By Rob Patterson
It’s almost ironic to think of Radney Foster as a musical veteran even after close to 20 years of making records, first with Foster & Lloyd and then as a solo artist, as well as writing songs recorded by Nashville stars like Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney, Brooks and Dunn and Sara Evans. Yeah, his hair may be graying, but he still boasts boyish good looks as well as a youthful exuberance in his records and performances. And he remains on the cutting edge creatively, no more so than on his latest album, The World We Live In. Since Foster & Lloyd first came on the radio in 1987 with hits like “Crazy Over You,” “Sure Thing,” and “What Do You Want From Me This Time” as well as one of Foster’s signature songs, “Texas in 1880,” he’s been one of the leading lights in bringing quality rock and pop influences into contemporary country without forsaking the music’s roots.
His 1992 solo debut on Arista Nashville, Del Rio, Texas, 1959, proved his continuing chart appeal with four Top 40 country singles, including “Just Call Me Lonesome” and — another one of his signature numbers — “Nobody Wins,” which hit No. 2. After scoring a creative triumph in 1999 with See What You Want to See, Foster left the major label realm for the feisty Music City independent label Dualtone, where he continues to prosper, albeit in a different realm. The Del Rio native has also been one of the biggest Nashville boosters for young Texas artists like Pat Green and Cory Morrow, who he has written songs with, and the Randy Rogers Band, who he has produced two albums for.
In recent years his songwriting may have displayed a touch of gooey romanticism, the natural result of being a happily married family man. And such numbers on The World We Live In as “Drunk On Love” (which recasts the old drinking song theme into a love song), the provocative “The Kindness Of Strangers” (which finds tenderness in an encounter between a prostitute and her client) and his personal retrospective “Half Of My Mistakes” tell it like it is with a literate honesty that’s the mark of a great songwriter. And the music on the album puts the rock accent on country-rock in a way that continues to show, just as he did with Foster & Lloyd, how country can go modern and hip without sacrificing its soul. He’s an artist who can work within commercial country, alternative country, the singer-songwriter world and the Texas music movement without missing a beat — the mark of a genuine creative artist and innovator.
The World We Live In sounds like one of your finest albums to date. What was behind your thinking as you went into making it?
It was a lot of fun to make, and I tend to write a bunch of songs, but then try to weed through them and figure out what I think makes a record that makes sense. I don’t known if they’re necessarily related to a theme. You say “themed record” and all of a sudden people get bent out of shape. But you want it to make sense, and you want it to go from one end of the continent to the other.
But there does seem to be a love theme that threads through the album, right?
There are three songs that sum up the total of what this is about. One would be “Half of My Mistakes.” It’s really a song about growing up even though love is a particular theme in that. It is what gets you through when you screw up, and when you don’t, and how you look back on it, all those kinds of things. And then there’s “Drunk On Love,” that’s pretty self-explanatory. Then you’ve got things like “Fools That Dream” — that’s really a love song too.
And then there’s “The Kindness Of Strangers,” which my wife says is downright creepy. You know when you’ve done something right or wrong and you’re not sure which it is? Right after I wrote that song, I did just a little me and my guitar demo in my basement studio. And I burned a CD of and gave it to my wife and said, honey, when you’re running errands today listen to this thing and see what you think. And she called me a couple of hours later and she was crying. And I was like, oh my God, honey, are you okay? I thought maybe she had an accident or something. And she said, yes, I’m okay, but no I’m not. I’m sitting here crying and I have no idea who for — whether it’s the guy or the whore or who. I don’t know what to think. I’m just unbelievably moved by the darn thing. And I thought, okay, I did my job.
You venture into some risky territory on that number.
I think we do incredibly kind and incredibly stupid things during those points of emotional desperation in our lives. Both of those people in the song at the same time are doing incredibly kind and yet incredibly stupid things, and they’re all covered up in it. Ain’t nobody clean. But they both end up being incredibly kind to one another.
I sense a lot of humanity on this record. Is that a result of being grown up and being in a happy and secure relationship, and maybe it gives you the security to explore these sorts of things?
I think so. I certainly wouldn’t have written “Half of My Mistakes” when I was 25 years old. You didn’t think you made any yet.
Or if you did, you really enjoyed them and wanted to do them again.
Yeah. You’d only get half the song. And I think writing that song “Never Gonna Fly” with Jack Ingram was a real treat, because we both talked about how you have to think of yourself as completely bulletproof and that you’re gonna be the next Elvis by the time you’re 21 to do this in the first place. Because if you knew how hard it was, you’d never get involved in the first place.
Every song on here but one is co-written with another writer. You’re so well-known as a songwriter, but are you also able to also put your ego aside and just choose the best songs for the album even if you didn’t write them all yourself?
If you look back on most of my records, they fall into the 50/50 range most of the time between ones I write myself and the ones I co-write. But I don’t think about which is which when I try to figure out the best 10 or 12 songs to go on a record. I couldn’t care whether it was me or an entire committee that wrote the thing as long as it expresses what I need to express. It just turned out that this time around, more of them were co-writes than ones I wrote on my own. I’ve also had albums where there were more that I wrote on my own than with other people. But I don’t really think about that. And just as a matter of course, looking from year to year, I probably co-write two-thirds of the time and write on my one one-third of the time. That’s sort of my M.O. — I tend to me the guy who, if I’m not in the studio, I’m touring on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and writing songs of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. And trying to figure out how to see my family in between.
Darrell Brown, who co-produced this album with you, co-wrote a lot of songs on it. Was he very influential on how it turned out?
He is one of my best co-writers and really a great collaborator for me. He produced the See What You Want To See record and he and I wrote “Raining On Sunday” together and several other songs. The last four records I made have had at least one Darrell Brown/Radney Foster song on them. He really stretches me and he’s great as a co-producer because he’s a good sounding board. At this point I know how to make a record. That’s not an issue. But you need someone who can get you really comfortable and get you out of any complacency that might be lurking beneath the surface. It’s always good to have another set of ears and another set of emotions around. And the more I produce for other folks, the more I like having someone there with me when I make one. I sense what happens with me when I have a good collaborator when I make a record, and it’s a similar feeling when I collaborate with someone like the Randy Rogers Band and help them make a record, if that makes any sense.
What was behind doing this album in Los Angeles with a real rock ’n’ roll crew?
A real rock ’n’ roll crew. I have made rock records before. If you really think about the first Foster & Lloyd album, it was a rock record with pedal steel. There’s really not much question about that. And See What You Want To See is really a rock record. But then, Del Rio, Texas is certainly a whole lot more of a country record than it is a rock record. I don’t know. I can’t make my mind up, you know?
This album just all fell into place. The first thing that Darrell and I did was start going through the songs. And the nice part about being an independent is that no one is saying, besides yourself, that you have to put out this kind of record now. Major labels tend to get a bit out of shape in that way — where do you fit into the marketing plan? That kind of thing. And that’s okay. It’s a different business. That’s what they do, and if it all works together for you it can be the greatest thing since butter and sliced bread. But not everybody fits into that.
So we went through the songs and had what we felt would be a nice little collection, then we started thinking about: Who should play on this? How should it feel? What should it be all about? And the song “Drunk On Love” made us sort of go, if it was going to feel like something and you could hire any band in the world you want, who would it be? And we were like, well, The X-pensive Winos, Keith Richards’ side band would be a pretty good way to go. And Darrell goes, well I know [drummer] Charlie Drayton. And he and I both know [bassist] Bob Glaub. And [Wallflowers keyboards player] Rami Jaffe had played on See What You Want To See. Those were fairly easy calls to make. And our engineer, Niko Bolas, is really good friends with [guitarist] Waddy Wachtel. And the funny thing is that Waddy said, yeah, I can come and play on the first day but I can’t make it on the second. And we thought, that’s okay. We can cut them on the second day with just acoustic, bass, drums and keys, and then go back and do overdubs with some of the guys from my band, who also played on the record. But after we got through the first song and were working out the arrangements for the second, Waddy leaned over to Niko and said, “I can really come tomorrow. I just didn’t know what the hell this was going to be like. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’d like to come back tomorrow.” And we were like, okay, cool.
So you got down the basic tracks really quickly?
We cut it in two days. There are two things that contributed to that. One was that those guys really know their stuff. They’re all monster players. And in addition to that, Darrell and I had the arrangements down already. And then I went out and did acoustic dates with those arrangements in my head to the point where, in the studio, I didn’t have to look at a lyric sheet, I didn’t have to look at a chart. I didn’t have to think about it to get it on tape. And I would bet that almost half the vocals are the way we tracked it — as it went down. And a lot of the others were, when we got through with the take, “Radney, that was really good. Go do another pass right now with you acoustic and vocal. And by the way, you missed this note in your vocal on the bridge. Just make sure you nail that.” And that’s the way it worked.
You’ve been a really big supporter of the Texas music movement from early on. What was it about what was happening here, from the point of view of being a native Texan up in Nashville, that caught your ear?
I think it’s part of it was a generational thing. I cut my teeth on Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell and Willie and Waylon. And wherever they lived, it was always this independently minded music based on the geography of home. I just think that whatever it is that is geographically and culturally different about Texas has a profound effect on the music that comes out of there, and continues to. So I knew at the same time that it’s the biggest part of my touring base too. So I just decided to pay attention to all of those things, not that I’d ever forgotten them. And it was at the place where — becoming an independent artist, which was a choice of my own — it was something I felt a kinship with. It’s funny, because what has been going on in Texas has almost been like what happened with the punk rock movement — a kind of “build it and they will come” mentality. And I think that’s real important and what drew me back to Texas.
There are a lot of really good singer-songwriters who were coming up to me the same way that I walked up to Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell the first time I met them and went, “Your records are the reason I do this.” And that’s a culture I’d obviously want to be associated with.
Do you hear, like I do, lots of bands these days not only here in Texas but up in Nashville and elsewhere that really remind me of Foster & Lloyd?
It’s really been funny how, like when I was playing Annapolis the other day, there were all these Texas boys who were at the Naval Academy at the show, and then these young guys who were obviously in a band. And they were like, we can’t wait to shake your hand, because what you do has inspired us to do what we do. They were just all aflutter about that. And nothing can be more flattering than that.
Some people get hacked off when you go, gosh, that sounds like me. You have fans that get hacked off about things and say, this sounds like you and they ripped off that song. And I’m like, no they didn’t. They may have heard the record and thought about the feel, but they certainly didn’t rip the song off. And what a compliment. Sometimes fans will even get hacked off about a Sara Evans or a Brooks & Dunn covering a song. Are you kidding me? But they’re like, it’s not the same as your version! Of course it’s not. They did it their way. It’s like if I covered a Robert Earl Keen song, it wouldn’t be the way Robert does it. And the money doesn’t hurt either, and it gives me the freedom to do what I wanna do. Just ask Bruce Robison.
Do you think that what you did with Foster & Lloyd in the late 1980s was groundbreaking and a sign of what was coming?
A lot of people tell me that and there’s that whole hindsight is 20/20 deal and that sort of thing. But at the time we were just trying to make the best dang music we could. We felt pretty fearless about bringing all the influences to bear that we really liked. And if that meant the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings and the Clash, that was okay with us. That’s all we were trying to do, quite frankly.
But there was a quote in a magazine that talked about Foster & Lloyd being the Velvet Underground of country music, in that not everybody bought our records, but everybody that did started a band. And I thought that was a nice compliment. But I don’t sit around and think about that stuff too much, because if you do, you’ll start over-thinking what you are doing right now. Thinking about your place in history is not really a great way to write a song. It can actually screw it up really quickly. It’s better to just stick with stuff like human emotions. There’s a reason why love songs and story songs and drinking songs are so classic. It’s because they’re human, they’re visceral, you can touch them. You want people to think, geez, I think that guy was in my living room. That’s the thing that makes great songs — those stories. And you start thinking about anything more grandiose than that you start getting yourself into trouble.
Are you happy now being an independent label artist after being on a major label?
The days of me touring 150 gigs a year are gone, and I’m just not going to do it. Fortunately, because of the songwriting, I don’t have to. And I do feel very fortunate about that. So I go out and do 50 of them, which is a much more reasonable number for a guy trying to raise kids, but still likes to sing in front of a crowd.
It probably also makes them a lot more special.
Absolutely. And you’re not tired. Not near as tired anyway.