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Ruthie Foster creates modern classics out of classic songs on new 'Let It Burn'

Peter Mongillo
On her new album, 'Let It Burn,' Austin singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster covers pop hits and classics, from the Black Keys' 'Everlasting Light' to Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire,' and puts her signature on each one. An all-star cast of musicians backs her up.

The cast of players on Ruthie Foster's new album, "Let It Burn," which is out this week, brings to mind stories about classic albums where the stars align to bring some untold number of insanely good musicians into the studio at the same time. Think Duane Allman tearing up the walls on "Layla," or Dylan and the Band recording "The Basement Tapes."

Foster's version of the story starts last summer in New Orleans with producer John Chelew, known for his work with John Hiatt, among others, and a core group of musicians: bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Russell Batiste, you know, the rhythm section for the Funky Meters. Guitarist Dave Easley, James Rivers on sax. And then there's organist Ike Stubblefield — the Ike Stubblefield, whose résumé reads like a history of popular music since 1965: the Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Eric Clapton — you get the point.

And that's just the band. Foster's cover of William Bell's iconic "You Don't Miss Your Water" turned into a duet with the songwriter himself when the soul legend stopped in to check things out and got into what Foster was doing with the song. Foster's take, a slow, bluesy number that injects the bass line from Miles Davis' "All Blues" from "Kind of Blue," turned out to be something Bell liked.

"We weren't sure he was even going to sing, he just came down to see what was happening with the tune," Foster said of Bell's visit. "It's one of those things where it's his tune, and you want him to hear what you're doing with it, and he ended up wanting to sing with me, and that was beautiful."

And there's more. The Blind Boys of Alabama showed up, too, to lend their voices to a few songs, including the Foster-penned "Lord Remember Me," a stirring gospel number where haunting opening vocals give way to low-down blues. According to Foster, the Blind Boys are a rowdy bunch.

"When the Blind Boys walk into a room, the room changes," she said, laughing.

With the all-star cast in place, Foster offers up covers of pop hits — Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain," the Black Keys' "Everlasting Light" — alongside classics, including David Crosby's "Long Time Gone," "Ring of Fire," "If I Had a Hammer," and a couple of her own. Big songs, in many cases are hard to separate from the performers who made them famous. Foster finds a way.

It's been a long road for the singer-songwriter, who took the time to talk in the studio of her South Austin home a few weeks ago in between tour stops. A keyboard (of the musical variety) sits in front of a computer, and guitars hang from the wall. Foster, 47, is comfortable there, with her partner, Katie, and their 8-month-old daughter, Maya.

"Let It Burn" is Foster's fourth studio album (plus a couple of live recordings) since 2002's "Runaway Soul" put her on the map, at least in Austin. Before that, it was College Station, where she settled in the mid-'90s to help care for her mother. The move back to Texas came after a stint in the Navy, where she played in the Navy band, and time in New York, where a major-label deal didn't work out. After a break from music and a job at a local television station, Foster found her way into Austin's music scene when a musician friend asked her to fill in at a Sunday brunch gig run by Papa Mali at Shaggy's.

"They had this great Jamaican jerk chicken," Foster said. "Scrappy Jud (Newcomb) was there, Frosty (Smith) was on drums, they had different people come in and out. I started kind of hanging out a little bit more and staying for the weekend. The musicians here really supported each other like no other place I had played music, and I said 'that's the place I want to be.'"

About that time she started attending the Kerrville Folk Festival, which Foster points to as a sea change for her career.

Festival founder "Rod Kennedy still believes I signed up for the new folk competition. I never signed up for new folk. I just went camping," Foster said. "I would go to the camp sites and my friend I was with, she would carry the lawn chairs, I would carry the guitar, and we would sit in the little circle, and she would say: 'OK, you're going to start playing when this guy is done. You'll be fine.' This weird thing happened, where some of the songwriters just walked off, which is kind of what happens when you're new, and then some came back, and then I went to a different camp site, and another one, and finally I got an invitation to sing at the blues project at Kerrville, and that was it."

Over the past decade, Foster has steadily increased her visibility with 2002's "Runaway Soul," 2007's "The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster," and 2009's "The Truth According to Ruthie Foster," which garnered her a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues album.

Two years and a long tour removed from her last album, Foster was itching to get back in the studio. She decided to record in New Orleans with Chelew, whom she met through her management.

"I love his record collection," Foster said. "He was sending me all of these MP3s of songwriters I wasn't familiar with. He sent 'Everlasting Light,' and he told me, 'Don't even think about how they're doing it, because what I have in mind, I want to do something different with it.' "

Chelew also suggested that Foster do something she hadn't done before: Put down the guitar. On tour, she'll be playing with her band, but in the studio, all she did was sing, which she said was a welcome change.

"It gave me a chance to just sit and focus on my voice, how I wanted to phrase, and then just shut my mind down," Foster said. "I wanted to not think about the tunes once we picked the songs."

The added focus paid off for Foster. She put her own stamp on the songs that appear on "Let It Burn," despite the fame of the other versions. It's a particularly impressive feat on "Ring of Fire," one of the few songs on the album that Foster arranged herself before meeting with Chelew. On it, she transforms Johnny Cash's brimstone mariachi into a tender, soulful love song. For Foster, the ring of the song is passion and not its sometime tumultuous aftermath.

"I was playing keys in the middle of the night, trying to be quiet because I didn't want to disturb my neighbors, and the fist line of the song came to me — 'Love is a burning thing,' " she said. "I think it focuses on the love affair between June Carter and Johnny Cash."

A similar change happens on "Everlasting Light" — Foster smooths out some of rougher edges of the Black Keys in order to recreate the song.

"I didn't want to just send her songs from the '60, '70s and '80s," Chelew said of his choice to include Adele and the Black Keys. "I wanted to find a couple of songs that were very, very fresh, that were currently being played on the radio."

Chelew's fingerprints are all over the album, twists and turns, like the Miles Davis bass line on "You Don't Miss Your Water," that give the songs a new perspective. One way he accomplished that was by letting the musicians jam in the studio; he also admitted a little bit of overwork helped make everything gel.

"I like to burn everybody out, and get everyone really exhausted," he said. "That kind of creates a nice tension; people are tired, you kind of click in to some kind of almost magical power to keep going."

No matter how fast and how hard they worked, however, Foster was always in control, Chelew said.

"I had to get my integrity way up to be in the room with Ruthie," he said. "She is the real deal. She's very in the moment; she's very focused."

pmongillo@statesman.com