Superlatives are rare in album titles, and for good reason: unless you’re a living legend or a legend-in-the-making like the Man in Black (1958’s The Fabulous Johnny Cash) or the Queen of Soul (1962’s The Electrifying Aretha Franklin), you’re all but begging for a crash course in humility. So if you’re going to stick a word like “phenomenal” in front of your name on a record cover, you damn well better have the goods to back it up.
“Those are some big shoes!” laughs Ruthie Foster, who, just for the record, is really one of the most humble and down-to-earth artists you could ever meet, phenomenal or otherwise. She admits to initially having “quite a few reservations” about calling her fifth album The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster, crediting both her producer, noted Austin-based “swamp music” guitarist Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne, and her label, Houston’s Blue Corn Records, for making that particular gutsy call. As for how they came up with it, well … just give it a listen, and you’ll understand. The big shoes just fit — so much so, that calling this particular record by this particular woman at this particular time in her life and career anything but “phenomenal” would be akin to false advertising.
If you haven’t yet been introduced to the music of this prodigiously gifted singer and songwriter from Texas, you’re in for a major epiphany. And if you’ve been following Foster’s career ever since her self-released, 1997 debut, Full Circle, or even since her 2002 breakthrough, Runaway Soul, you’re in for an even bigger surprise, because you really haven’t ever heard Foster until you hear her now. Simply put, mama’s gotta brand new bag.
“Change is kind of scary for a lot of people when it comes to music,” says Foster. “But I’ve had a lot of changes in my life the last couple of years here, both personally and musically, and it was just time to step out. Running across Papa Mali when I did was great for me, because he’d been showing up to a lot of my shows here in Austin, and he mentioned that he heard so much more in me than what was coming across. That really got my attention, because I knew that there was more, too. I’d been wanting to stretch out for quite some time. And he had a way of just saying, ‘It’s time to fly, Ruth.’”
By pretty much anyone else’s standards, Foster had already been soaring for years. Since returning to her native Texas in the mid-’90s after a period of walkabout that found her touring with the U.S. Navy band Pride (“We were bad ass!”) and even spending a few years in New York City under contract to Atlantic Records (“I think they were looking for Anita Baker meets Tracy Chapman,” she muses. “I sent a headshot to my dad, and he said, ‘Who is this white woman with my baby’s nose?”), Foster quickly established herself as one of the acoustic music world’s brightest stars. From the Kerrville Folk Festival to Austin City Limits to stages all across North America and Europe, she was winning thousands of new fans a night and selling a staggering average of 100 CDs per show. At a festival in Canada, she even broke Ani DiFranco’s record by selling 1,000 CDs in a single day. (“I love Canada,” laughs Foster.) All those records carried considerable critical acclaim, too, especially her last two, the Lloyd Maines-produced Runaway Soul and the live Stages. Both live and on disc, Foster mixed contemporary folk with old-school gospel and blues with dazzling efficiency, showcasing a powerhouse voice that drew more favorable comparisons to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin than the poor girl knew what to do with.
You can still hear traces of that Foster on her new album — most notably in the rootsy fun of “Beaver Creek Blues,” the gospel revival spirit of “Mama Said” and the dark, stomping a cappella thunder of the Son House cover “People Grinnin’ In your Face.” But Papa Mali had an entirely different kind of Ruthie Foster sound in mind when recording commenced at Austin’s Congress House Studio, and Foster was delighted to discover that his vision tapped deep into her own roots as a music lover. Together with a crack band including drummer George Sluppick (Mofro), bassist Glenn Fukunaga (Dixie Chicks, Terri Hendrix) and Hammond B3 player Anthony Farrell (Greyhounds), they set out to make an honest to goodness classic soul album. The kind that, in a different era, with a different singer, could just as easily have been called The Phenomenal Sam Cooke.
“A lot of folks don’t know this, but that really is my background,” says Foster. “I come from a deep background of old soul and blues and even R&B. Early on, long before I ever got into the folk thing, I was doing more soul on acoustic guitar than anything else. And that’s always been a part of the sound that I have.”
The difference, she says, is all in the instrumentation — and more importantly, the groove. That became apparent early in the sessions, when Foster blew the dust off an old song of hers called “Heal Yourself” that she had recorded a decade earlier for her first album. In the wake of recent events in her personal life and her continual evolution as an artist, the lyrics — a tough-love kick in her own pants — seemed timelier than ever. But when she started playing it on acoustic guitar again — the instrument she wrote it on — Papa Mali gently inquired if she’d ever tried it on piano.
“He kind of tricked me, really,” she says. “But I went over to the piano in the room, and a groove comes out of nowhere on this thing. We’re all looking at each other, and George picks up his sticks, Glenn picks up his bass, and we just go. We’re rolling.”
In addition to piano, Foster also found herself playing a lot of Wurlitzer throughout the sessions, having the time of her life. “There’s just something about getting on that Wurli, and letting the keys pop up and down wherever they wanted to go,” she enthuses. “Woo! That was fun. I found my Ray Charles when I got on that thing!”
“This CD,” she says, “is what happens when all the elements come together and you just get out of the way and let the groove go, you know? I learned a lot about just getting out of my own way.”
That goes for the subject matter, too, with Foster originals like “Harder Than the Fall” and “I Don’t Know What to Do With My Heart” revealing a level of personal vulnerability that she’d previously shied away from sharing.
“This record’s all about what I’ve been through these last couple of years here, and then some. There was a lot of emotional stuff left over from all that that I’d been carrying around with me, and I managed to write a few songs and find a few songs from other people that really say it all. But that kind of had me holding back on the whole project, because it’s hard to put your life into a record like that and really expose yourself. ‘Harder Than the Fall’ was about my last relationship, and ‘I Don’t Know What to Do With My Heart’ was about a relationship before that. You’re not so sure you want people to be able to see your vulnerability like that, but in the end it’s necessary, because that’s how you get past those things. And, by putting these songs on the record, it’s kind of a way of letting them go out and heal somebody else out there who may need to hear them.”
After the healing comes empowerment, which brings us to what is arguably The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster’s most powerful statement: “Phenomenal Woman,” a poem by Dr. Maya Angelou originally set to music by Canadian artist Amy Sky and David Pickett.
“I’m a big, big fan of Maya Angelou,” says Foster. “I grew up wanting to be a poet. So running across this poem in a song was just beautiful to me. I had to record that one, because to me, that’s the essence of where I’m at right now. I know God ain’t done with me yet, but I’m feeling pretty good. I’ve got a lot to say and a lot to share, and I’m going to keep doing it through music. And the message in ‘Phenomenal Woman’ — I think every woman should feel that.”
She pauses, then adds with a laugh, “I think every man should feel that, too!”