may 2008

Radney Foster In ’08:

Behind the Board, On the Boards

By David McGee


Photo: Ron Baker

It’s been more than two years since Radney Foster, one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation, has released a new solo album, and another year may yet pass before a new RF long player surfaces.

But Foster’s low profile should not be mistaken for inactivity, or lack of inspiration, or even a well-earned sabbatical. In fact, last year found his songs showing up on CDs by six different artists (Brooks & Dunn, Gary Allan, Marc Broussard, Jack Ingram, Brandon Rhyder and on greatest hits collections from Keith Urban and Sara Evans), and he produced two studio tracks for Brandon Rhyder’s live album, as well as co-writing a single off the album.

As Spring hits its stride in 2008, so is Foster accelerating the pace of his own activity. May 6 saw the release of Dierks Bentley’s likely blockbuster greatest hits collection (Greatest Hits/Every Mile a Memory 2003-2006), which includes a new Foster-Jay Clement co-write, “Sweet & Wild,” a captivating, densely textured midtempo celebration of love's sensual pleasures, aided and abetted by the always captivating Sarah Buxton adding a flesh-and-blood companion vocal to Bentley’s measured lead. It’s one of the most affecting songs Bentley’s ever cut, and rightly earns its place on a greatest hits collection even before it’s a hit.

He’s also adding more producer credits to his resume, having completed work on a new album for fall release by the Randy Rogers Band, a Texas group that Foster says is blessed by “a fantastic fiddle player named Brady Black, who cut his teeth learning from the great Johnny Gimble.” Now he’s in the midst of producing half the tracks for the next album by Jack Ingram, an artist whose career has gathered a lot of momentum in the past year or so and has a good vibe around it now.

“He’s poised,” Foster told in speaking about the Ingram project. “You know, there’s a strange thing that happens in everybody’s career. And it doesn’t matter what genre you’re talking about, either, be it bluegrass, or pop, Americana or anything in between, there’s this certain magical thing about the right song at the right place at the right time. That’s the only way I know how to put it. It touches a nerve with people. How you watch someone like Nanci Griffith meeting Julie Gold and finding a song. And Nanci’s a fine songwriter in her own right, but finding ‘From a Distance,’ it took her into a whole other world. Jack’s had some great success, and we’re looking for that piece of magic. You don’t know what style it will be, what it means or anything. You just try to make it the best you can, but you’re always searching for that little piece of magic that will touch somebody’s heart.”

Talk of Ingram the artist touched a nerve with Foster, who regards him as “the real deal” after seeing Ingram’s focus and dedication up close and personal. “The biggest compliment I can give Jack is that he is constantly opening to learning new things every step of the way,” Foster says. “He’s one of those guys who, if he’s gonna be a performer, he wants to be as good as he possibly can; if he wants to be a writer he’s gonna set the bar mighty high. He and I have known each other a long time and have written a couple of songs together before this. The moment he approached me about the possibility of doing this, I jumped at the chance. I think highly of the young man.”

Foster is quick to point out, though, that he’s turned producer out of his high regard for the artists who requested his services, rather than seeking a new career path. “I tell people all the time, every time I’ve ever tried to do something for money, it’s blown up in my face. And every time I’ve just done something that’s real creative and that I loved, it’s worked out pretty good. So the production thing, I really do try to limit it to somebody I’m really interested in working with. It just so happened that I had two or three of those fall in my lap at once.”

At which point he confides how he’s heavy into writing material for a new album, and over the next couple of months is going to be trying out some of the new songs live, accompanied only by one of his favorite guitarists, Eric Borash, a name familiar to Foster fans. “Maybe 10 shows this spring, and some band shows down in Texas and Louisiana in June,” he says of the plan. “Then I’m probably done. I’ll be in the studio and at home in July and August. I think we go out late August and into September, doing some more shows. In the summer, during that down time, I’m going to be writing for the next record, then I think we’ll start in working on that in the fall, probably have it out first part of next year.”

Those fortunate enough to catch one of these pared-down showcases will have a rare opportunity to hear new tunes as works-in-progress in what Foster calls “the testing process”—so much so that during a recent performance in Birmingham, AL, he had to fire up his laptop on stage and retrieve the lyrics. “The front row about fell out,” he recalls of the audience reaction to him needing a little help with his own song. “They couldn’t believe I was doing that. ‘Wait a second. Let me get the lyrics up on this thing so I can sing it to you.’”

And how is he fleshing out the repertoire for these solo gigs?

“Oh, we’ll do an old Foster & Lloyd song to things from the new record, and everything in between,” he says. “And somebody’s liable to yell something and I’ll say, ‘Okay, I haven’t played that song in fifteen years, but here goes!’ At which point Eric says, ‘Well, I think I’ll go take a smoke break while you do that.’

“We’ll give it our best,” he vows.

Catch him while you can.


Radney Foster

Seemingly re-energized on his compelling 2002 album, Another Way to Go, pioneering New Traditionalist Radney Foster (formerly one-half of the influential country-pop duo Foster & Lloyd) returns nearly three years later with a report from the interior, chronicling mating rituals and the telltale markers of new love, all described with an open heart and a worn but resilient psyche. And though he's engaged some top-drawer West Coast rockers for instrumental support (who provide a fresh edge that references traditional rock, pop and country, sometimes all in the same song), whenever Foster applies his clear, warm tenor to a lyric, it comes out country soul any way you cut it. Lyrically, Foster and his co-writers address love a-borning and the first physical and metaphysical stirrings of passion with Kristofferson-like explicitness-witness "Sweet and Wild," a song built on terse images and tense rhythms, with Foster's measured but urgent reading beautifully buttressed by Sarah Buxton's gritty, blue-eyed soul counterpoint. In the lilting, low-key "The Kindness of Strangers," Foster details, in direct, unambiguous terms, how the wages of sin (a prostitute's fee)) help a lonely man get through the turmoil of divorce, when "love's turned to rust," a tale made doubly eerie by the presence of mournful violins and Emily West's Enya-like cooing wafting over a soundscape dominated by a lone drum's heartbeat thump. A different take on a drinking song comes by way of "Half of My Mistakes," which features a searing, fuzzed-out guitar solo and Foster and Kim Richey recounting a series of bad judgments made while "stone cold sober," leading to "a lot of good things in my life." A master craftsman and literate to the hilt, Foster makes those O. Henry turnarounds seem as routine as breathing, and as surprising as the persistence of love itself.—David McGee

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