The one thing you can count on from Ruthie Foster anytime she steps onto a stage is being blown away by both her powerhouse voice and her familial warmth.
On Friday night at the intimate Eddie’s Attic, the Texas singer-songwriter brought the standing room only crowd into her embrace, holding them gently in her grip like a long-lost cousin for almost two hours of song and story.
Foster has a presence onstage that makes you feel good about the world. Her music – which melds gospel, blues, folk, country, Americana – is somewhat of a melting pot, much like the crowds her shows draw.
“I’m country y’all,” she told fans, adding that she was influenced early in life by country music – from the Conway Twitty 45s she received from an uncle when she got her first record player for Christmas, to the country radio stations she listened to in rural Texas because those stations had the strongest frequency signals.
“I love that I have that in my background,” said Foster, a natural storyteller whose personality is down-to-earth, personable and funny.
It’s a shame that more of the world doesn’t know of Ruthie Foster, who’s been making music since the late ’90s, but got her big break in 2007 with “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster,” a debut album that lived up to its name with the unforgettable “Phenomenal Woman” (an audience request that she sang flawlessly), “Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)” and “Heal Yourself.”
But for Friday’s show, much of the night belonged to Foster’s new album “Let It Burn,” which she recorded in New Orleans with musicians from the Funky Meters rhythm section along with Ike Stubblefield of Hammond B3. The set included Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” with a soulful, bluesy twist and a stirring rendition of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.”
“Aim for the Heart,” a funky tune Foster initially pitched to Bonnie Raitt, who pitched it back, helped put the night in motion. It’s easy to see why Foster has no hurt feelings about Raitt not taking it as her own. “That was wee bit funkier than we thought it could be,” Foster declared after the song. “I need a smoke after that.”
Her newest project also features several tunes with gospel’s Blind Boys of Alabama and a duet with soul legend William Bell. While the Blind Boys weren’t on hand to help with “Long Time Gone” or the soul-stirring spiritual “The Titanic,” Bell, who lives here in Atlanta, made the night extra special when he came onstage to lend a hand to “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a tune he recorded for his debut album with Stax Records some five decades ago.
Foster, who gushes about her opportunity to sing with Bell, says she got so caught up during the recording session that she forgot to sing her part. Friday’s performance was their first time singing the song together live. There was no forgetfulness this time around, with Foster and Bell transcending time with the 1960s classic and with Foster belting out a voice that could easily be mistaken for that of Aretha Franklin.
The band, which Foster describes as three women and a fellow, also features cousin Tanya Richardson on bass guitar (and violin), Samantha Banks on drums (and tambourine and, yes, spoons) along with Scottie Miller on keyboards (and mandolin). Miller, who Foster says she met while on tour with Bo Diddley, more than held his own with the girls, treating fans to Sunday morning church-rousing playing one moment and a powerful blues jazz mix the next.
Opening the show was Atlanta’s own singer/songwriter Kevin Jackson of Jackson County Line. Jackson had the audience sitting at attention with his smooth, velvety voice even as he fought back effects from a week of heavy pollen. But it was what Jackson called a “song with a message” that left a big emotional impression. Jackson said it seemed appropriate to perform “Jackson County Line,” a song he wrote about racial profiling, given all that was happening in Florida. It’s a sweet but solemn tune with an infectious melody and lyrics that talk of crossing the county line only “to find a place I should not be.”