To get the right sound for the title track of Joy Comes Back, her eighth album for Blue Corn Music, Ruthie Foster went all the way back — to the tone and spirit of the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, the small house of worship in Caldwell, Texas, that had nurtured her sound and her soul from the very beginning.
"We were the choir, my uncles were preachers, my grandma was one of the matriarchs," Foster says. "I had an uncle who played piano. It brings back a feeling of family, a sense of fellowship."
While working on Joy Comes Back, she felt the need to refresh herself at that wellspring. The three-time Best Blues Album nominee was separated from her partner, splitting custody of her 5-year-old daughter. She'd been living out of a suitcase on the road a little too long. So she parked herself at home in Austin and recorded with producer Daniel Barrett, her former neighbor ("I could go home after recording and be with my kid, have a meal with friends," she says), and tapped into that old-time feeling.
She did that literally in "Joy Comes Back," a warm, easy-rocking slice of gospel soul shot through with Derek Trucks' blissful slide guitar. Back at New Hope, she'd remarked to Barnett, percussion for the choir came from heels tapping on the well-worn wooden floors. So the producer miked his oak floors, went across the way to a neighbor's and borrowed a couple of pairs of high-heeled shoes. He hit record, and Barrett and Foster stomped and clacked on the beat. For the video, Foster and her daughter and friends headed to the church at Willie Nelson's ranch and shared what gave them joy.
Written by Boston folkie Sean Staples with some lyrical tweaks from Foster, "Joy Comes Back" rumbles along with the kind of deep-roots gospel tenor that makes it sound as if it's been buoying up hearts for generations. The lyrics — "I want to be ready when joy comes back to me" — are, after all, sort of the essence of faith and what faith is for: the acknowledgement of hardship and weariness, with true resolve that relief is coming. The rhythm rolls steadfastly forward, a slow trek toward a sure destination, with Trucks' guitar soaring above. The question isn't if the joy is coming back, but when.
"That has a lot to do with how I grew up," Foster says. "Not necessarily in the religious sense, but just knowing that things will turn. 'Joy Comes Back' was a song I connected to because I know things get better with time. You put your intentions out there and stand your ground, and know that good times and joy are on the way."