As seen in
Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 22 – Winter 2022
Starting her musical journey early, Ruthie Foster found her style heavily rooted in gospel. She learned how to play the piano and guitar by ear, eventually learning how to use her music to inspire creative transformations in people around her. She has learned the art of commanding the room with musical instruments and her voice, making her unique from the world around her.
Her newest album, Healing Time, released via Blue Corn Music, has opened the door to discovering the meaning of healing and being the best version of yourself. Ruthie talks to Guitar Girl Magazine about her inspiration to continue pushing forward in the footsteps of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and those that came before.
Where are you from? How long have you been playing guitar, and when did you know you wanted to be a musician?
I was born in East Texas and raised in central Texas, not far from Austin. I started playing the guitar and piano early, around 11 and 12. My dad sent me a guitar for Christmas, and I’ve been playing since. The piano was the gospel instrument that brought my church family together. But I was secretly learning guitar on the side, unbeknownst to my mother, because my piano teacher’s husband played guitar. So I would go and get two lessons in one. A little sneaky, but it was my way of keeping the guitar right alongside the piano.
What inspired you to become a musician?
I was always surrounded by music, well, singers in particular. I spent a lot of time watching the gospel groups play. And as far as guitar players, I saw a lot of great musicians that played gospel; that’s how I learned to play rhythm guitar. My piano teacher’s husband was a preacher that lived next door to us growing up. When he would come home from work, he would sit in his kitchen and play the electric guitar out of this super eclectic amp. So I would run over there with my little guitar and just sit to learn what I could from him. He taught me a lot of really cool grooves, and more than anything, I started playing full barre chords because of him. That was a different experience because what he taught me enhanced the things that I introduced to myself.
What artists have inspired you and your love for music?
Oh, wow, there are so many folks that inspired my love for music. My mother was a beautiful singer, and so was my grandmother. I didn’t want to be a singer because there were so many in my family. That’s why I lean more towards being an instrumentalist, and that’s helped me in my career. I admire Mahalia Jackson. She has so much power and range in her voice. I grew up listening to a lot of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I love the way she sang and played guitar. I opened for Odetta on several occasions, but when I wasn’t playing, I would just soak up the energy that came out of her. I even feel honored to call some of them friends; Mavis Staples is one.
What do you love about being a Black woman in music?
One of the biggest things for me is that I get a chance to stand on the shoulders of all of the incredible Black women I honor, but women who are and were a part of my story, my journey, and my family. It had a lot to do with my connection to my mother and grandmother; they are why I decided to be a full-time musician. When I lost them, I realized it was time to “sing for them”; I felt it was my duty to get out there and sing their stories. That’s why I include them in all my music, whether just dedicating a song to them on my albums or sharing a story about how I grew up and what they would say to me, whether it’s advice or warning, you know. Black women are known for their ability to be something extraordinary. My mother’s a part of everything that I do. I often look at my hands and realize they are just like hers, so it feels like I never lost her. I still remember being on stage when she crossed over and receiving immense support from my aunts, who all reminded me that they were here with me and to continue doing what I loved through music.
The other thing I love about being a musician is the hours. Many creatives tend not to value sleep as much, but I have come to appreciate rest more and try to live by example for my daughter. I love the freedom that comes with being a musician. Many women of color came before me who did not have that same experience in their musical journey, so I honor that and fully use it.
How would you describe your songwriting process?
My songwriting starts with many different things (ironically, I’m sitting in my studio as we speak). I’ll start with a title; sometimes, I sit with the guitar and groove recording. My songwriting process is about making time and space for it. A song rarely ends up fully completed because I dedicate daily time these days, even if it’s just 10 minutes of just putting a guitar in my hands. I give myself space to be creative; it’s meditation for me.
I want to talk about your songs “Finish Line,” “Soul Searching,” and “Feels Like Freedom”; why are these songs meaningful to you, and why were they essential to the sound of your newest album, Healing Time?
I worked with Gary Nicholson out of Nashville to write “Soul Searching.” He and I have been trying to write together for years, and we finally just did a Zoom session together and got it done within a day. We wrote two songs together, but I chose “Soul Searching” for the album. I know it sounds strange, but sometimes when I write, it’s not necessarily for me. I’m writing with someone else’s voice and story in mind.
“Freedom” was written by a phenomenal woman named Adrian Gonzales. She lives in Los Angeles and is an outstanding producer. When this song came across my desk through my management, I knew I wanted to sing my own version because it speaks to finding yourself through soul searching. It’s like being born again, almost like being introduced to a new world. The song moved me.
“Finish Line” I co-wrote with Gordy Johnson, an incredible producer here in Austin. I got to know Gordy through our work together on two Warren Haynes albums. I called him up because I wanted help with the half-song I completed. It was magical because it was finished as soon as he got his hands on it. All these songs speak to the various stages of relationships with people in life, making the album a complete experience for the listener, no matter where they are.
Listening to your music and watching you perform, I hear a lot of diversity in your playing: from soul to blues, even reggae. What does tone mean to you, and what are the advantages or disadvantages of learning to play other music styles?
You know, it’s important to learn all styles, but it’s also okay to be good at one or a few. Even in playing different genres, you have to find your own sound. When it comes to tone, I’m still working on that, but I tend to play different guitars that have given me various sounds, but one of my favorites has been my Godin. She’s just got the sound that I’ve always wanted to have, but it didn’t come cheap. I had to modify it a bit. I love the way the neck feels, which is very important to me as a guitar player because you don’t want to ruin your hands, but you still want to be able to get where you need to be on the neck. I made other mods to it, like removing the pickups and replacing them with throwback pickups that give me more warmth. I had my guy, Mr. Ed Reynolds, who’s worked on many great guitars in Austin, put in an extra volume button for the back pickup because the back pickup didn’t have a volume. Initially, only one volume pickup worked for both, so I separated the pickups to give me more control. We also changed up the tuning pegs and, of course, the action to be closer to the fretboard. I don’t want to work too hard when playing at the top of the neck. All-in-all, tone is about taste. Once you find what works for you, you can fly.
You played Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Above My Head.” Talk a bit about what Sister Rosetta Tharpe means to you and how her music moves you.
Oh, she means so much to me because she significantly influenced me as a guitar player, gospel singer, and writer, you know? She represents strength, and inspiration is so important to women of color following in her footsteps. I loved the footage of her performing down the railroad tracks with the crazy triple pickups. I have her picture in my office; I go back and forth between her and Prince. Right now, I have Prince.
What do you want listeners to feel when listening to your new album, and what was your favorite song to record for this album?
Well, I’ll answer the second part first. “4 am” is the song I am closest to because it says a lot about me sharing what I was going through at the time. I was on the other side of the world in Latvia, a long way from home, and I remember not being able to sleep. One night, I got a drink and some tea, set up my tablet, and just wrote about what was happening around me.
I want to encourage conversation around people expressing what we go through. I want to use my voice and music to show the experience we went through to finish this project. I want this album to remind people of the healing that music can bring. I hope these songs remind people of their humanity.
Do you have any wisdom for artists navigating the music business?
Hmm, where to start? It could be that; just start. Don’t wait until you think you have enough songs or know enough about your instrument or voice if you’re waiting. What are you waiting for? Be true to what you say as a songwriter, and when you’re on stage in front of people that can feel that truth. And I know it’s hard, I know it has been for me, but learn to be present through creating a musical experience that will bring people together.
You’ve been in the industry for over 25 years and are being honored with a Hollywood star. What does this acknowledgment mean to you?
Well, I’m shocked and honored. It feels validating for me and the city of Austin. I also know whose shoulders I’m standing on and the many artists who aren’t on that sidewalk (particularly artists of color). I appreciate it, but I also want to be respectful to the many Austin artists who should be recognized in this way. I appreciate Paramount recognizing my commitment to using music as a form of unity.
What keeps music alive in you, and how do you keep up the momentum to write songs?
There’s always a story to be told, that’s for sure. I have my days just like everyone else, where I walk right past my studio room, and I’m okay with that because it’s essential to live life. I’m reminded of that every day through my daughter. It’s a blessing to have a young person in your life to remind you of that. A lot is going on out there, and she reminds me to get out there. That lived experience is where many of my songs come from. I keep the wonderment in my everyday life, stay curious about everything, and just keep learning. And the more I do that, the more I want to create. It’s that circle. You have to give to get, and then it starts over again.
Healing Time Tracklist:
1) Soul Searching
2) Lie Your Way to the Truth
3) What Kind of Fool
4) I Was Called
6) Don’t Want to Give Up on You
7) Healing Time
8) For You
9) Love Is the Answer
10) Finish Line
11) Feels Like Freedom
12) 4 AM
~ By Guitar Gabby, Jennale Adams, and Fayola Waithe