By Richard Skanse
Radney Foster doesn’t look the part of a border-raised Texas singer-songwriter with a rock ’n’ roll attitude. When he shows up for his interview at an Austin Mexican restaurant, right across South Congress Street from the famous Continental Club, he looks more like a smart young bank vice president, dressed down to a casual white T-shirt-tucked-into-shorts get up that said banker might wear when taking his children to the zoo on a Saturday afternoon. But when the waitress comes to the table, he orders in a fluent Spanish that betrays his Del Rio origins, and when he talks music, it’s clear that he is very much the real deal. It just so happens that he is a business man, too, having recently launched his own record label. He’s also a father who clearly loves his two boys — one living in France with his ex-wife, the other in Nashville with Radney and his new wife, music journalist Cyndi Hoelzle. But just how many soccer dads do you know who co-write with Guy Clark and Harlan Howard on their downtime?
But Foster doesn’t have name drop; his track record speaks for itself. As half of Foster and Lloyd, he scored a double handful of rocking country radio hits (including the Top 5 “Fair Shake”) between 1987-1990, before rocking country was the name of the game in Nashville. And with songs like “Just Call Me Lonesome” and “Went For a Ride,” both off of his 1992 solo debut, Del Rio, Tx — 1959, Foster proved he had the goods to be ranked among the best singer-songwriters in modern country and Texas-style Americana. He hit a bump in the road with 1998’s See What You Want to See, an ambitious, mature effort that fell through the cracks of his crumbling major label at the time (Arista Austin), but now he’s back on track with Are You Ready for the Big Show?, an unconventional live album released as a joint venture on his own new label and the independent Dualtone. Little wonder, then, that he seems so comfortable and laid back at the moment, even as he pauses the interview a couple of times to troubleshoot issues with his Web site over his cell phone. It’s all good, because for the first time in his professional life, Radney Foster’s calling his own shots.
Your new album is called Are You Ready for the Big Show? When did you know you were ready to make your first live album?
I wanted to for awhile, but my thinking on it was I didn’t wanna do the same old thing. My complaint about most live records is that the band gets up and they play the songs exactly like the record, only with a lot of noise and not as well. And there’s no new songs. So I wanted to do different arrangements of the things that the fans already knew, plus about four or five new songs.
How did you approach the songs differently?
For one thing, the drummer is Matt Thompson who plays for the Thompson Brothers. He’s got a kit that’s all found objects — beer signs, trash cans, sheet metal and pieces of Weber grills all welded together — that he can bang the shit out of. It’s an amazing thing, like Stomp. There’s only one real drum in the whole deal and that’s a snare drum. We call it the Happy Kit. So Matt played that, and then I got Byron House, an amazing upright bass player who played with Foster and Lloyd. He introduced me to Chris Thile, the mandolin player from Nickel Creek, who’s an absolute phenomenon. So the band at the Continental Club was Matt Tompson on drum-like thing, Byron House on upright bass, Chris Thile on mandolin, myself on acoustic guitar, Mike McAdam on slide guitar playing very bluesy New Orleans style, a B-3 player named Jeff Armstrong, and Ashley Arrison, this girl from Memphis, on background vocals. We did a tour together and booked like a week’s worth of gigs down here in Texas, and at the end of the week we recorded two nights at the Continental Club.
So I had that in the can, and we were almost ready to put it out when the guys at Dualtone basically were sitting down in a marketing meeting and said, “It’s a great record, but we just wish that we had a studio track that could get more radio air play.” I was like, “We’re an independent label — we can do anything we wanna do!” [Laughs] So I went into the studio and re-did “Texas in 1880” with Pat Green, and a studio version of a new song called “Tonight” that’s also a live cut. The other new songs are all live. There’s a song called “School of Hard Knocks” that’s sort of a Muscle Shoals kind of thing, and three more called “I’m Used to It,” “Leaning on What Love Can Do” and “How You Play the Hand.”
Before we get into talking about your new label, let’s talk about your last one, the late Arista Austin. The album you put out with then, See What You Want to See, really got put through the ringer, didn’t it?
Oh yeah. [Laughs]. And I really think that is the best record I ever made, too. It’s certainly the most personal record I’ve ever made.
Did anything good come out of your Arista Austin deal?
Yeah. I think that in certain places it helped solidify my relationship with AAA stations. It also made me realize … I think if I hadn’t gone through that experience, I don’t think I would have started my own label. Because it wasn’t the people who were doing the day to day marketing — as a matter of fact, a couple of those guys are with Dualtone now and you know I’m falling into bed with them because I couldn’t fault their actions. What I could fault was the way that their hands would be tied to “We’re up, we’re not, we’re up, we’re down.” And you know this was basically because of a fight between two guys who are corporate heads who are nowhere near the day-to-day operations of our division. They’re going back and forth, “We’re gonna fund this,” “No, we’re not,” “Yeah we are …” It had less to do with me or the record and it had everything to do with corporate politics.
All of which brings us to PureSpunk.com, your independent label/online alt-country magazine. How did that whole thing come about?
Just a couple of beers at the kitchen table. We knew we wanted to start our own record company, and own my own masters and actually make some money from my own records for the first time in my life. I sold 450,00 records on a major label and realized that that’s $4.5 million in gross revenue to that label and never received a royalty check for it, you know, past your initial advance of $30 grand. And that kinda makes you go, “wait a minute, somebody made a lot of money here.” I would have been happy with 15 cents on the dollar. You go, “there’s a better way of doing this.” Certainly I look at John Prine as a tremendous model with his Oh Boy! label. They were selling a 25,000 of his first record and now they’re selling a couple hundred thousand. That’s the good way to go. But, I didn’t wanna do marketing and radio promotions. I wanted to hire people to wear all those hats. So we struck a deal with Dualtone, a more than fair deal. It’s a business partnership in the best sense of the word. I own my own masters, they do the marketing and the radio promotions. If this works we’ll probably end up doing more business together.
How involved personally are you with the Web site?
I’m mostly apart of the logistical side of things — talking to the server companies, trouble shooting, stuff like that. On the magazine side that’s really Cindy’s deal. I certainly try to influence what might get reviews, that kinda thing. Certainly if I have records out, amazing things happen and they might have something about my record there [laughs]. But we try to keep some level of artistic integrity.
Are you the website’s mysterious advice columnist, the Ionizer?
I am not the Ionizer. [Laughs] But I do like the Ionizer and what he has to say.
The online magazine focuses on Americana music. When was it exactly that you first became a fan of all that? Were you in high school?
Well, the weird thing is that I think it goes back even before that. My parents — as square as I thought my parents were when I was in junior high school and learned how to play the guitar — they had a pretty cool music collection. Everything from Nat Cole to John Coltrane to Dave Brubeck on the jazz side, to Jim Reeves and all of this country stuff. They had everything from Ray Charles to Peter, Paul and Mary, to Ray Price and Patsy Cline and you know, lots of things in between. So I think that had an influence on what we would listen to and what I first started learning how to play on the guitar. Pretty soon after that, we became interested in things like Asleep at the Wheel and Rodney Crowell. Rodney Crowell’s first record is actually what turned me on to Guy Clark. It was one of those things where the guy in the record store was like, “Well, if you like this guy’s record, then check this guy out.” And I was like, ‘man, whatever that is, that’s what I wanna do.’ And before that, it was Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album, Waylon Jenning’s Honky Tonk Heroes record, with all those Billy Joe Shaver songs. Then I graduated high school in ’77 and went off to college college in Tennessee, where I started leaning more towards the folky and bluegrass kind of thing because that’s what most kids were into. They would see I had a Jerry Jeff Walker record or a Guy Clark record, and they’d go “Oh, you like Doc Watson?” and I’d be like, “What’s a Doc Watson?” Then they’d go “Oh, you would dig this.”
Back when you were in high school and still living in Del Rio, did your parents ever let you come up to Austin to go to the Armadillo World Headquarters?
No. [Laughs] We tried to convince them to do that, but they wouldn’t do it. They’d bring us up for football games.
Did you ever make it to the Armadillo?
When I was in college, before it closed. It was a foggy memory to say the least. It was late, there was a mind-altering substance involved, and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Do you see Bill Lloyd very much anymore?
Oh yeah. Once a year or every 18 months we get an offer to go do like a Foster and Lloyd reunion and we’ll do one. We just did one this last month. It was a good time. We did it in North Carolina.
Would you record again?
You know, it just really hasn’t come up. I think there’s a possibility but I think it would have to be something that we would both make a priority. I’m just so busy with so many other things and he is too that we’d have to figure out how to sit down and write a record worth it’s stuff. I could see doing something for a specialty project, like a tribute album. I think it would be an easier way to get us back in the studio. Like an American Cancer Society charity record or something.
I read recently that you recently did some songwriting with Harlan Howard. How did that go?
Oh man, I wrote with Harlan last week. We wrote two songs, which is just a real treat and a joy. One song has kind of a Stonesy feel, but it has very country lyrics. And then another song that’s me and Harlan totally writing Buck Owens. It’s sexy, naughty, blues, on top of a shovel. (Laughs)
You’ve also written with Guy Clark in the past. When you’re writing songs with Guy or Harlan, do you ever say …
[Laughs] Holy shit!?
Well, that, but also, do you ever say, “No, Guy, I like my line better!”?
Sure. Absolutely. But you pay attention to what they have to say. In certain ways you might tend to cut them more slack, maybe, but they’re so good at what they do that usually they’ll self-edit. If there’s something that you let slide that you shouldn’t have let slide, by the time you get to the second verse it’s re-written.
Writing with Harlan is very different from writing with Guy. Guy’s slow like me. We’d have to get together three times to write a song fairly slow and methodically. Harlan is like, we’re gonna write a bunch of songs and live on the law of averages. He’s like the Brill Building in the best sense of the word. Guy is more worried in trying to sing what he wants to say. That’s not to say Harlan isn’t, but with Harlan there’s also a level of, “Hey let’s write something the kids all want to dance to.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. Buck Owens was the same way: “Write a hit!”
Did you write with Buck, too?
No, but I’ve picked Buck’s brain on a half a dozen occasions. You know that’s actually been the biggest joy of this whole deal — getting to meet and interact with people who are my heroes. For the last fifteen years I’ve been able to get on stage and meet people like Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Bob Dylan, Neal Young, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band … the list gets big. I mean it’s astounding to me. George Jones asked me to get up and sing “Rocking Chair” with him when I opened for him. You know, oh my god … I can die now.