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The many lives of blues musician Ruthie Foster

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In her 48 years, blues singer Ruthie Foster has lived a couple of different lives.

She was a little girl who grew up in Texas listening to Kenny Rogers on the radio, taking piano lessons with her grandmother and singing in church.

"My mother insisted I learn piano because it was the gospel instrument," she said. "But I'm glad I did." 

Foster, who performs as part of the Charlie West Blues Fest May 18-20, was a student at McClellan Community College, studying classical music and fronting a blues band.

"The classical music helped me keep my voice." 

She was a sailor who gave up music for the Navy and the chance to see the world -- or at least to see something beyond the little town by the Brazos River in Texas where she grew up. The Navy took her a lot of places, but music followed her.

While she was in San Diego, she bought a guitar in a shop.

"I used to play guitar on my watch," she said.

She joined the Navy band and started writing songs again. After her enlistment ended, she found herself in New York City, working for Atlantic Records -- another life.

"I was a signed artist," Foster explained. "They had me in a development deal. I used the time to write and wrote songs with some amazing people, people who wrote with Barbra Streisand and Anita Baker.

"It was a real eye-opening experience, not just being in New York, but learning different ways to write."

In 1993, her mother became too ill to take care of herself. Foster quit the record label, gave up her development deal and returned to Texas.

"I just needed to get back home," she said.

While taking care of her mother, Foster recorded and played locally. After her mother died in 1996, Foster took her guitar and hit the road. That's where she's been ever since.

"That's what my income tax says," she said. "I've been a full-time musician since 1996."

But she didn't start out as a blues musician.

"I was really in the folk realm for a while," Foster said. "We sang nothing but folk festivals for a while -- we still do a lot of them -- but then I got an electric guitar."

She said she mostly just plays her acoustic guitar, but there's an electric guitar in her band. People these days call her a blues artist, but it all seems about the same. It's just life.

Foster spends a lot of time on the road. She's always thought of herself as a songwriter who needed time and space away from the road to write, but she's learning.

"I'm trying to write a little on the road since I've got access to this band," she said.

It's an adjustment. In the meantime, there are plenty of songs out there for her to sing. Foster's latest record, "Let it Burn" has a couple of new songs from her and a bunch of covers from everyone from Johnny Cash to Adele.

The record provided her with some creative breathing room. Foster didn't play on the record. She focused entirely on her singing.

"My whole job with this record was to sing and try and channel different people," she said. "Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones, Mavis Staples. I really looked to Mavis a lot."

It was good to have the break. Foster has a new life she's embracing. A year ago, her partner gave birth to a baby girl.  

It's cut into her creative time, she acknowledged, but Foster is fine with that.

"When I'm home, I like to be home," she said.

Ruthie Foster performs on May 20 as part of that weekend's free Charlie West Blues Fest at Haddad Riverfront Park. Read more about the festival in the May 17 gazz.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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