Grammy-nominated singer Ruthie Foster’s last appearance on an Austin stage before the coronavirus pandemic hit was on Feb. 22 at the Paramount Theatre as part of a salute to T-Bone Walker during the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association’s annual Hall of Fame show. Family members of the East Texas blues legend, who died in 1975, watched with joy as the powerhouse vocalist sang Walker’s best-known tune, “They Call It Stormy Monday,” to a packed house that roared its appreciation.
It was a transcendent moment of live music just a couple of weeks before such concerts disappeared for an indefinite period as the pandemic took hold in mid-March. When Foster’s new big-band live album — recorded at the same downtown Austin theater a year earlier — surfaced a few weeks ago, it served as a welcome reminder of music’s power as a conduit of emotion between audience and performer. A stellar cast of 18 musicians joined Foster onstage, providing the kind of support she enjoyed when she toured with a Navy band in the 1980s.
For this occasional series, What We Need to Hear, we spoke to Foster in late May about the album, and about how she’s enduring the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken her off the road at a time when she would have been on tour to promote the album. (“Live at the Paramount” has sold well, topping the Billboard blues charts in its first week of release.)
American-Statesman: What do you recall about the recording of the live album at the Paramount in January 2019?
Ruthie Foster: I remember a lot of buzz backstage because we had a pretty full band with us back there. And the Paramount is a lot like home; I've done a lot of shows there, so I'm very comfortable with that stage and the room. Getting that many people in one group in one place was kind of crazy and electrifying at the same time. … And then having to quick-change, too, because I changed from one outfit to a gown toward the end of the show, and that added a little chaos to the backstage.
Musically, I’d done similar shows back in the ’80s when I was with the Navy band. So it's not new to me, it's just something I hadn't done in a long time. Just getting the chance to do my own songs with a large band like that was huge for me. Getting to hear that much brass behind these tunes kind of breathed new life into the songs. On the frequency spectrum, it just kind of broadened the sound a little bit, and I loved that.
Listening to your live album now brings on almost a bittersweet sense of joy, hearing the sounds of a packed theater responding to the music. Is it that way for you as well?
Yeah, it is, because right now, what COVID-19 has done to live music is basically shut us down. In fact, I was just in here practicing to my own music just now, just to remind myself, “Oh, yeah, I do know how to do this.” But it was time for another live album, and I wanted it to be somewhere special, so the Paramount just made sense. I’ve done a live album before, over at Antone’s, and that was fun too.
What has been taking up your time and attention during the pandemic?
Well, I’m still recording. Me and my band are all sending songs back and forth right now. We all have home studios, or some equivalent of something we can record on. So we're writing right now, just with each other. A lot of work that I do is at home, dropping in vocals for outside projects too.
I find myself being more of an engineer and a singer on some days, because I’ve changed my music software. It's been a big learning curve for me the last couple of years, actually. But since we've all been shut in, it gives me a chance to really dig in and learn the digital workstation. So that's one way I've been spending my time.
I also have a 9-year-old who’s got online schooling, and so I’m trying to learn third-grade math (laughs). Or relearn third-grade math. The kids have a totally different way of doing math now that makes absolutely no sense to me, but it's the way they do it.
I get to spend a lot more time on the phone talking to my dad. He lives over in East Texas still. And just touching base with my family, even by phone or Zoom, or we FaceTime each other. That's been really great, actually.
(The pandemic) has created a lot more ways for me and my daughter to interact. Because I'm not home a lot (ordinarily) — but here I am, I’m home now. So we have to be creative in ways we entertain each other and ourselves. I pulled out one of my old amplifiers and we turned that into a karaoke machine. So she can sing when she wants to.
She also is starting to play piano. She's in my studio playing piano quite a bit. She’ll disappear on me and she'll be in there learning something. We've tried to learn a few songs together, and that's always fun. … It’s been really fun for us to get a chance to cook together and put on some music and sing and just dance it out. It gives me a chance to be a real mom, and I'm getting a real kick out of that. I can interact with it without it being over the phone or on a laptop somewhere.
What have been the most difficult aspects of the pandemic?
I think it's been the fact that I'm not working, but I can't go visit my dad. That part is hard. Usually, when I'm off the road is when I get a chance to go be with my family. So that's the double-whammy here — not being able to work, but also not being able to go and sit in the same room with my dad. He’s having to isolate himself, because he's older; he’s 83 this year. I can tell when he gets a little blue, when we get a chance to be on the phone. We talk about his animals. He's got his back 40 where he's got rabbits and goats and horses. He gets a chance to be outside, but not a lot of visiting. He wasn't able to go to church, and that was a big deal for him and my stepmom, to not be able to gather to even go to church for so long.
Do you see things changing for your situation as a touring musician anytime soon?
I’m proceeding with caution. Most of my shows are canceled up until mid-July, and I'm just not feeling real confident about getting on a plane to head to a festival. That part makes me a little hesitant. Every week is something different. I do know that things are opening up, but I'm not sure how safe I feel about that. Because that's all I did was travel, up until this point. It's been a blessing in some ways; I'm getting a chance to rest my body, and rest my throat as a singer. But I just don't know if I feel that sure about going out in the next month or so, considering there's a chance of another rise (in coronavirus cases). I don't want to get sick, and I don't want to bring it home to my family on top of that. It’s all pretty much wait and see. … Until then, there's always Facebook livestreams. And as you know, a lot of musicians are putting together concerts, which is great to see. I did one on my own, and I've been a participant in several in the last couple of months, just to get a little bit of PR for the CD. But I'm hopeful that things will open up, and hopefully in a safe manner.
What advice would you have to others about getting through the pandemic?
Well, I know what I've done, and it's really about using the time to not just reflect but to be at home. I love being in my home. For me, it's about finding things that I haven't had a chance to do, and that's cook. I think it's a great time to kind of rediscover yourself, and do some of the things you've always wanted to do — study a language, just do something.
For me, music is everything. I'm discovering my album collection. I'd forgotten I had vinyl, so it's been great just putting on a record while I cook and have a glass of wine and prep for my dinner. So, yeah, I think it's just about really rediscovering things that you like and may have forgotten about.
It’s really just about being grateful. It really is. Grateful for what's in front of you and what's around you. And you realize you’ve got plenty. We have plenty.
The other thing is checking in on friends. We’re realizing, “Hey, I've got this person's number, let me just give them a shout.” I’m always concerned about those who are by themselves and separated from their families. Because this thing caught a lot of people, especially musicians, in other places, and even in other countries. … And the old people, like my dad; some of these folks just need to be checked in on. I think it's important to do that. Just a quick phone call; it doesn't have to be a drawn-out thing. That's what keeps a lot of people from even picking up the phone. You're thinking it's going to take so much time, but it's just really about saying, “Hey, I was thinking about you and I just wanted to check in on you.”
Have you been spending more time indoors, or outdoors?
I do a little bit of both. I'm supposed to go walk down to my mailbox today, and that usually turns into a long walk for me. I have a really nice neighborhood out here; I live in San Marcos, so I've got plenty of space to walk around. I've got a couple of bikes, so me and Maya, my daughter, we go out and we ride.
I'm in my workout clothes now because that's something I try to do every day, or at least every other day, is move, or at least get on the floor and stretch. Because it's really important for your mood and everything. It's important to get some sunshine.
What do you most look forward to doing when concerns about the pandemic have eased?
I miss travel. And not necessarily travel with music. I miss that somewhat, but that can be very stressful. Just being able to travel, to go somewhere, as a vacation — I kind of miss that. And to visit with my family, to actually be able to go and sit and laugh in the same room with my sister and my brother over in the College Station area. We visit on the phone, but it'd be great to just sit in the same room and laugh together, and cook.
You’ve mentioned cooking a couple of times. What sorts of things have you been cooking?
I'm adventurous. I'm looking into different recipes. Today I was trying to figure out if I want to make salmon burgers or, I’ve just gotten into gnocchi, so I'm trying to figure out if I want to make something with that. I order all my groceries online now, so I can order according to the recipe I want to check out. I'll have all of these new groceries that I'm not used to using in my refrigerator, so it makes me use them for the recipe. So I'm experimenting. It’s been a lot of fun. And once in a while I’ll bring out the Crock-Pot and just do a regular pot of beans. That's awesome too. It makes the house smell good.
Any final thoughts?
The thing I try to remember for myself — especially when I start getting a little antsy, which is really easy to do in these times — is just to remember that I am enough, and I have enough. That's really it. It’s very simple, but brings me back to center: I am enough, and I have enough.
And listening to music really helps. So I try to remind everybody to keep the music playing, no matter what.