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.