Ruthie Foster introduces folk to soul

from the Memphis Commercial Appeal on

Besides providing cover from the rain, one of the best things about the blues tent at this year's Beale Street Music Festival was the Saturday evening performance by Texas singer Ruthie Foster. On a lineup dominated by guitar shredders, Foster, armed with just her acoustic guitar and backed by an all-female rhythm section, stole the show with a song-centered set that featured her remarkable gospel-rooted voice.

"We didn't have a guitar solo, not one," recalls Foster. "I knew it was going to be full of guitar players at any blues festival. ... Having just vocals be the forefront for a show is something different. I can say Koko Taylor was one of those. When she was out front, she was out front."

A few days later Foster was out front again when she won the Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year at the Blues Music Awards. Coming on the heels of her Grammy nomination earlier in the year for her sixth album, The Truth According To Ruthie Foster, it was quite a coup for a performer who had to be goaded into seeking the spotlight in the first place.

Foster grew up in the tiny East Texas community of Gause, where almost everyone in her extended family sang in church. But Foster, who struggled with stuttering in her youth, preferred a quieter role in the background.

"I didn't want to sing, actually," Foster says of her teen years. "I was surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles that sang very well and still do. I just wanted to play piano. So that's what I did. I started playing piano first in my church. Then I got coaxed into singing. It was basically my turn. That's how it works in my family. They said it's time for you to sing a solo. ... It was 'Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior,' and my grandmother, who worked with me on my stuttering, she loved it."

Foster, who had started writing songs on her guitar as a teenager, elected to study music when she enrolled at McLennan Community College in Waco. But her real music education came when she took an unexpected turn into the United States Navy. Foster was providing support for a helicopter squadron, when she got up and sang at a company party. Impressed, her commander encouraged her to go out for the pres

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