A ‘Hallelujah’: Vibe Ruthie Foster brings her genre-crossing tunes to town

By Laura Latzko

Blues/gospel/soul artist Ruthie Foster brings a joyful and interactive “hallelujah” vibe to her concerts.

It’s fitting, after all, because the Austin-based Foster grew up singing with her family in church.

The four-time Grammy nominee will perform at Club Congress on Sunday, September 19. At the show, Foster plans to perform music from her last three to four albums, including her recent big band collection “Live at the Paramount,” and tell audiences the stories behind her tunes.

“I get a chance to actually interact with the audience, talk more, chat up the songs a little bit, give the songs more of a story and the background behind the songs,” Foster says.

For 2020’s “Live at the Paramount,” Foster mixed original music with covers of songs made popular by Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. 

She says she is careful to choose covers with which she connects on a personal level.

“Covers for me are not really that,” she says. “They are basically songs that I grew up singing and songs that I used to learn how to play the guitar. Johnny Cash is what I grew up listening to as I was playing the guitar and learning chords.

“Ella Fitzgerald, I got into her when I was a Navy big band singer. That arrangement you hear on the album is one that I really learned singing with the Navy big band out of Charleston.”

Along with “Ring of Fire,” “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Mack the Knife,” her recent album features originals that showcase Foster’s distinctive voice. This includes “Runaway Soul,” “Phenomenal Woman,” “Death Came a Knockin’ (Travelin’ Shoes),” “Woke Up This Morning,” “The Ghetto,” “Stone Love” and “Might Not Be Right.”

She says that over time, songs often take on a new meaning to her.

“Having this time and space, these songs have had a chance to morph or grow into themselves,” Foster says.

“It’s like watching my kid grow. I come back from a tour after a week or two, and I can see something different about her. These songs do that. They change.

“I find myself doing a song as simple as the blues song I wrote called ‘Runaway Soul.’ I actually find myself slowing it down a little bit and letting the song speak for itself.”

With “Ring of Fire,” she took creative liberties and experimented with it. 

“What happened with ‘Ring of Fire’ is I turned this country song into a soul song.”

Big band experience

At age 11, Foster sang her first solo in church. The choir was comprised of more than 20 cousins, and performing solos wasn’t her thing. She was envisioning herself as a piano accompanist.

“I had lots of cousins, aunts and uncles who were very good at that,” she says about solos.

“It took some doing to get me out from under my shell, but singing one solo in church one morning, it made a difference in where I wanted to be in that choir. Being out front was OK with me, if it was about delivering a message that moves people,” Foster says.

As an adolescent, she was exposed to a variety of genres, including blues, gospel, country, Tejano, Conjunto, polka and acoustic.

Foster has been working on new music in an Austin studio. The album will showcase music she wrote during the height of the pandemic.

“That’s going to be a step outside of what I’ve been doing,” she says. “I’ve been doing cover-heavy albums of songs I really love to sing. This will be not really another direction but a sidestep, if you will. It will show a little bit more of my writing skills.”

She plans to preview one or two of the songs during her tour.

“This next bunch of songs that are going to be coming out are going to be really special to me,” Foster says.