The earliest professional blues musicians led itinerant lives, crisscrossing the South to ply their trade by putting a personal spin on traditional blues refrains and the popular songs of the day. About a century later, not much has changed, though the territory covered by working blues artists now encompasses most of the globe.
Saturday's 32nd Annual Metro Fountain Blues Festival, which returns to St. James Park in San Jose for the second year after decamping from its longtime home at San Jose State, features a disparate roster of musicians, including Elvin Bishop, Canned Heat and Ruthie Foster.
As Foster explains, the musicians pretty much are all acquainted with each other through life on the road (or the high seas, so some things have changed). She met the great Chicago blues guitarists John Primer and Lurrie Bell, who perform Saturday as part of the Chicago Blues Guitar Shootout, on a blues cruise, "and they were tearing it up," Foster says.
"Elvin and I also had a chance to talk briefly in a hallway on a ship in the middle of the Caribbean on a blues cruise. I went to most of his shows. I dig his spirit, and I dig that rawness. (When) I finally caught him coming offstage ... he mentioned he'd been watching me, and that we should do something together. Hopefully, that will happen."
Foster, the winner of Blues Music Awards in 2010 and 2011 for traditional blues female artist of the year, also performs Thursday at Yoshi's Oakland.
At the festival and at Yoshi's, she will perform with her potent working band; on the album, she assembled an all-star combo in New Orleans, featuring Hammond B3 organ great Ike Stubblefield, pedal steel guitarist Dave Easley and Crescent City masters George Porter Jr. (bassist of the Meters), drummer Russell Batiste and saxophonist James Rivers. The most striking collaboration is with the Blind Boys, who provide soul-stirring vocals on four tracks.
"I love the combination of the men's voices," Foster says by phone from her home in Austin, Texas, where she has lived for the past decade. "My grandmother had five brothers; I grew up with them singing in church. It was a huge part of my training."
Foster's magnificent voice -- a full, rich contralto -- sounds in particularly good form no matter what kind of song she's singing. In concert, she usually accompanies herself on guitar or keyboards, but the album gave her the rare opportunity to focus exclusively on vocals.
What's most striking about "Let It Burn" is the way Foster envelops a huge swath of music, suffusing each piece with her own sense of soul. She covers Los Lobos ("This Time"), The Band ("It Makes No Difference"), Johnny Cash ("Ring of Fire") and David Crosby ("Long Time Gone"); she even infuses the blues into the Weavers anthem "If I Had a Hammer."
She says, "I love Los Lobos; they represent cool as far as I'm concerned. I've been listening to them for years, and I've actually done a few things with them. And 'Ring of Fire' is a staple of American music. Johnny Cash one of my absolute favorites."
Raised in a musical family in central Texas, Foster graduated with a degree in commercial music from McLennan Community College in Waco. Instead of pursuing a career as a singer, she enlisted in the Navy, where she ended up working as an aviation storekeeper with a helicopter squad. When her commanding officer heard her sing at a Christmas party, Foster was quickly recruited for a Navy band.
Stationed in Charleston, S.C., the 15-piece combo played a little of everything, from Top-40 hits and jazz standards to Sousa marches. She studied Ella Fitzgerald to learn how to phrase singing over a surging big band. By the time she left the service, Foster had spent several years rehearsing daily with a stellar cast of players.
Her first civilian gig was at the Soft Rock Cafe in Charleston, a former strip joint run by an eccentric owner who often threatened to return the club to its raunchy past when business got slow. He made Foster the stage manager, and she had to contend "with all kind of characters walking in. But it gave me a chance to do a lot of writing."
These days, Foster strips songs down to their essentials, revealing the deep vein of blues that connects so much American music.