Talk about bragging rights: Austin-based gospel/blues singer Ruthie Foster has the pleasure of holding a rather auspicious honour in Vancouver history.
After performing at the Vancouver Folk Festival in 2002, she made such an incredible impression on her audiences that fans flocked to the CD tent and purchased more than 1,000 copies of her disc Runaway Soul in one day.
That number beat the previous holder of said title… a slightly better known guitar player named Ani DiFranco.
Like DiFranco, Foster is unquestionably a ‘lifer’ when it comes to her music. From her earliest days, many sources of Foster’s joy came from listening to and singing gospel music.
“My earliest musical memories come from my mother putting on a record of The Gospel Keynotes, The Fairfield Four, all those groups out of the ’50s and ’60s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe-that is the kind of music that she would listen to.
“I was made to sit in the front row and listen to my uncles all singing solos in church. There’s something about when you are six or seven years old and you don’t have a concept of religion and that music would just move us. The religion came with the emotion behind what he was singing; you’d have to be dead to not feel that.”
Studying music through high school and into college, Foster made the decision to leave her small-town roots behind.
After attending a meeting with an Air Force recruiter, the rep thought that she should take a little post-school time to herself and return in a few more months. Foster wasn’t buying it. “I was in a hurry to do something different with my life,” she admits, “so I figured, ‘all right, I’ll walk next door to the Navy!'”
Her next chapter was a sudden jolt into an alternate universe. “You wake up at boot camp one day with someone screaming for you to get out of bed for about eight weeks,” she recalls, laughing.
So began a four-year stint combining time spent working on helicopters with performances in the Navy’s musical troupe, where she fronted a funk band.
In 1993, Foster finished her time with the Forces, got a divorce from her then-husband and returned to her hometown to care for her sick mom.
“That is what the universe put in front of me,” she says. “It was very much a discovering of who I was; I got to hang out, be social. I went from high school to college to the Navy and marriage. [Going back home] was definitely my time to learn who Ruthie was-my likes and my ooh-la-la-likes.
“When my mom passed, I discovered that I had all this time… and I realized that I should spend it on me.”
During that transitional period, Foster fell in love with a woman who eventually went on to be her manager and backing vocalist, Syd Cassone. Their recent breakup-after five years of performing together-has meant a change in Foster’s onstage sound and her off-stage perspective.
“We played together maybe five years and officially split up this spring. When you are travelling with someone and involved with that person-in a lot of ways we had three different relationships going on.
“It was a decision to step into my own life, my own power,” she says.
Foster is now experiencing a newness in her career that brings fresh excitement to her performance. “It is gonna be a different show; I’m bringing a wonderful dobro player/vocalist with me. I so desperately needed to make this move and follow my heart.
“It hasn’t been the most popular decision but it has released me in so many ways and I’m very, very happy about that.”
As far as popular decisions go, one question that begs to be asked is how Foster reconciles the combination of being an out woman and a gospel musician.
Foster admits that she feels lucky that the community at large has been supportive around her. “I haven’t had any problems in my faith; no one has ever come to me and said that they have a problem with me because I’m being truthful with who I am now.
“My music is so much about where I grew up, about being the fun-loving person I can be on most days,” she continues. “I just try to show up and be myself.
“My family has always been supportive and they’ve always known. Ultimately, I try not to get deep into that word ‘religion’ because what I do is not about religion but instead about being spiritual.”
Foster says she’s very excited to return to the city that previously brought her such enthusiastic support. She is even more excited to bring the ‘new and improved’ Ruthie Foster to the Folk Festival for her third go-around.
“I am so in transition right now, it is beautiful,” she enthuses. “I am right where I need to be. Definitely starting to work on a new record but meantime having a good time putting a band together and learning how to jam again, how to be a bandleader.
“It is kinda like playtime for me,” she continues, “like someone just opened the screen door and let me go. I say that, then I think, ‘wait, maybe I did that!’
It has been a beautiful ride and I think I’m where I need to be.”