the other.
“She came in, sat down on the bed and said, ‘I hear you in here trying to sing. Just open your mouth!’” Foster told Pollstar. “She was really the first person that just made me feel good about that. She said, ‘You are a beautiful creature and you have a beautiful voice.’ She was the first person who really got on me about that.”
Foster grew up in a family immersed in gospel and blues. She also grew up with a nearly debilitating shyness that manifested itself as a stutter.
“It was horrendous for me to stand up in front of people and even think about opening up my mouth,” she said. “I was so shy I would go into this stutter thing sometimes as a kid, so it was embarrassing for me on top of that. But through music, I found my way of being open and making people feel good.”
She’s not afraid to sing for an audience anymore. Foster recently capped a set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival by winning the Blues Foundation award May 6 for best contemporary female blues artist. Earlier this year, she was up for a Grammy Award nomination for best contemporary blues album for her sixth release, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster.
“I’m so grateful that I’m still able to keep doing this and every time a new CD is ready to come out, it’s like starting fresh again,” Foster said. “I’m always changing, too, like anybody. And I get to record all this growth that I’m experiencing.”
Foster’s career took some sideways turns from those early bedroom tape recordings with her soft voice and guitar given to her by her father.
“I did know early on that music was going to be a huge part of my life, or at least hoped it would be,” Foster said. “And my mom supported me learning to play that guitar. But she also told me early on that if you’re going to learn it, you’ve got to practice and be the best at what you’re going to do.”
She took music classes at a Texas community college and played gigs around Waco. Then, almost inexplicably, she joined the Navy.
“I grew up in a small town. A lot of people in the Navy grew up in these tiny towns and it’s their ticket out. I was ready to spread my wings and take off,” Foster explained. She was stationed in San Diego, where she worked on helicopters. Eventually, she decided to audition for the Navy band and was accepted into its elite Commodores unit and shipped off to Norfolk, Va., where she learned composition, arrangement and more discipline.
And along the way, she learned the importance of saying “yes.”
“I got out and started singing in the Charleston, S.C., area because that’s where I’d last been stationed. Just working on the beach and downtown in a jazz band. I was working at a recording studio as a secretary, or gofer, whatever they needed,” Foster said. “I got into this thing where I just said ‘yes’ to everything that came my way. I just said, ‘Yes. I’ll try that. Sure.’ That’s my advice to anyone trying to make it. Say yes.”
She said yes to marriage, and yes to a recording contract with Atlantic and yes to a move to New York, where she sang in clubs and honed her writing. Then her mother took ill and she said yes to coming home to West Texas.
“I’m really happy I did that, too. I’m all about family. Coming back home was not a question. I left New York and I left a marriage in that process,” she said.
Eventually, she found her way back to a full-time music career. Or perhaps it found her “while I was sipping a margarita in the sun on the San Antonio Riverwalk.” She began touring small clubs and coffeehouses. Other musicians, including Eric Bibb, Tommy Castro and Marcia Ball guitarist Pat Boyack, became fans and began talking her up.
The Rosebud Agency’s Mike Kappus and Tom Gold, who became her responsible agent, went to see her in a tiny room in San Francisco in 2007. They were sold, even though Rosebud wasn’t actively seeking clients at the time. She then took some time to find the right manager, choosing Blind Ambition Management and founder Charles Driebe.
“I was just knocked out,” Kappus said of hearing Foster for the first time. “There’s nobody like her. These days, you think about the golden era of Mahalia Jackson, or a young Aretha Franklin or a Sam Cooke; she is somebody we should recognize now because it is her time and she is in her prime. There’s nobody like that right now carrying that passion and delivery.”
Kappus said the advantage of keeping a smaller roster is the attention his staff can give to artists. But it also means credibility, and Rosebud has been able to open doors that might have been closed to Foster.
“She’s so great it’s just a matter of getting her in front of audiences who appreciate that,” Kappus said. “She just continues to build. It’s passionate music of such quality. It’s not a matter of doing everything right now while the iron is hot. This is building a long-term career with no letup whatsoever.”
And while Foster’s iron is hot, she’s quick to acknowledge the mentors in her life from Mahalia to her mother. “You know what you’ve done to get through the fire,” she said. “It’s a spiritual kinship, knowing that we’re all standing here. And these are the women who you feel like you stand with and who built that bridge for you so that you can walk across there.”