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WHILE watching documentaries on the US civil rights movement recently, Ruthie Foster remembered how she once had to use the back door at the homes of white people in her Texas town.

”As black people, we couldn’t just walk into any place,” the singer says.

She talks of her regard for veteran Pete Seeger, co-writer of If I Had a Hammer, the protest song she covers on her latest album, Let it Burn, and folk singer Odetta and says, ”I think that is part of why I stick with the folk acoustic guitar for what I do.”

Foster, who is on her fourth tour of Australia (this time with a bassist, drummer and Hammond B3 organist) has been hailed as heir to a gospel tradition that produced Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Mavis Staples.

”I was a kid at the music school who was listening to those reel-to-reel tapes that no one else was listening to,” Foster says and recalls her particular attention to Ella Fitzgerald and Franklin, ”because I was just studying the way that these people phrased”.

Inspired by her mother, she sang gospel in churches and thrilled at the voices of ”guy groups” she associates with the Blind Boys of Alabama, who accompany her on four of the 13 tracks on Let it Burn.

But she also took to music from across what some might regard as the racial divide. ”Some of the first few records I got on 45s were Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn,” Foster says.

Foster, who once worked as a US Navy helicopter aviation storekeeper, has eclectic taste. On Let it Burn, she sings songs she has written or arranged, as well as other songs associated with artists including Johnny Cash, the Band, the Black Keys and Adele. Producer John Chelew introduced her to the work of the late John Martyn and she says she ”wanted to record at least three of his songs … but I had to do one”.

Let it Burn was her second album nominated for a Grammy after The Truth According to Ruthie Foster in 2009. But though it missed out, she celebrated regardless after the ceremony in Los Angeles. ”I was given a chance to see people that I admire. People like Tony Bennett just walking around and saying ‘hi’ to you. That was huge for me.”

Memphis great William Bell surprised her when he decided to sing with her on his soul classic You Don’t Miss Your Water at recording sessions in New Orleans for the 2012 album.

”I was just really enamoured with his presence and taken aback by his phrasing [which] is just monstrous,” Foster says. ”It’s right up there with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, to me. It’s not so much what these people sing; it’s just how they sing it.”

Ruthie Foster and her band are at The Theatre Royal in Castlemaine on March 15, Meeniyan Town Hall on March 16 and The Corner Hotel on March 17.

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