Ruthie Foster has a light confession: she cleaned her house this morning, a few hours before her housekeeper arrived. “I empathize with people who are working just to try to make it,” says Foster. It is that deep-rooted empathy, forged by Foster’s own life experiences, that informs much of Recovery time—the latest album in the 25-year career of the award-winning, Grammy-nominated blues and gospel singer.
Foster grew up in the small Texas town of Gause, a two-hour drive northeast of Austin, and often helped her mother clean houses to make ends meet. He attended college in Waco, Texas, then enlisted in the Navy, broadening his world view. After his tenure in the service, Foster moved to New York City, becoming a frequent presence on the local folk club circuit and attracting the ears of record labels.
In 1993, Foster abruptly stepped away from her growing potential and returned to Texas to care for her ailing mother. She took a job as a camera operator at a local television station until an offer to fill in for a singer at a Sunday brunch landed her in Austin. Soon after, she began performing at The Live Music Capital of the World every weekend, sleeping on her friends’ couches until she got a place of her own. And before long, Foster’s name became synonymous with the arts community in her new hometown.
He released his debut LP, full circlein 1997 and Cross in 1999, he then signed with Blue Corn Music for their subsequent 12 albums, including his most recent. In between, Foster earned three Grammy Award nominations and a dozen Blues Music Award nominations, including seven wins for Female Traditional Blues Artist of the Year. Last November, she was the sixth artist to be honored with a star outside of Austin’s famed Paramount Theatre.
“Yeah, how about that?” Foster says. “I spent many nights standing on those stars, waiting to go inside to see other people play.”
Foster knows that the blues is not about personal recognition, just as he recognizes that the gospel is not about awards. She is an advocate for change and a steward of tradition, a gifted and insightful messenger to those who suffer, including herself.
“I’m closer to the blues than anything else, all kinds of blues,” says Foster, whose live performances include nods to genre pioneers Son House and Mississippi John Hurt. “The blues is a witness to what happens in people’s lives, and definitely in my own life.”
In his own life, Foster has experienced a lot of pain in recent years. His drummer since 2001, Samantha Banks, passed away in 2018 after suffering a stroke. It was a devastating loss for Foster and a band she considers her family. Then, less than two years later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Like the rest of the world, Foster was stuck at home with her feelings. Banks’s death weighed heavily on her. To begin the healing, she continued to write, reworking earlier material and dedicating time to her own poetry, staying open to how and where the muse appeared. She also decided to do something on her next record that she had never done before: work with her own band.
“Doing a project that involved my family band, that’s something that had to happen,” says Foster.
Foster recruited longtime collaborators Gary Nicholson and Grace Pettis to join the writing staff. Veteran producer Mark Howard helmed their initial recordings at Studio71West in Austin, as well as some follow-up sessions at New Orleans’ revered Esplanade Studios. He followed up with additional sessions in Austin with producer Dan Barrett at Electric Deluxe, the space operated by Black Pumas’ Adrian Quesada. In addition to several members of the Black Pumas, the album features two notable guests: slide guitar icon Sonny Landreth sits on “Finish Line,” while pedal steel maestro Robert Randolph joins for the title cut. .
During the lockdown, Foster rekindled her love of cooking and spent time with her vinyl collection, spinning favorites from Carmen McRae and Ann Peebles as she prepared her meals. “There’s something about the continuity of the albums that really stood out to me,” says Foster. “And that’s missing from a lot of music today.”
True to the classic form, Recovery time it’s a set of songs with a distinct direct line; its introspective first half details the perceptions and delusions of life and love. The title track is a hinge, set at the midpoint of the record, while the second side’s narrative is more spiritual, offering a mix of empathy and responses. Foster firmly believes that the bridge between secular and spiritual emotions is an essential component; she has begun performing the album in sequence at her recent shows, likening the “Freedom” concert finale to the blessing of a Sunday sermon.
Though raised Baptist, Foster’s current idea of spirituality is much broader. She wants people to find faith in themselves more than in any entity. “I think that’s why I’m in music, to help people find their own narrative,” says Foster. “If you’re not hurting people and you’re being good to yourself, I’m all for it.”
During his days in New York, Foster absorbed valuable lessons from folk singer Pete Seeger. He also enjoyed inspiring talks with singer and civil rights activist Odetta. She believes in the need for an artist to stand up for anyone who is suffering, be it personally, socially or spiritually, and she hopes the message is clear. Recovery time.
“I have served my country with pride. I pay taxes. I work hard to live in this house and keep my son in a decent school,” says Foster. “I am part of this Austin community. I have a voice. I have something to say, and of course, I’m going to say something if people aren’t acting right.